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Chef Javier Blanc of Vancouver's Paella Guys made it all the way to the Paella Cup finals in Valencia.
If you’ve never had paella before, let me break it down for you: it’s a rice-based dish from Valencia, Spain that’s made with saffron and studded with veggies and protein. Even at its worst, paella is pretty darn delicious, but Vancouver’s Paella Guys don’t mess around. Theirs is the stuff of legends. So good, in fact, that Chef Javier Blanc made it to the finals at the 2022 World Paella Day Cup.
Chef Blanc explains that even though “paella is all about the rice,” it’s also about “sharing with each other.” He says that his trip representing Canada at the World Paella Day Cup exemplified this. With a huge emphasis on community, sharing of skills, of methods and of course, of paella.
We asked him all about what it was like to represent Canada, and what his fourth-place paella looked like. Read on to find out more.
Chef Blanc, the Spanish-born founder of Paella Guys, had to go through multiple preliminary stages in order to be selected for the World Paella Day Cup. There were 76 chefs from around the world to start out, but through his paella skills he (and therefore Canada) made it through to the final 10.
“The experience was out of this world,” explains chef Blanc. He and all of the other competing chefs were flown to Valencia, Spain (the hometown of paella) where they had the opportunity to be coached by, and cook with, who Blanc calls “three of the best paella chefs in the world.”
Like chef Blanc said before, “paella is about sharing”—and these world-renowned chefs were sharing everything. “Whatever you wanted to ask, they would tell you.”
The trip began with a visit to the protected areas in the south of Valencia where the special, short-grain paella rice is grown. Here they had a masterclass in rice, from growing to harvesting. Chef Blanc says they spent a total of six hours here, but he could have spent six more. He explains that there are three types of rice that are grown in Valencia: Senia, Bahía and Bomba—the latter is the kind that the Paella Guys import and use here in Vancouver.
After this they were served paella from last year’s champion, Noelia Pascual, and she shared with them her top tips and tricks for creating the best paella possible.
Chef Blanc explained that in Spain, chefs are able to go to fresh farmer’s markets daily in order to choose their produce and proteins. “You cook whatever is fresh that day,” he says. The 10 competing chefs were able to experience this firsthand by going to the seven markets in Valencia. Not only were they able to look at all of the groceries available (and possibly adjust their future paellas) but all of the markets had their own competition: they set up competing paellas for the chefs to try—boasting impossibly fresh ingredients and local flavours. “All of them were wood-fired,” chef Blanc notes.
Chef Blanc explains that he and the other competing chefs became close—they were all spending so much time together, and clearly shared a special bond over their love of paella. Together they took a trip to Las Bairetas, the restaurant of master paella chef Rafael Margos.
Blanc says that chef Margos cooks 150 paellas at the same time, which is no small feat because they are also all cooked over an open wood fire. He adds that everything in the 3000-square-foot kitchen (including the chef) is covered in soot.
The semifinals were held in Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium—home of Valencia Club de Fútbol. Here they set up to cook their first round of paellas.
For the semifinals chef Blanc made a seafood-based paella, and originally wanted to use spot and sidestrip prawns like he does for some of Paella Guys most famous seasonal paellas. He even brought the prawns from Vancouver! But at the last minute he decided that they were no longer as fresh as he wanted them to be and pivoted, making a paella that beat Switzerland and thus brought Canada to the finals.
The chefs then went to an institution in paella-making: chef Toni Montoliu’s 300-year-old farm. Here, the chefs experienced true farm-to-table cookery as Montoliu grows all the vegetables and raises all of the animals that are included in his infamous paellas (think rabbit, chicken and duck). He also has his own orchard of orange trees, which supply the wood they cook the paella over.
The chefs headed back to the markets to choose the ingredients they would be using in the World Paella Day Cup finals. All the ingredients were then taken by the officials so they could be set up for the big day.
Hosted at the port of Valencia, the big day was finally here. They had an hour and a half to prepare their paellas. Chef Blanc says that he was the only chef who didn’t bring any pre-prepared ingredients (like stock). “I wanted to do everything on site,” he explains, “I wanted to use the methods we use here [in Vancouver]”. This put him into a time crunch for sure, but he was able to secure fourth place with a pork rib paella made with fresh artichokes, seasonal vegetables and a ton of mushrooms. Blanc explains that he wanted to combine the varietals of mushrooms from Spain with the more American-style pork ribs. He made this same paella at the Pig Out Festival in Osoyoos this summer.
This year’s World Paella Day Cup may be over, but you’ll still be able to get your hands-on Paella Guys legendary paella. Chef Blanc says “big things” are in the works, so stay tuned to find out more about all the paella-happenings in Vancouver.