Pastry chef and baker Paola Velez
Paola Velez Credit: Hector Velez

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Chef Paola Velez may have earned accolades most in the food industry only dream of in the five years since City Paper last spoke to her, but she insists she’s still the same “whimsical Bronx baker.” 

Amid a perfect storm of industry furloughs and new opportunities, the 32-year-old pastry chef left restaurants behind in 2021 to focus her attention on an international bake sale network that has raised more than $2.5 million for social justice causes, multiple TV shows, and a forthcoming cookbook optimistically slated to publish in 2024. While still living in D.C., Velez also traveled to participate in various events, such as a recent panel at the Nordstrom NYC Flagship with Nike, a unique partnership she said she dreamed of at the beginning of the year. 

She is finally getting recognition for her work as well: Velez was nominated in 2020 for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef the Year award, chosen as one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs of 2021, and selected as a member of the American Culinary Corps for the launch of the State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership with the Beard Foundation earlier this year.

Her latest project comes in the form of her first cookbook. Life Is a Bodega is a Dominican pastry book that offers “an authentic take on being first generation American” and “an ode to growing up in the Bronx with limited possibilities,” Velez says. She is currently writing the book with the help of Gabe Ulla, a food writer who co-wrote David Chang’s 2020 memoir and New York City restaurant Estela’s namesake cookbook; it is slated to publish sometime late in 2024.

Velez has also continued to donate her time and funds to run Bakers Against Racism, a global community of bakers she helped launch in June 2020 amid the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. The network of professional and at-home bakers work together to plan bake sales fundraising for various social justice causes, such as anti-racism, abortion rights, and now, child abuse intervention. This month, for example, 27 bakers and chefs in D.C. organized a cookie box with proceeds benefiting Safe Shores, a D.C.-based child advocacy center that supports abuse victims. The box will be available for pickup on Saturday, April 22. 

Through her busy schedule, Velez is also something of an Instagram star with 67,000 followers and counting. During the pandemic, Velez started to post more about herself rather than just pretty pictures of food every day, as she saw other food professionals doing.

“At first the algorithm was like ‘oh my god, jail,’ I lost followers and engagement,” Velez says. “But I had to be honest with myself. I could not keep up with that. I chose not to, and rebel and be myself.”

She posted the memes she used to post when she initially created the account. It’s not unusual to see Velez dancing to a trendy song to announce her cookbook or a video montage of TSA agents stopping her at the airport to examine a heavy ceramic shoe vase Velez received at the Nike panel discussion. 

She’ll still advertise her projects, like the paused Pastries with Paola digital show or her current cocktail series Imvibey, but she’ll also talk about trying Van Leeuwen’s infamous ranch ice cream and what jeans she got at Everlane that day. Velez says she’s exploring TikTok more, too, where she’ll duet with another creator’s food video to, for example, point out the obvious weirdness of shirtless chicken roasting.

Her personal videos aren’t necessarily a strategy—she wants to have fun and remind people that she’s normal by posting with “some eye crusties in the morning”—but they have drawn people to her page, including some trolls. But even when some try to comment on her weight, Velez says her confidence and ability to call them out have not wavered.

“I talk about whatever I want and if people are rude, I DM them and say why,” Velez says. “There’s a real person behind this account so chill out with that.” 

Velez is hilarious yet still open and vulnerable, says Tavel Bristol-Joseph, an award-winning pastry chef and partner in several Austin, Texas, restaurants. The two connected on social media and have since become friends, describing their relationship as familial and mentor/mentee.

“It’s beautiful she can have space to let out her creative side and to have a chef of her caliber or standard talk about every aspect of industry, whether that’s mental health, racism prejudice, or just being funny, she covers all scopes,” Bristol-Joseph says. 

Velez’s approachability helps inspire the next generation of Black and brown bakers, says Cheryl Day, bakery owner and co-founder of Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice. Destigmatizing mental health is important to Velez, and her friends corroborate this.

“At the end of the day, I think she’s such a great representation of our community,” Day says. “Paola is a true original and she’s baking a difference every day,” 

Day also describes herself as a mentor and cheerleader for Velez, a role she took on after connecting through their social justice work. She adds that celebrating Velez’s accomplishments is important since most people of color have to work harder to get half the recognition of their White counterparts.

Jonni Scott, a pastry chef and regular participant in Bakers Against Racism fundraisers since its inception, says Velez has been extremely supportive of her work since they first met at a 2018 cookie exchange for pastry chefs. 

“[Velez] and I share the unique experience of being Black women pastry chefs in D.C. There are not many of us here, so it is very nice to be able to know and support each other in our industry.” Scott says in an email. 

Scott remembers when Velez, also furloughed, reached out and suggested a walk after Scott was furloughed for a second time while working as the pastry chef at Cranes in 2020.

Velez was a rising star in the D.C. food scene for many years, known for her work at Iron Gate and Kith/Kin before finally ending up at Maydan and Compass Rose, where she launched her pandemic-born La Bodega Bakery, slinging nostalgic flavors of sticky buns and donuts before shuttering in 2021. Her work in D.C. is what earned her a nod from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the James Beard nomination, she points out, and not her social justice work, despite what many people think.

“I put my heart and soul into my career. I had been missing birthday parties and basically missed everything to get to that point, so it changed everything for me to get these nominations,” Velez says. “It made everything feel futile once the pandemic hit. What did I do this all for because I got furloughed so quickly.”

Velez says she’s found some positives from working through the pandemic after initially being furloughed at Compass Rose and Maydan, like the connection to culture she and customers felt during her La Bodega run, but it was one of the hardest things she’s done. 

She says that she’s been healing since she departed the restaurant industry, which she started working in at age 14, so when she’s able to help industry friends, she never hesitates to jump in. She’s cooked at Bristol-Joseph’s Canje restaurant in Austin, and she helped fry fritters at a fish fry event at the Charleston Wine + Food festival for her friend Christine Lau

“That stuff goes a long way with people and it reminds them that you’re a regular person,” Velez says. “Going from a local reach to a national reach was very huge for me, but I have to remind people just because I have a blue check or bunch of followers, I’m still a person, still a regular.”

As for what’s next, keep an eye out for information on Dōekï Dōekï, an upcoming Afro Latin pop-up series inspired by her mother, that Velez teased will start in D.C., as a reminder that she’s still in the city she calls home with her husband. She may also show more love to D.C.’s food scene in a new Instagram series.

“D.C. is a fun place and I don’t want it to feel like it’s devoid of all the charm it has,” Velez says.