Folks in Michigan looking to indulge in a legit serving of Spain’s quintessential dish paella need to look no further than chef Raúl Cob.
Cob, who helms the kitchen at Ann Arbor’s Spanish tapas destination Aventura, has been perfecting his rendition for the iconic meal for the past six years. Prior to coming to Ann Arbor in 2017, he gained acclaim through leading restaurants around the world, bringing his recipe with him throughout his travels. In 2016 Wikipaella, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and reclaiming the authenticity of the dish globally, recognized Cob as its top paella chef in the world. At the Ann Arbor restaurant, his boss Sava Lelcaj describes him as “the personification of paella.”
Which is why Cob and his team earlier this month headed to Valencia, considered the birthplace of paella, to be the sole chef to represent the United States and face 11 other challengers from across the globe for the title of best paella chef at the annual World Paella Day Cup, which takes place every year on September 20. The win went to chef Kohei Hatashita from Japan, whose winning recipe showcased orange duck rice and leeks.
Just being a part of the illustrious group of contenders was enough for Cob.
“I’ve been making paella my whole life and that’s my home,” said Cob, who also happens to be native to Valencia, in the weeks before flying out to Spain for the event.
What Makes an Authentic Paella
Traditional paella incorporates a variety of proteins like chorizo, chicken, rabbit, as well as lima beans and short-grained rice — punctuated by a dash of saffron threads. Ingredients are combined in a wide, shallow pan cooked over fire for up to an hour. At Aventura, Cob specializes in five versions, including, seafood, vegetarian, and Americana, which comes with chicken and duck. “Rabbit is just not as popular here in the [United States]”, says Cob.
Regardless of the ingredients added, the most sought-after and foundational component to any paella is called soccarrat, the thin, crispy, layer of burnt rice at the bottom of the pan that gives the dish texture and imparts a deep, rich flavor. It’s what distinguishes a good paella from any other random rice dish. Paella itself is a communal dining experience, often made and enjoyed on Sunday afternoons with family, friends, and neighbors followed by “sobre de mesa” — Spanish for tabletop — an hours-long session of lively conversation and cocktails. Since restaurants on this side of the pond rely on turning over tables to make a profit, Aventura has opted to make the dish to order and produces up to 160 four-serving pans a day. “It’s unheard of to make that kind of volume. The best restaurants in Spain only make 30 or 40,” says Cob.
World Paella Day Cup
The competition is the culmination of several days of events where the contestants tour the area, meet farmers and producers, and visit wineries to deepen their knowledge of the history and techniques of paella making. Grant Gilreath, a longtime Aventura chef and Michigan native, joined Cob on the trip and assisted during the competition.
“It was amazing being over there... the food was fantastic, with a wide spectrum of types from from hangover-curing Valencian almuerzo, to the two-Michelin-starred El Poblet, the just really amazing traditional Spanish food,” said Gilreath about the experience. As for lessons he could apply stateside, “I also experienced a lot of wood fire both for paella and the rest for the food, which I think is something that adds a ton of flavor that a lot of American food is missing.”
Twelve contestants were chosen from a pool of 400 applicants from around the world and faced off by cooking their versions of paella. While flavor and authentic technique are paramount, the judges are also looking for how well contestants represent their countries through the dish. “I cooked a paella that I called American/Valencian paella, because I used the techniques and the traditional vegetables of the authentic Valencian paella, but instead of using the usual protein that is chicken and rabbit, I used a smoked beef brisket that was cooked here in Michigan a few days before the competition and we took it to Valencia vacuum packed in our own suitcase,” said Cob. “The recipe included romano beans, lima beans, rosemary, saffron, spanish paprika, tomato sofrito and garlic, I gave the American twist using the smoked beef brisket and a touch of adobo chipotle into the tomato sofrito.”
Plans are being made at Aventura to celebrate both the competition and the restaurant’s 10th anniversary, which first swung open its doors in November 2013. Although the results weren’t what the team was hoping, Cob’s comrades at the restaurant are still proud to have represented Ann Arbor on the world stage.
“Being chosen, and then becoming finalists, in a competition such as this validates what you are doing that got you there in the first place,” says Lelcaj. “For us, it’s our commitment to Spanish gastronomy and the classic preparation of Spain’s national dish — Paella. The experience has brought even more awareness to the proper techniques and process of making the dish and for sure has made us even [better] paella makers in the process.”