It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday night on Melrose Ave., and the show’s about to start. The minute the doors to the venue open, fans rush in. They secured their spots over a month in advance, and now they’ve got front-row seats waiting for them. Well, that’s not entirely true. Not everyone gets front-row seats. Most of them get tables for two or four. That’s because the show is actually Dia de Les Paelles (Paella Day) at smoke.oil.salt in Los Angeles, and the stage is a wood-fired grill from Texas tucked into the back wall of the dining room. Make no mistake, though: There’s definitely a rock star working that stage, and his name is Perfecto Rocher.
Since opening in April of last year, smoke.oil.salt has become the home of Valencian cuisine in L.A. No less than kingmaker critic Jonathan Gold himself declared Rocher’s paella one of his top ten favorite dishes of 2014, and L.A.’s food media has been raving about Rocher ever since he was helming the stoves at Lazy Ox Canteen downtown. Rocher’s journey to smoke.oil.salt has taken him throughout the Michelin-starred universe, to the Manor House Hotel in England, Restaurante Martín Berasategui in Spain and Gary Danko, Manresa and Campton Place in San Francisco. While his résumé may bear some impressive names, the very first restaurant that Rocher ever worked in almost made him swear off working in kitchens for the rest of his life. It was called Tarzan.
Tarzan was started by Rocher’s grandfather in the village of Villalonga, roughly 50 miles outside of Valencia near the eastern coast of Spain. The name comes from the elder Rocher’s long hair and rugged appearance, but before long, it was widely known as the name of one of the best Valencian restaurants in Spain, drawing crowds from as far away as Madrid and Barcelona. In 1978, it even wound up with a mention in the Michelin Guide. Not bad for a little wood-fired paella spot in the mountains.
Perfecto lived downstairs from the restaurant and started working when he was just a kid under the guidance of his father and his grandfather. It didn’t go well. “I used to hate the restaurant,” he says.“I was escaping all the time.” He had other dreams in mind.
“Every chef says, ‘I wanted to be a chef when I was five years old.’ That was the opposite for me.” Instead, he wanted to be a punk rocker. At 13, Rocher was already playing in his own punk band, and by the time he was 17, he had escaped in a much bigger way: to London to live the punk life for real.
Even punks need to make money, though, and all Rocher knew how to do was work in a restaurant, so he wound up as a dishwasher to pay the bills while he was playing shows. After a while, it started to click. Kitchens may have felt restrictive when all of his friends were out swimming without him, but all of a sudden, they felt like home again. After a chef friend suggested he move to America, where the style better matched his personal sensibilities, Rocher took the leap and brought his knives to San Francisco in 2003.
Twelve years later, he’s finally cooking the food he grew up with. “It’s difficult to find people to believe in you,” Rocher says, but thankfully he found the backing he needed, and smoke.oil.salt became a runaway success. The menu is written in Valencian, an offshoot of Catalan, with English descriptions, and the wood-fired grill touches almost everything in one way or another – just like it did at Tarzan. While diners feast on grilled sea bass and quail from Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday is the night of paella, and the rock star chef plays it like a maestro.
He spins three different types: the pork-and-rabbit paella verda; the darkly oceanic paella de arroz negro with huge Spanish prawns called carabineros; and the meatless paella verduras with artichokes, bell peppers, chanterelles and huge garrofo beans in a vegetarian stock. Rocher deftly attends to each variety on his grill like he’s playing an instrument of his own design. He funnels logs of orange and almond wood into the fire at regular intervals while the paelleras (paella pans) have a rhythm all their own, constantly being moved around by their conductor as they bubble and steam.
At the heart of everything is the rice. Rocher uses bomba rice, one of the traditional ingredients his grandfather taught him to use because it absorbs the stock without overcooking. Each paella gets built layer by layer, starting with the sofrito, a deceptively simple combination of rice, tomatoes, olive oil and salt on the bottom, then grated tomatoes, pimentón (Spanish paprika), protein and stock. Like a risotto, the stock cooks into the rice and flavors the whole dish as all the ingredients meld together.
It takes years to truly master the dish, as Rocher readily admits: “My father told me one time, ‘You don’t listen to the rice, you don’t hear the rice when it’s cooking,’ and I was thinking, ‘This guy is crazy.’ It took me all my life to listen, and now I listen for when the paella is ready. I feel it, and that is something that comes from the soul.”
The maturity shows. At 36, Rocher is as close to a master paellero as L.A. has ever seen. That’s evidenced by the full reservation book on Sunday nights and the presence of some of the city’s best chefs, owners and GMs in the dining room on a regular basis. For now, the Valencian chef is limiting himself to one night of paella a week, but in the future, he aims to open his own restaurant, where he’ll have plenty of space to make paella every night. If the 60 paellas he’s now selling every Sunday are any indication, Perfecto Rocher’s going to be playing sold-out shows for the rest of his cooking career, and paella will be his greatest hit.
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