Learn how to make the classic rice dish from one of the top paella chefs in America in October’s edition.
Welcome back to The Sunday Roast! It’s officially spooky season and while things are going to be a bit different this Halloween, I’m still super excited to dress up at home. Anyone have an idea of what I’ll be?
This month: I’ve got the perfect comfort food for you that won’t weigh you down, and may even transport you to a dream vacation on the Mediterranean: paella! This deliciously salty and slightly crunchy dish is one of my favorites, though I’ve only had it a couple times: once in Madrid and once at Jaleo. That changed when I found this City Paper feature from my friend Chelsea on local chefs hosting virtual cooking classes. I immediately signed up for the next paella cooking class from Chef Danny Lledo because I couldn’t wait to be able to cook a dish I previously saw as a delicacy I rarely had. Just after I healed from coronavirus, one of my first full meals was the delicious chicken and vegetable paella that Danny told me how to make me step-by-step, while also providing the ingredients. I decided to revisit his incredible paella-making skills for this month’s newsletter so my readers could get a chance to experiment in the kitchen and change things up with a fancy dinner. As always, remember to check out all recipes and past month’s feature at my website. Also, my subscriber count is at 85, and I want to hear from every one of you.
Some background: In a monthly newsletter, I combine a DC local’s story behind their favorite recipe(s), or ones that whip up some nostalgia, with photos and prose of my attempt at replication. These recipes vary in difficulty, but they are always ones close to the heart. This newsletter is sent on the third Sunday of each month as the name suggests.
A fun note: Make sure to mark this email as NOT spam, move it to your inbox or add my sending address to your address book to avoid the newsletter regularly ending up in the abyss. Sometimes Mailchimp email campaigns go straight to spam.
Danny Lledo grew up eating paella. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Spain and operated a catering company, where they continued to serve their perfected paella. And on top of the dish always on the table, Danny would sample different paellas when he visited family members in Spain as they served the traditional variety they were known for.
While he originally forayed into finance and was a consultant for restaurants, in 2012, Danny decided to take the leap into the kitchen and focus on his love of cooking. His background in finance allowed him to be comfortable in public speaking, like leading a wine tasting, while also having the cooking skills to resonate with any patron.
Danny’s father’s accomplishments as a chef from Denia, Spain, then inspired him to follow in his footsteps and become one of the most awarded paella chefs in America. He then trained to relearn how to cook the dish most well-known to him as something that could win competitions. He said that while he already knew the recipe by heart, he knew that other chefs competing, especially in Spain, would know paella well, too, so he got to work for many years. And that practice definitely made perfect since Danny has accumulated eleven paella honors including six first place awards: Best Paella at the LA Paella Wine & Beer Festival 2016 and 2018 and at the D.C. PaellaFest in 2019; People’s Choice Paella at the Paella Wine & Beer Festival in 2017; the Best Valencian Paella at the Paella Wine & Beer in 2018 and at the D.C. PaellaFest in 2019. He also competed as a finalist at the prestigious Paella Valenciana de Sueca International Competition in 2018, as a finalist of Fideua de Gandia International Competition in 2019 and again at the Paella Valenciana de Sueca International Competition in 2019, where he received the Accèsit award.
In addition to his several years honing his paella skills, Danny mastered his other restaurant skills working at top Spanish restaurants, including José Andrés’ Think Food Group, Taberna del Alabardero and Botin, which he credits with paving the way so that he could alter open his own restaurant celebrating Valencian cuisine. His Glover Park restaurant, Xiquet, sits above Slate Wine Bar, which he took over management of in 2013 but reopened as a small plate venue with Xiquet’s more extensive dining room in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
The story behind his recipe.
As you’ve already read, Danny is the master of paella, one of my favorite dishes of all time, so naturally, I asked him to share his secret. With a lot of care, practice and attention to perfecting the crust at the bottom of the dish, called a socarrat, you can master the paella and cook a dish (somewhat) close to what Danny serves at Xiquet. There are a few years of expertise in difference — plus, he uses an all wood fire kitchen to uniquely yet perfectly cook his menu — but I promise this Danny’s recipe is written so it’s easy to follow with a delicous end product.
Danny’s recipe is perfectly curated for one person, or easy to double, triple or quadruple for a fancy meal or dinner party. His easy-to-share recipe was developed for virtual cooking classes he started running in May, with the main driver behind it being the pandemic forcing the newly opened Xiquet to close.
He started with only four that month, but now they’ve becoming a recurring Wednesday class, at least twice a month. Danny has seen new and friendly faces in his classes. The one I attended in the beginning of September had some of his friends and others have had recurring customers who couldn’t make it to the restaurant so they supported him via Zoom, or new customers introduced to his work through the classes and continuously join. He’s also noticed friends and colleagues have gotten together to take the class. Danny also teaches private classes for companies, such as law firms in the area, twice a month. The classes started as a way to stay alive in the pandemic, he said, but now they’ve cultivated a club of friends and customers who order take-out or sign on multiple Wednesdays. And they’ve taught Danny how to be a better teacher as well.
The lasting impact of the pandemic on Xiquet has to do with when the restaurant opened, so Danny and the team had to adjust quickly and make permanent changes to how the restaurant operated.
Now, with D.C. restaurants open with partial capacity and relying on to-go orders, Danny feels that every guest that comes in to Xiquet chose to trust and support the staff, and he considers that an honor. Usually, restaurant staff may thank customers for coming out, but now, it’s more of a deep appreciation for their support and a sense of responsibility for their safety, he says.
The first paella class he did was chicken and vegetable, which is the variety I ended up making as well. He chose it for that class since the ingredients are fairly easy to get from the store or online without having to find a specialty store to find unique ingredients like rabbit or cuttlefish (by the way, I got my saffron, paprika and bomba rice from these links). He also thinks the ingredients are more of a comfort food, like the Spanish equivalent of your grandma’s chicken noodle or matzah ball soup, so it resonates with his customers and, he thinks, with The Sunday Roast readers.
But for Danny, arroz a banda, or Valencian paella, is the best and most underappreciated of the dish, plus it’s nostalgic for him since he grew up eating it with his family. He believes very few people properly execute Valencian paella, but it’s still something to celebrate and honor, especially at his restaurant that specializes in and serves up the regional cuisine. Regardless of the featured meat or ingredient in a paella, which on Instagram is usually seafood, Danny says the most important ingredient is the rice, which he typically imports from the Valencia region since there’s nothing like it. The sofrito in each paella, and the featured meat or vegetable, is usually quite uniform so the incorporation of the broth or stock and the cooking of the rice are the most important steps.