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Two weeks ago, Iron Gate pastry chef Paola Velez made a fermented soda out of ginger and sugar. “I looked for foamy bubbles,” she says. “It’s alive.” Then she flavored it with peaches and birch bark she acquired from a local farm and let it ferment one more time before serving the funky soda with a scoop of ice cream.
“Most people use extracts, but I had real live birch trees in my hands,” she says. The dessert is on special at the Dupont restaurant whose whimsical setting is a match for Velez’s style.
The 27-year-old was born in the Bronx. “I was kind of raised there and kind of raised in Orlando, which is why I’m a big dork instead of Cardi B,” she jokes. Robust tropical flavors frequently feature in Velez’s desserts because her family is Dominican. Growing up, she spent her summer vacations in the Caribbean nation.
“I was always climbing up on fruit trees trying to get the best ripe fruit,” she says. “Or, I’d pay one of the neighborhood kids to do it because I was afraid of dying.”
When Velez enrolled in culinary school she wasn’t immediately drawn to pastry, but found herself sticking around between morning and evening classes to learn techniques like crafting shapes out of sugar from professors who were generous with their time.
Cooking school was a challenge for Velez, who didn’t think she could make it through the two-year program. “I was going to give up, it was too hard,” she says. “But I spoke to professors and they approved me to do a fast-tracked schedule that was seven months.”
After graduating she worked as a line cook in various roles, but ingrained gender stereotypes often led her to the pastry station. “During my jobs I always worked pastry because I’m a female,” Velez says. “Chefs would say, ‘You look like you have soft, tiny hands, can you make this dessert?’”
Velez eventually came around on pastry and went on to work with big names like master chocolatier Jacques Torres in New York and later, Christina Tosi at the D.C. location of Milk Bar. She worked at a few other places in the District, including Arroz, before landing the job at Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Greek restaurant.
At Iron Gate, Velez serves a wide variety of sweets from Greek yeast doughnuts with orange blossom syrup ($6) to a summery blueberry panna cotta with chia seed pudding, fennel, and pie dough crostini ($9) and an assortment of seasonal crostata ($10). Most desserts come with a shower of edible flowers from Little Wild Things.
“For me desserts aren’t fussy,” Velez says. “I want you to feel like you can make this too, but at the same time I want it to be something you would want to come to me for. I want you to feel like it’s warm, an embrace.”
Velez is focused more on taste than pretty pictures. “Little details help me distinguish myself without creating a dessert with fireworks coming out of it,” she says. “If I dazzle your eyes and it doesn’t taste good, you’re going to say I’m all show.”
She is passionate about making sure “pastry chef” remains a career well into the future. As increased rent and labor costs squeeze restaurants’ budgets, some operators have eliminated pastry positions, asking savory chefs to tackle sweets too. The scenario has created a tight network of pastry chefs, according to Velez.
“We go to each other’s restaurants to show support to make sure we all have jobs,” she says. “If we don’t keep our industry afloat, who will? I want to see Aggie Chin succeed. I want to see Tiffany [MacIsaac] succeed.”
“I just want to make sure that the next generation can see this as a viable profession,” she continues “It’s not just for the ‘gram.”
Iron Gate, 1734 N St. NW, (202) 524-5202, irongaterestaurantdc.com