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Photo by Paulette Philpot
Photo by Paulette Philpot 

seafood paella

Felix Gonzales reveals the secrets of his success to Dana DuGan. Photos by Paulette Phlipot.

Felix Gonzales’ fine dining restaurant, Felix’s, has built its success by sticking with tradition. “You can order here and have the same dish day after day. It doesn’t change very much. Consistency is the most important thing in the restaurant business. That’s why I’m here every day, to make sure it works that way.”

Gonzales opened his eponymous restaurant in Ketchum’s Knob Hill Inn in 1992. After five successful years in the Relais & Chateaux establishment, Felix’s moved into a quaint log cabin in downtown Ketchum.

“This was my parents’ home,” he explained, looking around the intimate space on First Avenue. “My mother, Olalla, was Basque; my father was from Cantabria, Spain. He came over in the early ’50s as a shepherd. We followed, with my mother, six years later in 1961.”

His mother’s presence is still felt within the confines of the cozy cabin. Felix’s specialty dish, paella, reflects her Mediterranean heritage. “The paella and the flan are my mother’s. My mother’s influence is also the olive oil we use, the saffron, basil, rosemary, thyme. Mediterranean influences,” he says in a soft Cantabrian accent.

“My mother used to fix paella on Sundays. I like the paella dish, because I love rice. When you cook anything with rice it sucks all the flavor from whatever you cook with it, so, the rice for me is better than the seafood because it has all of the flavors. The rice is the key to perfect paella—if the rice is too mushy, too overdone, it’s no good, it’s like mashed potatoes. The rice is flavored with all the juices from the vegetables and fish and so on, plus it has the saffron and the garlic and the bay leaf and some hot chilies in there for a little bit of heat.”

The saffron, says Gonzales, is the key. “It’s the main ingredient that gives it the distinctive flavor and yellow color. I also throw in tomatoes, garlic and onions, olive oil and bay leaf, that’s pretty much it.” Gonzales uses Mills brand pure Spanish saffron, which he purchases from a specialty food shop in Colorado. Saffron is known as the world’s most expensive spice—around $35 for an ounce. The flavor, however, is very concentrated.

The seafood paella on Felix’s menu is a smorgasbord of the freshest seafood. “We have scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari—and lobster if you like! In Spain, you don’t peel anything; everything goes in to the dish in the shell. Here, however, everyone needs everything done for them.” Additionally, Spanish paella is traditionally cooked over an open fire.

“This dish is one of the most popular on our menu—sometimes we sell 15 to 20 a night. That and lamb shanks and the veal schnitzel.” Gonzales encourages amateur chefs to try the dish at home. “Paella is a cheap and easy dish to make at home. You don’t have to use seafood. You can use chicken or sausage or chorizo and vegetables. It’s easy to do. You can have paella dinner in an hour, and you can put anything in it. Just cook the rice in advance and then cook your ingredients, mix it all together and pop in the oven for 10 minutes. It’s very simple.”

Be sure to enjoy Felix’s authentic Spanish paella soon. “I am retiring soon. It’s so beautiful here, the trouble is I don’t get the time to enjoy it. People who come here for two weeks ski more than I do!”

Photo by Paulette Philpot
Photo by Paulette Philpot

The perfect paella


Seafood: 8-9 large shrimp, 8-9 clams, 8-9 mussels, 8-9 scallops, 5 oz calamari steaks, cut in strips
1 diced onion
1/3 diced green bell pepper
1/3 diced red bell pepper
2 cloves minced garlic
2 cups of arborio rice
4 cups of clam juice (dry white wine may be substituted)
1/4 tsp. saffron (paprika may be substituted to turn rice yellow)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh thyme, chopped
2 tbsp. parsley, chopped
1/4 cup diced hot chillies (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup peas
Selection of vegetables (optional)

Serves 6

Sauté the onion, peppers and garlic in the olive oil. Add the seafood, sauté. Then add the rice, clam juice and saffron. Simmer covered for about 15 minutes until rice is cooked and all the liquid absorbed. During the last 3 minutes, add peas to the top of the rice. Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Any vegetables may be added to paella, such as artichoke hearts, carrots, broccoli, asparagus, pimentos and diced tomatoes. Serve in a colorful, wide paella dish. Garnish with lemon wedges.