Paola Velez Bakes to Tell a Story

“Every time I take two cultures and blend them into one I'm telling a story.”

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Born to parents from the Dominican Republic, Paola Velez grew up in her family’s New York restaurants. She’s used that experience to give back to her community: She’s the pastry chef at Maydan and Compass Rose in Washington, D.C. and the founder of La Bodega, and, earlier this year, she cofounded the activist group Bakers Against Racism. Here, she shares her story while whipping up Como La Flor doughnuts.

In Dominican culture we don't do quite a lot of baking, so I wouldn’t say I grew up baking. But, in high school, I took an affinity to it, and then I went to culinary school.  

I realized I was a little more able in that realm of the kitchen. I contacted Jacques Torres and asked if I could have a job with him, and he said, “Of course.” So I started there with not much more than the basics of baking and pastry, and in four months he promoted me to pastry sous-chef. I was fairly young — I was 21 — and getting that kind of recognition gave me the boost and the drive to keep pushing forward. And now I'm an executive pastry chef.
I love to focus on flavor combinations while still making it whimsical. 

My style is no frills — I love to focus on flavor combinations while still making it whimsical. People often think of desserts as cute, sugary, pink, or sprinkles. I tend to move away from that. 

My desserts channel childhood memories, whether they’re my own or the memories of people on my team. We’ll do combinations of things that we feel aren't being done. 

I break recipes down to simple memories, based on the five points of our taste buds. I try to figure out what was salty, what was sour, what was creamy and sweet, and I rebuild that memory. 
I rebuild childhood memories with my recipes.

Let’s say I'm a kid, and I’m playing in the park and I'm absolutely overwhelmed with thirst, and I see the ice-cream truck come by. Instead of buying water, I buy a chocolate soft serve. So, I'm going to start recreating what it felt like to have that first bite of that soft serve: The chocolate melts, the crunchy sprinkles, the wafer cone, and I rebuild it into a dessert, so people can feel like they're with me on a summer's day.

I let people taste it first, and then I explain why I created the dish. And people are like, “I feel it!” I did this rice pudding flan, and I topped it with popped rice, and there was a golden rhubarb syrup that I poured tableside on the perimeter of the dish. Folks were eating it and would say, “This feels like when I'm 10 watching Saturday morning cartoons and eating my breakfast.” And, for me, that's exactly what it was. I would eat the popped rice cereal, the Rice Krispies, and it was that combination of creamy milk and hint of sweetness that just overwhelmed all of those breakfast cereals we ate as kids. And then that excitement of something crunchy popping and dairy swirling in your mouth. That’s exactly what I was planning when I made it — the rhubarb with the lightly sweet golden syrup to go with it. 
I'm able to tell the stories and use flavors from my upbringing and mix them with Americana cuisine.

Using those memories helped me explore what it meant to be a first-generation American growing up, trying to figure out how to do this without a manuscript. Now I'm able to tell the stories and use flavors from my upbringing and mix them with Americana cuisine. You might have had a chocolate-chip cookie with passion-fruit juice, so now I'll make a passion fruit– chocolate chip cookie. 

These are my “Como la Flor” old-fashioned doughnuts with a cold brewed hibiscus-lemon icing. It has a little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon, and I called it Como La Flor after a Selena song, which means “like the flower.” I thought it would be a punny thing to make something out of flowers with flowers, based off a song that was the flower of the Latinx community. The icing has a very bright pink color, and the Broccoli Holy Sheet pan highlights this — it’s very bright, vibrant, and colorful.

My job means I get to celebrate with folks.

My job means I get to celebrate with folks — they're entrusting me with their celebration, their intimate moments. I’m really excited to experience that with them and to give them something meaningful. Everything I've been making for our newest bakery concept captures little remnants of childhood and your home. Folks DM me and they're like, “I was so homesick, and I ate the dulce de leche babka, and I just felt like my Nana was making it.” It's really heartfelt.

It quickly turned into something more intense. It went viral.

We started Bakers Against Racism after I did Doña Dona DC, a monthlong doughnut pop-up, when we raised $1,000 for an organization called Ayuda. But I felt like it wasn't enough. Pastry chef Willa Pelini reached out and offered to do another pop-up, this time to support Black Lives Matter and stand in solidarity after the death of George Floyd. And still, I'm thinking, It's not enough. So I got to work and compiled all of the information I learned from Bakers Against Racism, and I put it in a Google Drive, and I was like, All we need is 80 bakers. You and I are coming together, that multiplies our donation by two. If we get more than that, then our donation multiplies. And it quickly turned into something more intense, it went viral — there's no other way to phrase it. It was awesome to see people having that same sentiment Willa had, and then giving people the resources to be able to turn their craft into a tool to stand for Black lives.

We all just wanted to do something to help. 

This was also in the middle of the pandemic, so it wasn’t like we could just go outside and act normal. Nothing about this was normal. We were scared and frustrated, and we gave people an opportunity to express themselves in a way that was tangible. You start baking in your house, and then you reach out to family members and friends and families in your neighborhood. You research the organizations that are in your very backyard, and it becomes very personal. We all just wanted to do something to help, and it’s turned into what it is today.

I bake to tell a story.

I bake to tell a story. It’s moved far from the realm of a routine into a representation. Every time I create a new dish, every time I take two cultures and blend them into one, I'm telling a story. I'm being courageous and being brave. It wasn't until recently that you saw a pastry chef that looked like me. To be able to tell my story, unabashedly and with strength because my community's pushing behind me, is very powerful. It propels me to keep doing it. I'm actually a very shy person. I don't like to be in front of everything, which is why I work in the kitchen. 

Bakers Against Racism matters. My being a pastry chef matters.

Photos by Farrah Skeiky.

But this matters. Bakers Against Racism matters. My being a pastry chef matters. Before, I was very content being a pastry sous — but it just made sense to talk. I do work with younger children, and for people to see that kind of representation and role model makes it really worth it. To see kids say, “Mommy, I can be a chef, too” — I'm like, Oh my God, this is it.

Photos by Farrah Skeiky.