Paella: it’s the traditional Spanish rice dish that packs a ton of flavor, and on a recent Monday at Mercat a la Planxa’s 2nd Annual Paella Cook Off, six of Chicago’s best chefs squared off in a friendly competition to see who could wow judges and attendees alike with their technique and inventiveness.
Why paella? It all goes back to that memory of becoming a chef, said chef Garces, host of the event and one of the judges. “I worked in Spain,” he explained, “and every night family meal would be paella. You can imagine how after 30 days or so how people would start getting inventive.”
To commemorate the spirit of those early days in his career, Garces invited the participating chefs to come up with their own creative takes on the traditional dish. While he admitted that he stuck to a classic preparation himself, chef Garces was excited to see what the competing chefs from La Sirena Clandestina, Fat Rice, Salero, avec, Travelle, and Embeya would present.
Creativity wasn’t all the judges were looking for. There were key elements needed to create the winning paella. “Texture of the rice is key,” Garces said. The judges were looking specifically for that crispy crust on the bottom and around the sides of the dish, known as “socarrat.” Just as important was the broth — a bland broth could ruin the entire dish, advised the Iron Chef.
In the end, two paellas stood out among the competition. Chef Mike Sheerin of Embeya scored with the crowd, winning the People’s Choice award, and chef Perry Hendrix of avec impressed the judges, earning the Judges’ Choice nod.