For pastry chef Paola Velez, baking tres leches cornbread and Maria cookie icebox cakes is as much about feeding her community’s appetite for home as it is about giving back. Last year, the Washington, DC-based Dominican-American chef went viral for launching Bakers Against Racism. This bake sale raised millions of dollars supporting the global fight for racial justice, but it wasn’t the first, or last, time she used her culinary skills to uplift social movements. Ever since Velez first put an apron on, she has been cooking with a purpose.
“Giving is a part of who I am because I was raised that way. My mom made sure that if we had three dollars, we’d give one away. When I see a need in the community, I activate,” Velez tells Remezcla.
Born in the Bronx, Velez grew up in restaurants — literally. Her mother’s cousin owned a Tex-Mex concept with multiple locations throughout New York in the 1980s and ’90s. The now 30-year-old would stare at the cooks, entranced by their chopping and slicing in the kitchen as a child. Years later, as a teen in Orlando, she got a taste of the hustle and bustle of cooking for hungry customers while working in fast food. Despite her immigrant mother’s hopes that she’d become an engineer or lawyer, Velez decided then what she always knew: she would be a cook. Even more, she’d sprinkle her mother’s lessons about service in the plates she prepared.
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu and working as a cook in New York, she regularly sold treats to raise funds for community-based efforts. During one pop-up, she baked her treasured Thick ‘Em cookie, a recipe with dark and milk chocolate and butterscotch chunks, to support girls at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. In DC, where she surpassed her wildest dreams by becoming a coveted pastry chef, she brought her benevolent spirit to the kitchen, leading with compassion and mentoring emerging women and BIPOC cooks and bakers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and her team were furloughed, Velez still felt beholden to them. Unable to collect unemployment benefits, she called councilmembers, legislators, and other local politicians until each staff member qualified. However, the difficulty Velez had navigating the system reminded her of employees she had worked alongside throughout her career: undocumented prep cooks, dishwashers, and bussers, who she describes as the backbone of the restaurant industry.
“If it was this hard for people with documentation, then God forbid what those who don’t have proper papers have to do. I realized the huge deficit in how we were taking care of the biggest population of culinary workers in the nation, the undocumented workforce,” she says.
With that in mind, Velez teamed up with DC Dominican restaurateur Daniella Senior of Colada Shop to launch Doña Dona, a bake sale that sold tamarind, pineapple, guava, and meringue flavored donuts to raise money for a local nonprofit, Ayuda, that helps low-income immigrants. Soon after, when Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Velez took the strategy to a larger scale with Bakers Against Racism. The global online bake sale she co-founded with two other chefs raised money for BLM chapters and hundreds of other groups worldwide that are doing work for social justice. Since its launch, there have been four actions where thousands of people contributed baked goods to raise more than $2 million in donations. While Velez plans the subsequent activation, all over the world, pastry chefs and bakers follow her blueprint with daily, smaller-scale bake sales benefiting a myriad of social justice and community-based movements.
“I’m not rich, I don’t have an affluent family, and I don’t have a thousand dollars at my disposal, but I know how to work, and I have a game plan, and that’s enough,” Velez says.
The blockbuster fundraiser put the Latina in the global spotlight — a place Velez says isn’t always comfortable being in. But she’s not capturing this much attention simply because of her charm and good nature. The esteemed pastry chef is fiercely talented and slowly transforming the industry so that the flavors of the Caribbean are just as revered as those of Europe. Still early in her career, Velez is a 2020 James Beard award finalist for Rising Star Chef. She has picked up a Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington RAMMY Award for Pastry Chef of the Year and was also named Esquire’s Pastry Chef of the Year 2020, among many other accolades. Since this spring, she’s also been hosting Food and Wines’ Pastries with Paola Web series.
“I don’t understand how all of this is happening. I really don’t get it,” the culinary star humbly says. “I’m not even as ambitious as some of the chefs in this arena with me. My biggest dream, my biggest hope, is really to see a cultural shift in the industry, where we stop treating our workers poorly, where more kids like me can rise, where we don’t have to call out another industry creep, and where we all feel safe, respected, and regarded as professionals despite the color of our skin or the pronunciation of our name.”