The storm clouds rolled past during the middle of the night, leaving Sunday with a healthy glow of light and a steady breeze for more than 1,000 to enjoy the 4th annual Paella Challenge at the Pearl Brewery.
The annual cook-off, created by chef Johnny Hernandez as a fundraiser for culinary scholarships, brought an array of chefs from across town as well as around the country and Mexico to participate.
The lineup included a number of long-time participants, such as Rene Fernandez of Azuca, Zach Lutton of Zedric’s and Jason and Jake Dady, while newcomers, including Mark Bliss of Bliss and Angie Bridges of Copa Wine Bar, dished up their best. Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen served up a seafood paella with fideo as the base, and Susana Trilling went with a traditional take that featured bright amounts of saffron and garlic in the base. Brian West and a team from the Culinary Institute of America weren’t in competition but they did serve up six different pans of paella to the hungry crowds.
A fairly constant breeze made it hard for some of the chefs to keep their burners working steadily. Some used baking sheets to prevent the wind from extinguishing their burners. Others found that the fire would burn so hot that it had to be turned off to prevent the paella from burning.
The crowds didn’t seem to mind, as they waited patiently for dishes from Jeff White of Boiler House Texas Grill, Jeffrey Balfour of Citrus and Steven McHugh. One of the visiting chefs, Jehangir Mehta, known from his appearances on “Iron Chef,” looked out over the huge get-together and marveled at how well-run and fun the day turned out to be.
In the end, Hernandez announced the winners of this year’s high school division, which went to Memorial High School, followed by John Jay High School and Sam Houston. The winners earned a trip to New York, where they’ll visit the CIA’s main campus in Hyde Park and be able to shadow chefs in action.
This year’s judging was slightly different in that three top awards were handed out.
Clint Connaway of Max’s Wine Dive walked off with the people’s choice award, while Flor Vergara of Hernandez’s True Flavors took home the award for best contemporary paella.
The award for best classical paella went to James Canter, who won the top honor last year as well. Canter also was in charge of making the paella for Ben Ford’s team, which won the top award during the first Paella Challenge.
Canter, who is now chef at the Victoria Country Club, was in tears when he took the stage with his team to accept.
Given his track record, you can expect Canter to return for the fifth Paella Challenge next March.