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Paella with a purpose: Chef uses food to connect with youths in Huntington Beach

A cloud of steam engulfed Angel Guzman’s face as he helped stir several ingredients in a frying pan with a giant skimmer spoon.

The 13-year-old didn’t know about paella, a popular Spanish cuisine, until moments before he volunteered to help Leo Razo, an award-winning chef who owns Cambalache Grill in Fountain Valley.

Angel, along with about 19 of his friends, received a crash course on cooking from Razo and heard his message to pursue their dreams Wednesday as part of an event presented by Waymakers’ Huntington Beach Youth Shelter. Several of the participating students are from the shelter’s Gang Prevention and Youth Development Program.

There are several kinds of paella. Some include chicken, pork and sausage, while others feature seafood such as shrimp and clams. They typically include a bed of rice seasoned with saffron, garlic, paprika and salt.

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“The idea is to mix it little by little, take it from the bottom until we have this color right here,” Razo told the students, pointing to a piece of pork on the frying pan with his spoon. “Cover the pan with the meat.”

Students crowded around the frying pan, watching and mimicking Razo’s stirring technique.

“How does your hand not fall off?” one student quipped.

Others gasped when Razo told them he paid $75 for paprika and imported rice from Spain and salt from Argentina, only three of the ingredients required for his dish.

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Esmeralda Flores, 15, described Razo’s cooking class as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

“The heat is super intense and it gets on my face, but I’m pretty sure when you get to sit down and enjoy it, it’ll be so worth it,” she said.

Throughout the hour and a half it took to cook the food, Razo spoke in English and Spanish, sharing career advice, inviting students to help him cook at his restaurant and encouraging them to follow their dreams.

“Dreams are very important and they need to wake up one day and realize those dreams and make it come true,” Razo said in an interview. “They can’t stop. There’s no limits in dreaming. They can be whatever they want.”

The way Razo sees it, paella comes with a purpose and it’s symbolic of life. It’s part of the reason he’s starting to use “Paella with a purpose” as his slogan for events, he said.

The cuisine’s process — from when farmworkers pluck saffron from the fields to evenly distributing all the ingredients in the pan for the dish to thrive — is one reason he enjoys cooking it, he said.

“Eating is not just to eat, but it’s for the health of the soul,” Razo told the students in Spanish. “It’s what’s going to maintain your health.”

Razo, originally from Jaliso, Mexico, started his culinary career as a dishwasher, working long hours and sacrificing time with his family during holidays to pave his career. He got his start at Carmelo’s in Corona del Mar and later moved to Viva Italia in Laguna Beach and SeaCliff Country Club in Huntington Beach.

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“He’s humble and giving,” Waymakers Program Director Elsa Greenfield said. “It’s not so much about what he has but about what he gives.”

Razo has contributed financially to Waymakers, but Greenfield said he wanted to do something that would get the students involved.

Angel said he was grateful for the experience and is inspired to pursue a career as a chef.

“My dad is also a chef,” Angel said. “He shows us how to make pancakes and stuff like that, but not paella.”


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