Eight years ago, public school teacher Tony Judah and his wife, Susan, were eating paella in a restaurant while on vacation in southern Spain when the couple struck up a conversation with the chef, who taught them how to cook the steaming, fragrant Spanish dish typically packed with rice, chorizo sausage, chicken, shrimp, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, and paprika.
The couple returned home to Olympia, bought a large pan necessary to cook the dish, and put their nascent culinary knowledge to the test, making paella in their backyard for friends and family. That small gathering evolved into Paella Pro — a small, family-run business that has made the circuit of many South Sound fairs and other events since 2013.
Judah retired from teaching three years ago and is now a full-time “paella pro,” operating stands at the farmers market and Capital Lakefair in Olympia, the Cultural Celebration at Saint Martin’s University Independence Day Fireworks Spectacular in Lacey, and the Washington State Fair and Spring Fair in Puyallup.
Tony Judah: I was born and raised in Western Washington. My parents used to raise sheep and show them at the State Fair. As a kid, I remember being in awe of people who would stand in line for hours to get a piece of barbecue chicken or a scone because it’s from the State Fair.
Before I made my presentation for Paella Pro to the vendor manager at the State Fair, I had always heard it would be a couple of years before you could get a real audience, and then another couple of years before you got in. I made a presentation to the Fair in November, and we were invited to join the Fair in January.
What we offer is different. We’re not deep-fried. We cook from scratch in front of the customer. Quite honestly, I believe we got into the State Fair because nobody was doing anything like what we do, cooking paella. The Fair was willing to take a risk on us, and I really appreciate that.
For street fairs and smaller events, our business was under a 10-foot-by-10-foot tent. We had to have a food trailer built specifically for the State Fair. There was the whole learning curve of going from myself, my wife, and one of our adult kids helping us on a weekend to, all of a sudden, we’ve got employees and Labor and Industries (regulations). That was the biggest learning curve.
When we are rocking and rolling, we’ve got five pans going. Working at the State Fair, it’s basically a four- or five-week marathon, 8 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night. By the time October comes around, I am a vegetable in my easy chair.
Being at the State Fair has been a very good career move for Paella Pro. It’s opened the door for a variety of different events and venues that are available to us because we are a vendor at the State Fair. Once you have qualified to do business at the State Fair, all of a sudden, other opportunities come available.