Re­spect for paella runs in the fam­ily

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - By Russ Par­sons russ.par­sons@latimes.com

Any­one who be­lieves you need to have a fancy kitchen full of ex­pen­sive equip­ment to make great food should watch Per­fecto Rocher cook paella at home. Be­cause he doesn’t even have a char­coal grill, he bal­ances the paella pan on two cin­der blocks over a fire made with news­pa­pers and lath­ing scraps. And it’s ab­so­lutely de­li­cious, each ker­nel of rice chewy and dis­tinct and per­me­ated with the mixed f la­vors of the saf­fron, pi­men­tón, rab­bit, pork, ar­ti­chokes and fava beans it was cooked with.

That prob­a­bly shouldn’t be a sur­prise. Not only is Rocher the chef at Smoke. Oil. Salt. on Mel­rose Av­enue, where paella is a Sun­day treat, he’s also a third- gen­er­a­tion paellero, from a moun­tain town in Va­len­cia, Spain, where paella orig­i­nates.

Rocher’s grand­fa­ther started the fam­ily res­tau­rant with a stand by the high­way, serv­ing paella and other re­gional dishes to truck driv­ers stuck on the rocky, rut­ted road that passed through the town of Vil­la­longo, 40 min­utes out­side the city of Va­len­cia. As the busi­ness in­creased, he kept adding on and im­prov­ing. Rocher’s fa­ther joined, and even­tu­ally, Rocher says, peo­ple started com­ing from as far away as Madrid to en­joy the wood- fired paella.

But when Rocher was a kid, car­ry­ing on the fam­ily cook­ing tra­di­tion was the fur­thest thing from his mind. He wanted to play in a punk rock band. So when he was 17, he left home and moved to Eng­land to pur­sue his mu­si­cal ca­reer. He sup­ported him­self by pick­ing up odd jobs work­ing con­struc­tion or help­ing out in kitchens.

“I used to go to restau­rants with my back­pack and my guitar and ask if I could make paella for them,” he says. “Usu­ally they’d just kick me out, but some­times they’d give me a job for a while. But when they asked me if I wanted to cook full time for them, I’d say, ‘ No, I want to go play mu­sic.’”

That changed when Rocher took a job wash­ing dishes at the Miche­lin­starred Manor House ho­tel near Bristol. “The chef saw me cut­ting one day and asked me if I wanted to work in the kitchen,” Rocher re­calls. “I said yes, and my life changed.”

An im­pulse buy of a cheap air­line ticket to San Fran­cisco brought him to Amer­ica, where he worked for Gary Danko (“He kicked me out of the kitchen five times be­fore he fi­nally hired me”). And then a bro­ken heart led him to Los An­ge­les (“I broke up with my girl­friend and came to L. A.; that’s what you do when some­thing like that hap­pens”). He worked at sev­eral places in Los An­ge­les, in­clud­ing Lit­tle Tokyo’s Lazy Ox, where he first be­came known for his paella, be­fore set­tling in at Smoke. Oil. Salt. ear­lier this year.

“An alarm­ing per­cent­age of the best pael­las I have eaten have come from the wellsea­soned steel pans of Per­fecto Rocher,” praised Los An­ge­les Times res­tau­rant critic Jonathan Gold.

Rocher’s pael­las — whether made in the res­tau­rant or on the cin­der blocks be­hind his house — may not be what you’re fa­mil­iar with. They are se­ri­ously aus­tere. Socarrat is ev­ery­thing, the shal­low layer of chewy, deeply toasted rice, stud­ded with bits of meat and veg­eta­bles.

Rocher’s pael­las have a kind of el­e­men­tal magic, even if they are a far cry from the richer, moister, over­stuffed ver­sions of paella usu­ally of­fered in this coun­try.

“Peo­ple say it’s burned. Of course it’s burned. That’s what socarrat means!” he says. “That’s what true paella is. Paella is a cul­ture, and it must be re­spected.”

As the fiercely bub­bling liq­uid in the paella pan sub­sides, the rice, meat and veg­eta­bles be­come more ev­i­dent, stained a dark red from the pi­men­tón, toma­toes and saf­fron. The smell is amaz­ing. Then you hear a faint siz­zle and pop that grow louder as the last of the liq­uid cooks away, leav­ing fry­ing rice.

“Hear that sound?” Rocher asks. “This is the rice telling you that it’s done. This is some­thing amaz­ing. My grand­fa­ther and fa­ther used to tell me that the rice will tell you when it’s ready. I thought they were crazy, but af­ter years, I un­der­stand that they were right.”

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

PER­FECTO ROCHER of L. A. res­tau­rant Smoke . Oil. Salt. makes paella in his backyard in Venice.

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