By Allen Pierleoni
Hopping from food vendor to food vendor last Friday at the California State Fair, we discovered an unusual entry - Gerard's Paella. We tasted the iconic dish and were swept away. We thought the chicken-shrimp-rice offering was the best meal we've ever had at any fair.
Unfortunately, fairgoers didn't seem willing to pay $9.75 for a plate of paella, and apparently had difficulty finding the food stand in the first place. So Gerard Nebesky is leaving and taking his paella with him after the fair closes tonight.
"I feel really bad about pulling the plug, but nobody can find us in this location (off the Main Food Promenade)," Nebesky said Monday afternoon, shortly after making the decision to leave. "It's a bummer. I've been throwing away product, I can't even give it to a homeless shelter (because of health department regulations). But we are pretty happy that the health department inspectors have eaten here twice."
Brian May, the fair's deputy general manager, meanwhile pointed out that new vendors are rarely if ever positioned in the the main food line in their first appearance at the fair.
"We were excited when we booked (Nebesky), given his reputation in the food industry and the high quality of his (paella), and we're very disappointed it didn't catch on," said May.
This was Nebesky's first involvement with any fair, he said last Friday when I interviewed him for what was going to be the subject of this Friday's "Counter Culture" column in the Ticket section of The Bee.
The Nebeskys live near Occidental, a tiny town not far from Bodega Bay in Sonoma County. For the past five years they've traveled around the country, cooking and serving paella mostly at private parties and special events at wineries. Two years ago, the Nebeskys' paella beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay's version in a Food Network "Throwdown" challenge.
"We worked hard with (Nebesky) to help get the promotion to support his business," May said. "It's very rare for a vendor to pull out, but this was his introduction to the fair business and his operation wasn't consistent with (those) that surrounded him. (For instance) the vendors with the biggest grosses focus on flash and deep-fried foods. We shared with him some of the changes we think he needs to make (in his set-up) to be competitive. We would love to have him back."
What about the contract between Nebesky and the state fair?
"He's not making enough to meet his expenses," May said. "We don't want to force him to stay."
The situation is colored with some irony: Two months ago, Nebesky was selling paella at the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo when he was spotted by Michael Treacy, director of the Division of Fairs and Expositions for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "He thought we'd be a good addition to the state fair," Gerard told me last Friday.
Amid the usual fair fare and novelty items, it was a pleasant surprise to find a dish that's both delicious and not laden with fat and sugar. Nebesky's paella was excellent - the rice alternating between crispy and soft, the shrimp and chicken fresh and popping with flavors.
"It's a combination of (several) recipes we got in Spain," he said. "We tweaked them to make a California version of paella."
Included are garbanzo beans, green beans, garlic cloves, tomatoes, roasted red bell peppers, smoked paprika, saffron and chicken broth.
"We use California-grown medium-grain rice, bone-in skin-on chicken thighs and Ecuadorian white shrimp," Nebesky said.
Gerard's Paella will be among the food vendors at the Eat Real Festival, planned for Aug. 27-29 at Jack London Square in Oakland (www.eatrealfest.com).
"I'll have the mussels, clams and sausages (in that version)," he said.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.