Hundreds assembled underneath the highway at the Eastern edge of the Pearl on Sunday to eat paella to their hearts desire at the 7th annual Paella Challenge. Recipes and aromas spanning a large radius of the historic shopping center were inescapable. The event, hosted by local San Antonio Chef Johnny Hernandez, did not disappoint.

With more than 35 chefs competing in the challenge and a separate High School Challenge featuring 9 schools, there was no shortage of food which also meant short lines spread throughout the grounds.

The ticket price was about $80 each, but attendees were treated to seemingly bottomless paella and drinks. The challenge, which is approaching a total of $500,000 in donations, benefits student culinary education.

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

Hernandez first started serving mass paella 21 years ago to local Canary Islanders with his catering service True FlavorsWhen he, along with the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, initially proposed the Paella Challenge idea to Pearl and H-E-B, they were immediately onboard.

“It’s been very successful,” he said. “We’ve had lots of great support from the chef community (and) from our sponsors.” 

But which ingredients make a paella worthy of the winning title? Hernandez divulged what he thinks makes the best dish.

“This is a competition and it’s fierce, no one will win without a great rice. The rice needs to be perfect, it has to be that great texture, creamy,” he said. “A great rice is the foundation, the rest of it is a lot of love. Saffron is one of the iconic ingredients that belong in a great paella.”

Still, there’s more to concocting a great paella than just ingredients, he added.

“It actually takes a lot of skill how you stage the steps of layering the flavors that go into the dish,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to look at and especially eat.”

*Top image: Las Masia Catalan Catering Chef Alejandro Rodriguez holds his daughter Sofia as she stirs the paella. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Scott Ball

Scott Ball is San Antonio Report's photo editor and grew up in San Antonio.