This year, food lovers at the eighth annual Corona Paella Challenge are in for a special treat. One of San Antonio’s five historic Spanish missions is the backdrop for a food festival honoring Texas’ Spanish heritage.
Mission County Park is the new venue for the outdoor cooking competition and culinary fundraiser that attracts thousands annually. Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, the venue’s backdrop, is a nature lover’s paradise. Situated south of Mission San Antonio de Valero (known as the Alamo), this mission is close to Mission County Park along the San Antonio River’s Mission Trail. In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization designated San Antonio’s eighteenth century colonial missions “World Heritage Sites,” the first-ever UNESCO designation in Texas.
Spain’s rice and seafood dish was originally cooked outdoors on firewood, so the park, with picnic tables and a 14,000 square-foot pavilion, is the ideal spot for chefs to fire up their grills. Best of all, the recently renovated park is within walking distance of Mission San José, as it is known locally.
Chef Johnny Hernandez, a San Antonio native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, helped found the Paella Challenge competition in 2010 to help future culinary arts students. He’s had unwavering support from chefs, businesses, and the community since its inception.
“We started out with a dozen chefs in an undeveloped field at Pearl,” said Hernandez, referring to the 22-acre Pearl Brewery bought by San Antonio businessman Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury in 2002 and converted into an entertainment complex near downtown.
Since its humble beginnings, not only has the annual Paella Challenge festival become a must-attend event for paella lovers, but it has raised more than $350,000. Proceeds benefit several culinary arts programs.
One recipient is Kitchen Campus, an out-of-school program started by Hernandez in 2014 to help make middle and high school students aware of the many opportunities available in the culinary arts industry.
Last year, the Paella Challenge drew more than 2,500 food lovers and supporters to the Pearl complex, home to the CIA’s San Antonio campus, Hotel Emma, and several restaurants and boutiques. But the all-inclusive food, wine and beer event expects to attract even more attendees this year.
“There’s a dedicated following from many of our guests,” said Hernandez, who was once invited by former President Barack Obama to cook for him at the White House for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Now, the chef who built a Mexican-food restaurant empire with La Gloria, El Machito, La Fruteria, Casa Hernán, and True Flavors catering will keep hosting the family-friendly affair on the banks of the San Antonio River’s Mission County Park.
Here in the city’s redeveloped South Town, some 40 chefs from Texas, Mexico, Europe, and across the United States will fill the air with the scent of simmering garlic, onions, saffron, and other spices in a friendly competition. But competition among professional chefs is not the only challenging component — student-led teams from culinary arts programs in a dozen local high schools help heat up the Spanish food-focused contest. A contemporary category was also added when Hernandez realized the creative and competitive nature of the many participating chefs, some of whom stir together versions of paella that hardly resemble the traditional one.
“There are as many versions of paella as there are cooks,” Hernandez said. “Much of the excitement at the Challenge is experiencing the different interpretations and approaches the chefs have to the traditional dish.”
So in addition to variations on original Valencia paella, which began with rabbit and veggies, the competition has spawned paellas that run the gamut from dessert paella to sushi paella. Nonetheless, regular attendees know these variations represent tongue-in-cheek, fun-filled antics by professional chefs.
Paella, which usually begins with sofrito (sautéed onions, garlic, tomato and peppers) is considered Spain’s national dish and has roots in Roman and Arab cuisine. But Spain’s Valencia region is credited as being the first to make it a family mainstay. Now it’s a proud tradition throughout the country.
The traditional paella must be cooked with high-absorption rice. This type of rice was cultivated and grown in Albufera, Valencia, before 1238. (Bomba is another ancient strain of rice first grown in the town of Calasparra, Murcia.) Seasoned chefs reach for the short-grained absorbent rice to make authentic paella.
Saffron is also grown in Spain. It has a distinctive scent and taste that gives paella its bright yellow color. Saffron, dubbed the “Cadillac of the spices,” is a necessary ingredient in order for paella to be authentic.
Mission County Park helps with authenticity, but the main reason for the change of venue this year was to offer more space to accommodate more attendees and competing chefs. Mission San José, the largest of the five Spanish missions, is visible from a busy road leading to the park.
The Paella Challenge competition’s professional participant component reads like a “Who’s Who” of culinarians, with renowned chefs such as Mumbai-born Jehangir Mehta, who opened Graffiti in New York City’s East Village in 2007. Mehta is also involved in the Graffiti Earth and Me and You restaurants.
Another contestant from New York is Jean-Paul Bourgeois, executive chef at Blue Smoke. He studied in Lyon, France, with famed chef Paul Bocuse. The focus of Blue Smoke, which got its name from the blue smoke that appears during the smoking of meats, is Southern cooking.
Jason Dady, a James Beard Foundation semifinalist, will be in attendance, and other culinary titans include Tim McCarty, James Foote and Robbie Nowlin. Other celebrity chefs include Lisa Astorga-Watel (former personal chef to Tommy Lee Jones); Susana Trilling of the Seasons of My Heart cooking school in Oaxaca, Mexico; and Jhojans Priego Zarate of Mariscos Villa Rica in Veracruz, Mexico.
Event-goers can now vote for their favorite paella, which means the winning chef is crowned People’s Choice Champion. The winning high school culinary team also earns a grand prize: an all-expense paid trip to the CIA main campus in Hyde Park, New York.
The all-inclusive Paella Challenge features live entertainment by Grammy-winning Latin artist Henry Brun and Flamenco performances by San Antonio’s Guadalupe Dance Company. The artists will perform in the park’s new performance pavilion.
General admission is $75 for those 21 years old or older. Admission for those 7 to 21 years old is $25. Children under 6 are admitted for free with a paying adult. Sponsors include Corona, Silver Eagle, Valero, Sysco, the South Texas grocery giant H-E-B, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.