Paella pro tips   15

Chef Jonathan Justus of Black Dirt (formerly of the infamous Justus Drugstore) taught a paella cooking class at Kitchen Studio: Kansas City, the proceeds of which benefited Operation BBQ Relief. The experience was complete with wine, salad course and cheese plate for dessert while guests learned techniques to recreate his paella recipe at home.    

The Spanish-inspired cooking class with chef Jonathan Justus began honestly, with a confession that he hasn’t made paella since working as a chef in France.

“There were a lot of people in the summertime that have condominiums there, and they would just  take to-go’s of the paella. We did it once a day and when it was gone, it was gone,” Justus recalled at the beginning of class. “And I do have to be honest, that was the last time I cooked a paella. [laughs] Frankly, to be honest with you, it took years to quit having nightmares about paella. But I think it’ll all come back to me.”

The recipe surely did appear to exist in his muscle memory. His movement was rhythmic and unwavering as he rinsed leeks and chopped carrots for the stock while he answered intermittent questions from guests—Leawood residents and Leawood Lifestyle readers—and told stories of his culinary experiences.

With the relaxed ease in Justus’s tone, it was as though guests were front row in his own kitchen. Kitchen Studio: KC, local high-end kitchen and bath design firm, hosted the class. The intentional, elegant feel to each area of the showroom enhanced the already cozy atmosphere. A unique light fixture, featuring delicate glass teardrops with light bulbs inside, hung above the edge of the kitchen counter where Justus’s wife, Camille Eklof, plated handfuls of spinach for the salad course.   

Aaron Fry, certified sommelier from Vintegrity, poured different Spanish white wines before, during and after each course. As he poured the first wine, an Alberiño, he explained that paella is typically paired with a Tempranillo or other lighter red wines. According to Fry, Alberiño had what he described as the “lemonade factor” — its slightly salty taste makes it refreshing while holding up to the food’s flavor.     

Justus offered numerous tips over the first course — his version of a Spanish salad topped with Spanish-style chorizo, piquillo peppers and hard-boiled eggs. He described how paella differs from risotto in stirring frequency — paella shouldn’t need to be stirred more than once after all ingredients make it into the pan. He offered opportunities throughout the cooking process where guests could adapt the recipe to their own preferences and cooking abilities.

For dessert, Pat, a Certified Cheese Professional from the Better Cheddar, provided an overflowing cheese plate. He wanted to create balance when assembling this assortment by establishing contrast. This was accomplished by intentionally placing sharp edges next to softer edges, like Manchego Curado placed next to serano or Spanish olives.
After all ingredients were added into the paella pan, Justus emphasized the importance of cooking with your ears.  Every so often, he’d hover his ear near the rim of the pan before slowly rotating it to ensure the paella was cooking properly.  “It’s not an easy dish,” Justus had cautioned earlier in the class. But he listened and rotated, listened and rotated. Once he determined the dish was complete, he spooned abundant portions onto each plate and carefully ensured each plate had mussels, scallops, shrimp, clams and prawns.