Spain has diverse traditions, languages, and climates. Going to Valencia for a Basque is like visiting New Orleans for a person who grew up in Maine. Instead of green trees, hilly mountains and a cold breeze coming from the Atlantic ocean, Valencia’s landscape is one of color: almond and orange trees, miles and miles of land, comforting rays of long-lasting twilight, sun-drenched beaches with infinite skyline and the warm salt water of the Mediterranean. Valencia forces you to relax.
Before the trip, I thought of paella like any other non-Valencian chef. I also knew that there was a transculturation of authentic paella abroad: in Valencia, paella is prepared either with seafood or with meat, never with both. So, we should say that “paella mixta” is a product of its internationalization.
I decided to take a research trip to Valencia and reflect on ways I can expand my menu around the theme of rice. Coming from Basque Country, rice is not very popular, with the main dish being “arroz vasco” (made with parsley and txakoli broth instead of saffron). I had the urge to witness how Valencian chefs, who grew up eating rice, cook the iconic Spanish dish I had never fully explored. In the past, like many other Spanish chefs, I have served rice dishes as a gateway for diners to try something unfamiliar. Now I feature Salias’ rice and fideo (pasta) as what separate us from other Spanish restaurants in America.
First, I visited the birthplace of paella: El Palmar in the Albufera Region of Valencia. To get to this small town, you pass miles of rice patties as of you are in a Hollywood movie set in Vietnam in the late 60s. Instead of settling on one of dozens of popular restaurants serving paellas near the riverbank, I went to a back alley and found El Pascualet. Jose Pascual, a second-generation chef specializing on paella, was cooking a long repertoire of local delicacies here and I tried the most authentic version of paella. I also visited many high-end restaurants like El Poblet, Vuelve Carolina, Mercatbar, Seu Xereu, Parallel, etc. to see how modern chefs interpret their rice tradition.
After trying both traditional and modern renditions, I went to the Museum of Rice to learn about the history of rice in the region, which is located on El Cabanyal beach (I got sidetracked and enjoyed several hours of sunbathing). What I learned from all these visits is that each village has a wide range of rice dishes prepared in many different ways and paella was just one of them. Besides its variety, as chef, what caught my eyes was that rice in Valencia is the “star” on the plate, not a dull backdrop served with abundant, more exciting seafood. Here seafood is the secondary element used to make broth while rice is the protagonist. The cooking point for rice is extremely important. Just as Italian pasta should be cooked al-dente, rice in Valencia is cooked al-dente and yet creamy.
Since returning from my trip, fully charged and inspired by my experiences in Valencia, I’ve been creating, testing, and entertaining friends to try my new rice dishes which debuted in September.