Check Out San Antonio's Annual Paella Challenge

On Sunday, March 13, on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America, hundreds of paella-lovers and visitors to the San Antonio will indulge in a daylong paella smorgasbord unlike any in the world.

The annual event, where experienced chefs and high school teams compete against each other for praise and prizes, is actually a fundraiser aimed at helping young, future chefs pay for a formal culinary education.

This is the seventh annual Paella Challenge, held in the historic, 22-acre Pearl Brewery complex. In addition to the CIA's campus, tenants include some of the city's best restaurants, bars, and the recently opened Hotel Emma.

"I'm excited to be in our seventh year to date. We are proud to have raised over $300,000 towards education," said Johnny Hernandez, founding chef and San Antonio restaurateur who owns a string of local Mexican food restaurants.

Gates open at 11 a.m., but food-lovers are sure to find many chefs lighting a fire underneath their paellera. This round, two-handled clad iron pan will dot the outdoor fete until 4 p.m. when the feeding frenzy ends.

"The one thing that continues to make the Paella Challenge so special is the overwhelming support received from the San Antonio chef community," said Hernandez, a graduate of the CIA Hyde Park, New York, campus.

This year, some 30 award-winning chefs from across Texas and Mexico will compete for the title of Grand Champion. The winner receives an all-expenses paid trip to Spain with all proceeds benefitting the CIA's education program.

Chef Steven McHugh, a James Beard Foundation "Best Chef-Southwest" nominee is one of several award-winning chefs who will compete at the event. Another JBF semifinalist participant is native Texan Jason Dady. Both will go mano-a-mano with fellow chefs Jeff Balfour, Butch Blache, James Canter, and many others.  

Susana Trilling, from Seasons of My Heart Cooking School in Oaxaca, and Jhojans Priego Zarate of Mariscos Villa Rica in Veracruz, are two of the chefs who will travel to the Lone Star State to participate. Trilling has hosted Rick Bayless and Anthony Bourdain on special culinary television shows.

A panel of judges, including food critic and executive editor Pat Sharpe of Texas Monthly magazine, will savor several of the paellas to determine the grand champion and best tasting entry. Other judges represent a string of online food websites.

Meanwhile, budding chefs from surrounding high schools will compete for a first-place award. The high school culinary arts team that wins will receive an all-expense paid trip to the CIA headquarters and main campus in Hyde Park.

The annual competition is fierce but friendly. In fact, the Paella Challenge is a tongue-in-cheek affair, since many chefs prepare unorthodox versions of paella. That means some chefs select non-traditional ingredients, such as corn-on-the cob, artichokes, jalapeño peppers, and even ham hocks.

Of course, a few competing chefs prefer to prepare the centuries-old traditional paella. First developed in Valencia, the original paella contained wild rabbit and vegetables sourced locally.

Later, the food the Spanish say brings families together evolved into a seafood-based rice dish. But two ingredients traditionalists never omit are Murcia-grown Bomba brand rice and Spanish- grown saffron.

Since the outdoor event has grown from a few hundred to thousands, the Paella Challenge is more than just samplings of the tasty dish. The event is all-inclusive, meaning that Spanish wines, craft beer, and non-alcoholic beverages are all included in the spectacular paella tasting.

Attendees can browse through outdoor boutiques or enjoy performances by local flamenco dancers and a live Latin band. The interactive festival also offers visitors a chance to vote their own palate in a People's Choice award.

Presale adult tickets are $80 and $25 for those under the age of 25. Children under the age of six are admitted for free when accompanied by an adult. Visit  for tickets and more information. Organizers say the event sells out quickly, so if you love paella, Spanish wine, and a fiesta, act fast.