It is impossible to argue that Chef Johnny Hernandez’s career path lacks ambition. The Mexican street food mogul owns restaurants across the city, and last year prepared a meal for the Obama family in the White House. Yet, when he visits local schools, he often finds that parents and teachers are discouraging students from pursuing their own culinary dreams. 

“I think there’s a limited understanding of what a career in the food industry is,” Hernandez said.

By inviting high school students to participate in the Paella Challenge alongside professional chefs in this popular culinary competition, Hernandez hopes to expose them to the exciting possibilities of culinary arts.

Now in its eighth year, the Corona Paella Challenge has grown from 10 chefs to more than 30. This year the event will take place on Sunday, March 26 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Mission County Park. Tickets, $75 or $25 for guests under 21, are available here.

Proceeds from the event go to Kitchen Campus, Hernandez’s out-of-school culinary nonprofit on the Westside. The organization gives middle school and high school students the opportunity to learn the craft and business of the culinary arts around peers who, like them, see the food industry as an exciting professional prospect. It operates like other career-oriented programs, connecting students to internships and mentorship opportunities, as well as creating a collegial culture among the students.

Hernandez has seen the power of these professional experiences for students participating in the Paella Challenge as well.

Since its third year, the contest has included the H-E-B High School Paella Challenge. Student teams are invited from high school culinary programs to compete for a trip to the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Hyde Park campus, Hernandez’s alma mater. On the trip they also eat at CIA restaurants in New York.

Chef Johnny Hernandez points friends in the direction of paella tents. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chef Johnny Hernandez points friends in the direction of paella tents. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Even more valuable, Hernandez said, is the chance to meet professional chefs, experience the exhilaration of kitchen culture, and get feedback on their craft. Hernandez said he encourages the professional chefs to take time to seek out the younger chefs during the Paella Challenge. To get students to think big about their future in the food industry, they need role models, exposure to the rock stars of the profession, and adults to help them think strategically.

“The mentorship piece cannot be substituted,” Hernandez said. “Youth are motivated by seeing a clear path, or at least a path.”

The students’ families are invited to experience the event for free. Seeing their students among celebrated professionals, with people paying $75 per person to try their food, parents’ eyes are often opened to the vast array of possibilities as well.

“It’s a moment of pride. They see a side they’ve never seen before,” Paella Challenge Coordinator Christine Taylor said.

Knowing the potential impact for students, high school sponsors and teachers go above and beyond, Taylor said. “It’s not just the day of the competition. The level of commitment is amazing.”

Students go all out researching paella, making presentations on the history of the dish. They start to understand the cultural role of food.

For Juan Galviz, 23, Hernandez himself has been both a mentor and an icon.

“He’s really passionate about what he does. The years I have worked with him, he really tried to teach me about the culinary industry,” Galviz said.

Local student Savanah of South San High School takes a break from cooking. Photo by Scott Ball.
Local student Savanah of South San High School takes a break from cooking during the Paella Challenge. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Galviz has always loved food. When his Burbank High School culinary arts program was invited to participate in the Paella Challenge he made the most of the opportunity to get a taste of the professional chef experience. He found the networking, time management, and public interaction exciting.

“Students have to seize the opportunity,” Galviz said.

The next time he competed in the Paella Challenge, Galviz was on the professional side. As part of the team that opened Hernandez’s The Fruteria, Galviz found himself among a high performing group of peers.

Now, working with the University Health System’s food services, Galviz is learning about the business of catering and managing special diets. He likes the idea of managing a large catering company. The skills he has built have allowed him to help his church, City Church International, host large events. He’s also handled the food program for mission trips with his church.

“I think a lot about the future of the industry and helping others,” Galviz said.

Galviz, like Hernandez, sees the power of the food industry as a driving force in cultural progress. For them, thinking big about culinary arts is synonymous with thinking big about the future of the individual, the family, the neighborhood, and the city. As an immigrant from Colombia, Galviz wants to help others think outside the limits placed on them by what they might see in their own neighborhoods or families. Innovative flavors and global cuisine, for him, is a gateway to a more global mindset.

“There’s more than what you see here,” Galviz said. “Right now in this generation we have to change the mentality about tradition.”

Paella from the Culinary Institute of America. Photo by Scott Ball.
Paella from the Culinary Institute of America. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.