This Toronto-Based Chef Wants You to Cook Paella At-Home (and He’s Sharing His Simple Recipe)
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My name is Chef Humberto Sanchez. I am from Maracaibo, Venezuela and I currently live in Toronto, Canada. My career as a chef started at a Cuban restaurant in Miami. It was the year 2000 and I had recently arrived in the United States. I discovered this restaurant and applied for a position as a dishwasher. My degree was completely unrelated to cooking - I was actually an electronic engineering student. Similar to most immigrants, I needed to find a job - and find it quickly. The first dish I learned to cook was Moros y Christianos rice.
I remember begging my first kitchen manager to give me an opportunity to become a cook because as a dishwasher, I was only making $6.25 an hour. I heard that cooks made $9 to $10, so that gave me a strong incentive to learn how to create delicious dishes.
I first learned to cook Peruvian food in 2003. I had many great experiences at a Peruvian restaurant in Miami called El Gran Inka and took it upon myself to learn more about this country’s food. The first Peruvian dish that I learned to make was ceviche - a traditional dish bursting with flavour. Actually, any time I feel weak or sense flu-like symptoms coming on, I make leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). It’s the best medicine and my sole recommendation to anyone battling a cold.
My love for Peruvian food runs deep. It’s different from other foods because you combine 500 years of culture with the best native ingredients and European techniques, creating one of the most authentic cuisines in the world.
Peruvian food has a little bit of everything - there's simply no other country that uses ingredients the way Peru does.
Other Peruvian dishes that I love and recommend making at home are arroz chaufa (fried rice) and anticuchos (beef hearts).
If I were to suggest something for at-home chefs to cook more frequently, I’d recommend paella. It amazes me how the most famous and well-recognized dishes were created by people who did not have much; people who worked with simple ingredients. Paella is one of these dishes.
There was a time in an area of Spain, where people didn't have many ingredients and there weren't a lot of resources available. They created a dish with rice, chicken, rabbit, some vegetables and turned it into something so magnificent, now known as paella. It is one of the dishes that I always encourage people to learn how to make at home. Often, people don't try to cook paella because it looks difficult to make, but it's really not. It's very simple. I would say that risotto is more difficult than paella because with risotto, you always have to be stirring it while you're cooking. Paella is perfect for the novice cook - it’s not at all a dish for advanced chefs.
My favourite vegetables to cook with during the fall are potatoes and cauliflower. I make a vegetarian dish that I call cauliflower steaks. I just cut the cauliflower into big steaks in a cast iron skillet on very high heat. I use some Indian spices and coconut milk. I don't believe in secret recipes. I believe that if you can teach someone something new, then by all means share it.
The difference between good food and bad food is a pinch of salt - that's it! You should always be tasting your meal while you’re cooking it. By doing so, you develop and train your palate. Once you feel that you have enough salt, you can experiment with acidity and add lime. You need to play with different flavour profiles to make really good food. Sometimes, a bit of salt will make your dish fantastic.
I think every fridge should include Asian ingredients such as soy sauce, hoisin and fish sauce. Every at-home chef needs a Lodge cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven for bread making. When you have a good cast iron skillet, you can sear, you can braise, you can do just about anything. It also works as a non-stick pan.
To save money on groceries and to learn knife skills, purchase a good German steel fillet knife and learn how to butcher your own meat, chicken, and fish. It will cost you more if you buy fish fillets rather than a whole fish. If you know how to fillet your own fish, you can buy the whole fish, remove the fillets and use the bones and the head to make something else. The same goes for chicken. People buy four chicken breasts instead of buying a whole chicken, which is cheaper. You will have more meat and even some left over to make something else.
I know that many people will not want to spend the time butchering their own meat but I recommend trying it just once.
We are in a golden year of education. That's the way I see it. For example, when I was a young cook and I was in school, we didn't have the tools that we have right now. We now have Instagram and YouTube. If you really want to learn how to fillet and butcher your own meat or acquire better knife skills, you have the right tools in front of you.
If you have children who are picky eaters, I suggest sprinkling a little cheese on their food. I have a 13-year-old son and I add cheese to just about everything. I once made him a pumpkin soup that was very healthy for him, but he started getting picky about it. I learned that if I just add a bit of shredded cheese on top, he will eat it all.
Do you remember that woman in the hot sauce commercials saying, "I put that sh*t on everything”? Well, if you’re hosting a dinner party then put chimichurri on everything. If you're making chicken, add some chimichurri. It tastes good. You can have steak with chimichurri. It’s mouth watering. Everything you put a little chimichurri on will taste amazing.
If I could have one famous chef cook for me it would be Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio. The Toronto-based chefs that I really admire today are people like Chef Patrick from Alo. He's bringing a great fine dining scene to the city. There are a lot of great chefs that I follow like Chef Guillermo.
I’d like to ask you to support our culture as South American chefs. I really want to show people that not all Spanish-speaking countries cook the same and Peruvian cuisine is also very rich and diverse. Right now, people don't know too much about how good our street food is. They're mostly focused on European and North American style food, but they need to turn their attention to South American and Caribbean. The food is incredible.