Perfecto! L.A.'s best paella maker shares his secret rituals

Russ Parsons
The California Cook

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 flavors 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.

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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 Michelin-starred 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.

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"An alarming percentage of the best paellas I have eaten have come from the well-seasoned 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."

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Paella ingredients, cooking equipment a drive away in L.A. area

If you're thinking about making paella, your first step should be getting in the car. Your destination: Harbor City's La Española Meats. Just off the 110 Freeway, just north of San Pedro, La Española has just about everything a novice paella maker could want (including, on Saturdays, paella).

Against one wall hangs a rack of pans in steadily graduated dimensions, from a dinner plate-sized 10 inches (good for a lonely paella for one) up to a party-sized 28-inch pan that's big enough for a paella to feed 30. Even bigger pans are available on request, as are the tripods necessary to support them. Most shoppers will opt for something in the 12- to 15-inch range, which is big enough to make paella for six to eight people, says Alex Motamedi, son-in-law of La Española founder Juana Faraone and the store's manager.

Most paella pans are made of carbon steel, like old French sauté pans. These are labeled "polished steel" and work very well, though they do take special care since they will rust. Clean them carefully after every use — Motamedi says the Spanish prefer a combination of Ajax and lemon juice to get the stickiest spots — and then oil them lightly before you store them.

There are also stainless steel pans that don't take special care, but they are significantly more expensive. A 161/2-inch polished steel pan (big enough for 10 servings) costs $27.99; its stainless steel equivalent is $89.95.

La Española also stocks most of the ingredients you'll need to make paella, or, indeed, an entire Spanish feast, including splendid house-made chorizos, imported Iberico bellota hams, special Spanish seafood conservas and imported cheeses.

Of course, you'll need rice. The grain of choice is arroz bomba from Santo Tomas, a short-grain rice from the renowned Albufera rice-growing area in Valencia, Spain. For the cost-conscious, the store also stocks arroz Dacsa, another Valencian short-grain rice that is less expensive. A 5-kilo (about 11 pounds) bag of bomba costs $45.79; the equivalent bag of Dacsa costs $17.89.

You'll probably also want some pimentón de la Vera to season the paella. This wonderfully smoky paprika comes in a variety of types. The most commonly used is sweet pimentón dulce, but you can also get bittersweet pimentón agridulce and hot pimentón picante.

If all of this is starting to seem like too much, La Española also stocks a basic paella kit, including pan, rice, olive oil, pimentón, saffron and other ingredients for $64.99. Even easier, stop by on a Saturday and for $12.95 you can buy a big plate of La Española's seafood paella, made for the last 20 years according to Juana Faraone's recipe — and sometimes, still, by the 74-year-old herself.

La Española, 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City, (310) 539-0455, www.laespanolameats.com

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Paella cooking 'rituals' from Perfecto Rocher

When it comes to paella, Perfecto Rocher makes it very clear there are rules that must be followed. "Paella is more ritual than something to eat," he says.

When you make paella, keep the fire as hot as you can get it; the rice always needs to be boiling.

Choose ingredients carefully. "Never use onion in a paella, never peas, never haricots verts [green beans] and absolutely never use chorizo. If you want to make rice with chorizo, go ahead, but don't call it paella."

Be careful with the pimentón. It scorches very quickly and becomes bitter. "If you burn the pimentón, you just have to start over."

Don't stir the paella too much once it has started cooking. Just spoon the broth over any dry spots. "If you touch it too much, you break the composition of the paella."

Be decisive. "A good paellero does not add stock twice. One time; that's it."

Add rice only to a depth of half of your little finger. "If you have more than that, the rice on top will be raw and the rice underneath will be overcooked."

Eat paella from the pan. "It's a group thing; it's sharing. In Valencia, [Spain] you only put paella on a plate for the kids."

russ.parsons@latimes.com

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