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Brackenridge culinary team serves up winning paella

Brackenridge culinary cooks paellaFor the seniors on the Brackenridge High School culinary competition team, the awards ceremony of the 13th annual Paella Challenge was among the most nerve-racking moments of their lives. 



Until that moment on March 26, for their entire high school careers, Brackenridge had come in second in the challenge to MacArthur High School in North East ISD.


Now, after cooking their hearts out, and hearing Brandeis High School in Northside had taken third, while sister San Antonio ISD school Lanier High School had taken second place, they stood next to MacArthur in the pavilion at Mission County Park, unsure of their fate.


“We were like ‘dang it, we either get first place or no place,’” senior Julia Rodriguez said. “I was shaking. I felt my heart drop. I think the announcers kind of stalled it a little bit. We were just sitting there. They were saying ‘trip to New York’ and the team score. Then they said, ‘Brackenridge High School’ and we just lost it. We got up and started yelling.”


Just like that, it was a new chapter in the program’s history. Now winners of the H-E-B High School Paella Challenge founded by Kitchen Campus, which runs alongside local chef Johnny Hernandez’s Paella Challenge, the team qualifies for a trip to New York in June to visit the Culinary Institute of America with their instructors Rafael Gonzalez and William Thornton.


The last time the Brackenridge team won the challenge was in 2017, just before Chef Gonzalez came to teach at the campus. 


“Winning this competition is something that I’ve been chasing for a while, and after the students did it, it feels awesome to see the joy in them," Gonzalez said. “It’s all worth it.”


The four students — Julia Rodriguez, Savanna Rodriguez, Miguel Soto, and Alyssa Hernandez — have taken culinary classes together at Brackenridge all four years of high school. 


“After the second year, we all kind of bonded and we all had a lot of fun just learning together,” Savanna said. “We built the chemistry so whenever we learn together, we just have fun. It makes it easier. This class is our safe spot.”


Waiting their turn to become the competition team, they watched the class of 2022 earn the second-place spot in both 2020, days before the COVID shutdown, and in 2022. This year, they had been busy working on barbecue competitions, earning a spot in the state competition in May for the National High School Barbecue Association, and winning first place for Charro Beans at the San Antonio Rodeo’s Vaquero Jr. Cook-off, before shifting their attention to paella.


“We had to move on to paella really quick,” Savanna said. “We only did two practices, but we did the dish differently both times, so we were able to use what we did from both practices and really perfect it. It came out really good and we were really proud of it.” 


On competition day they arrived at Mission County Park by 8 a.m. to set up. They cooked two batches of paella, receiving a preliminary critique from judges at noon, before cooking up a final batch for judging at 2 p.m. The competition, also a public festival, allowed members of the community the chance to come by and visit with them.


“Culinary has made me more confident,” Julia said. “With competitions, you’re speaking to different people. I’m usually very quiet, but lately, since we’ve been going to these competitions, it has opened me up and I have really started to become more of an outgoing person.”


The team all agrees the experiences they had these four years in culinary arts, plus the support that their instructors have poured into them, have prepared them for their next steps in education and career pathways, which include nursing, sonography, automotive technology, and, of course, culinary arts.


“I want to thank our teachers, both of them, because they have helped out a lot throughout our lives,” Alyssa said. “I want to go to school for culinary and finish off the culinary program. This experience really opened me up to new things and has given me more experience as to what I should know in the kitchen.”

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