The Tale of a Tasmanian Chef at a Valencian Paella Competition
Every year the small town of Sueca – located on the banks of the Júcar River, just 11 kilometers over the Serra de Cullera mountains from the Mediterranean Sea – has played host to ambitious professional chefs from Spain and abroad, who compete here annually for the title of the "World's Best Valencian Paella" at the Concurso Internacional de Paella Valenciana de Sueca
Paella, a word so synonymous with Spanish gastronomy around the world that one would be hard-pressed to find a Spanish restaurant outside Spain that doesn't serve some version of this iconic rice dish. However, despite its universal appeal, when talking about true paella, not just any version will do. Paella is actually the name of a typical Valencian dish made in a pan called a paellera (hence the dish's name) with rice and some version of meat, fish, shellfish and vegetables. Anything else – no matter how tasty – is considered just an arroz, or rice dish.
Therefore, in honor of the origins of this prized Valencian dish, its universal prestige, and the great skill that goes into its preparation, the town of Sueca has been hosting the Concurso Internacional de Paella Valenciana de Sueca for the past fifty-six years. For this event, Spanish chefs are joined at the September finals in Sueca by the international winners of regional semifinals.
Here, each chef is tasked with using the foundations for what many consider to be the original version of Valencian paella – snails, three types of local beans, rabbit, chicken, garlic, Spanish olive oil, tomato, Spanish pimentón, saffron, and PDO Valencia rice – to make their very best paella.
This year's competition, held on September 11th, pitted thirty-four Spanish and international chefs (from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, France, the United States, Peru and Andorra) against one another for the top prize. Provided with the same ingredients, a recipe, a 70-cm paellera, and a wood stove over which to cook the dish, the participants prepared their paella outdoors, in full view of the public.
After careful consideration by the judges, the competition's youngest contestant, chef José Miguel Sanchis of (his father's restaurant) Casa Pepe Sanchís in Córdoba, was declared the 2016 winner, taking home the invaluable title and 2,500-euro cash prize.
Among this year's judges was Edrick Corban-Banks, a three-time international competitor and the owner of Casa Paella in Tasmania. Foods and Wines from Spain talked to Edrick about his past and present experiences making Valencian paella, judging this year's Sueca competition and his role as official paella ambassador to the Pacific region.
What was your impression of this year's competition?
There were some pretty high-powered restaurants represented and the standard of professionalism was incredibly high, with more countries in attendance. I think it's important to underline that the competitors are not amateurs. They are leading professional restaurateurs and all of them are exceptionally gifted chefs with an exceptional level of passion and commitment.
And what was your personal experience? Care to share your secrets for a good paella?
I was judging this year, having already entered three times, but the judging criteria is exacting. We look at the color, form, the cooking of the rice, the flavor, and of course the soccarrat, or the burnt rice on the bottom of the pan. Everybody has their own secrets and tricks, of course, but the real secrets are slow cooking, patience and putting the ingredients into the pan in the correct order.
The most important thing to remember is that the ingredients are only there to support the rice, so one has to extract as much flavor as possible from them. There is a timing to the process and carefully monitoring the cooking of the chicken, rabbit and beans is key, as is not burning the paprika and infusing or preparing the saffron long enough to draw out its maximum flavor and color.
Cooking paella is a drama, a colorful experience and an art form, but especially [when it's] Valencian paella and involves the cultural experience. The saying that paella is a rice dish, but not all rice dishes are paella, is so true.
Along these lines, some people might say, "But the chefs all use the same ingredients and recipe... how different can their paellas be?"
As part of the judging panel this year, I was able to experience first hand the incredible [nuances] in preparation. The colors of each paella varied significantly. And you would think that by using the same ingredients the flavor would be fairly uniform, but it wasn't.
This comes back to the understanding and careful layering of the flavors as the paella is cooked. Everybody uses the same ingredients, but their preparation is different. Some might use less of the chicken carcass and therefore not get as much flavor out of it as somebody who uses the entire chicken.
The chicken cuts might be too big and not release enough juices into the pan, which I saw a lot of. Rabbit is a gentle meat and should be cooked more slowly, so it goes in second, but I saw people putting all the meat in together.
These are not hard and fast rules. It might just be the difference in how the garlic is cut. Some may cut it into fairly large pieces, or chop it so finely that it's lost in the paella. So, again, the most important factors are understanding how to extract the maximum amount of flavors from the ingredients as they are put into the pan, which is where the stock is made.
When and how did you become a part of the Sueca paella competition?
It started when I was studying guitar in Madrid after graduating with a performance degree in classical guitar. I used eat a lot of paella because it was a cheap food for students. I made what I thought was paella in New Zealand for years.
When I went back to Spain to work as a minister with the Spanish Anglican church in Alicante, a neighbor who was an excellent chef cooked regularly for us. After weeks of him cooking for us I thought I would surprise him with a paella. He walked in, looked at it and said, ‘What's that?’ I said ‘It's a paella.’ He said, ‘No, it's not.’ and walked out. An hour later he came back with ingredients and showed me how to cook paella.
That's where it started and then we moved to Ibiza, which of course is rice country, so I learnt a lot of different techniques. In 2012 I founded Casa Paella in New Zealand and came back to Spain and entered the competition for the first time.
Japan was well represented and I think then I was the only other non-Valencian. I came in fifth place that year, and began to realize and understood what paella means to Valencia and its culture, as well as the passion involved in cooking it.
We moved to Tasmania in 2013 and reestablished the business there. I re-entered the competition that year and began to organize the semifinals in collaboration with the Concurso Internacional de Paella Velanciana de Sueca. I have now competed three times (winning three honorable mentions) and was honored to be invited to form part of the judging panel this year. A non-Valencian judging the Valencians on their own dish! Additionally, I now have a contract to serve as the competition's Pacific Region Paella Ambassador and I organize the Pacific Region Semifinals.
How many people typically enter the Pacific Region Semifinals?
The average number that entered for the first two competitions was thirteen. This year with the tremendous success of the semifinals in Tasmania, we will reach the maximum number of 30 [semifinalists] for the 2017 competition. We have contestants already registering interest before the applications even open.
How does the involvement of international chefs in this competition affect the way that paella is understood in other parts of the world?
I think the international involvement is raising the awareness of what this dish really is and the promotion of the authentic Valencian recipe is vital. We see so many paellas that are just a badly cooked conglomeration of rice and ingredients, but the international chefs leave the competition with an understanding of the absolute importance of maintaining the integrity of the original recipe. You often find Valencian paella on menus which bears no resemblance to the original recipe.
Finally, please tell me a little bit about your business Casa Paella and people's perceptions are of Valencian paella in Tasmania.
Casa Paella is a on-site catering business. We call on our six children and their partners when we have a major event, so we enjoy that it's a family occasion. We do a lot of the major festivals in Tasmania, as well as weddings and private functions. Interestingly, paella is unbelievably popular here.
For example, I have a workshop in three weeks time which was limited to 35 people, and it was oversubscribed in two days. We have a second one planned, which is already almost full. I'm not sure what it is about this dish that catches peoples imagination. After all, when you think about it, it's just rice. But there is a drama, a festive feel, an excitement, and an involvement in the cooking process. People just love watching it being cooked. People at home love paella.
Paella, a word so synonymous with Spanish gastronomy around the world that one would be hard-pressed to find a Spanish restaurant outside Spain that doesn't serve some version of this iconic rice dish. However, despite its universal appeal, when talking about true paella, not just any version will do