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.
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.
“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.”