Beloved teacher remembered in special paella cook-off

Benjie Apodaca is seen in this photo from 2011 posing in the kitchen at Taos High School. Apodaca was a well-loved teacher who led the Culinary Arts program at Taos High School to several awards. Apodaca died July 15. Tina Larkin/Taos News

Taos High School Culinary Arts instructor, Chef Benjie Apodaca, mentored budding culinary students to great heights in the world of cooking competitions. His death in July of this year was a shock to many in the Taos community whose kids were taught by the beloved teacher. "He always liked to joke around, but he always wanted his students to succeed," Alejandro Medina, one of his students, said in a story about Apodaca's passing in the Taos News.

This year, the Great Chefs of Taos, an organization dedicated to "educating the chefs of tomorrow, today," has renamed their annual Paella Cook-Off in Apodaca's name. The event is planned Sunday (Sept. 15), 4-7 p.m., on the lawn of Medley Restaurant, 100 State Road 150 north of El Prado. Tickets for this culinary extravaganza are $40 at the restaurant, proceeds from which will go to support the Taos High School Culinary Arts Program.

Dishes will be prepared by top local chefs and students of the Taos High School ProStart Culinary Arts Program. Paella is a rice dish that originated in Spain in the mid-19th century on the east coast near the city of Valencia. There are many varieties of paella depending on the additions to the rice base.

It is fitting that this complex dish with so many variations would be the centerpiece of a celebration about Apodaca. According to a recent article in Taos News by writer Jesse Moya, Apodaca was known for his contributions as the instructor of the culinary program at Taos High School where he coached and mentored students to national competition levels.

Local film and theater director Lynn Hamrick said of Apodaca, "I didn't know him. I just had one telephone conversation where I wanted to donate to the cause and he suggested that we put it to uniforms for the kids who couldn't afford them -- chefs caps, outfit, etc. He was so dedicated, and he was so passionate and hard-working." Hamrick directed a "theater with benefits" event dedicated to him with all proceeds going to the Culinary Arts program.

We asked Randy Morris, co-owner of Gutiz, a local Latin-fusion restaurant in Taos that features a version of the dish on its menu, about the complexities of paella.

Morris said there are three things he loves smelling in his restaurant's kitchen, that's "bacon, cinnamon rolls and paella." What he loves about the dish is that "it gets served in the same pan we cook it in, it's homey and hearty and you get a large serving. It is a dish you don't want to undercook or overcook. It needs to be made under the watchful eye of a chef with experience who can insure the temperature hits the palate correctly, otherwise it's gooey or underdone."

He added that there is time involved in its preparation. "It's not like frying eggs. We always tell our customers who order it that there will be a wait but it's worth it." Morris said the version his restaurant serves is the Valencia style, in which they use a Peruvian chile sauce called panca instead of the traditional saffron, which is cost-prohibitive.

This is an experienced chef's dish, one Apodaca would have excelled at making and teaching. It is fitting to rename the event of this complex dish in his honor. In Moya's Taos News article he offered a quote from Adam Medina, one of Apodaca's colleagues at the high school, "I owe most of that job to him. He was a helpful mentor to me in my teaching career. I wouldn't be where I am today without his help."

Moya wrote that "Medina taught alongside Apodaca this past school year and was a student of his in high school. It was Apodaca's teachings that influenced Medina to pursue the culinary arts."

For more information on the event, call (575) 741-0605 or visit

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