The Pivot: How Chef Paola Velez Is Shifting Gears During the Pandemic

Chef Paola Velez
Hector Velez

Paola Velez was in Orlando when, one day in February, her phone started blowing up with a string of OMGs. Washingtonian had just dropped its annual top-restaurants issue. The D.C. magazine named Kith/Kin, Kwame Onwuachi’s standard-setting Afro-Caribbean restaurant where Velez was the executive pastry chef at the time, to the No. 15 spot—which was great, but not the source of the barrage of messages from friends and family. Unbeknownst to Velez, Washingtonian put her on the cover. “I was shell-shocked,” she says. “They usually reserve the cover for someone like José Andrés. My parents were blown away that in their lifetime someone like me could be on that cover.”

The following month the James Beard Foundation named Velez a semifinalist in the Rising Star category for chefs under 30 years old, the award Onwuachi had won the previous year. Yale hosted her for a talk with their food sustainability program. And Kith/Kin was busier than ever. “Everything was really cool, then COVID hit.”

Paola Velez
Hector Velez

The Pivot: “My gears shifted 100% to make sure my staff was taken care of,” says Velez, who was furloughed from Kith/Kin. “I was working behind scenes to make sure there were no hiccups with their unemployment, even though I was going through the same process myself.” Navigating the red tape of the process, Velez realized “this gap in the restaurant industry where the undocumented workforce—the backbone of our workforce—didn’t have access to help.” Though they pay the same taxes, undocumented workers are not eligible for the same benefits, like unemployment or stimulus checks. So Velez organized a pop-up donut shop, Doña Dona, with Daniella Senior (Colada Shop) and raised $1,100 for Ayuda, a local organization that provides legal, language, and other services to immigrants. “It wasn’t a small amount of money—I mean, if I lost $1,100, I would be very upset!—but it wasn’t enough for real change.”

Bakers Against Racism grew out of this desire to do more. In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Velez teamed up with fellow D.C. chefs Willa Pelini (Emilie’s) and Rob Rubba (Scrappy’s bagel pop-up) and worked out some straightforward math: If they could organize 80 bakers to sell $1,200 each through a decentralized bake sale, they could raise $96,000. Rubba designed the graphics, and within one hour of Velez posting on Instagram, 500 participants had signed up.

By the end of the bake sale, which ran June 15 through June 20, the collective had swelled to 2,400 bakers from all across the U.S., London, Berlin, Paris, Mumbai, Australia, and beyond. They raised over $1.6 million for hundreds of organizations supporting Black communities, from the Okra Project to Black Girls Code to a program making surfing more POC-inclusive in Nova Scotia.

Hector Velez

The Future: While Bakers Against Racism may hold another bake sale soon, the platform has shifted into introducing “Black [bakers] and people of color who are in the industry that you might not know.” From the exposure, Velez says, “These businesses have seen their sales increase so much they were breaking records in a pandemic. We hope we can maintain that momentum, sharing the love.”

Meanwhile, Velez has decided not to return to Kith/Kin—Onwuachi is also leaving, he recently announced—instead jumping across town to be the executive pastry chef at sister restaurants Maydan, which recently opened for outdoor dining, and Compass Rose, which has been doing take-out through the pandemic. It’s encouraging that a respected restaurant group is committing in a big way to pastry, a department that’s often considered expendable, in these screwed-up times.

For Velez, the work continues. “Until we get the proper [federal] help, the restaurant industry is going to be hurting for a long time,” she says. “Many industries around us have gotten bailouts, but the culinary industry is not getting the same treatment. You rely on us to celebrate and live a good life. Our hope is that society really understands the value we provide.”

You rely on us to celebrate and live a good life. Our hope is that society really understands the value we provide.

Chef Paola Velez’s One-Bowl Chocolate Cake Recipe

Makes 2 (8)-inch round cakes

225 grams all-purpose flour
275 grams granulated sugar
11 grams baking soda
1 gram Diamond Crystal kosher salt
55 grams cocoa powder
135 grams olive oil
154 grams Greek yogurt
1½ eggs
¾ cup brewed espresso or coffee
1 gram vanilla extract
¼ tsp nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 360°F. Grease the sides and bottoms of two pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper. Add all the ingredients to a large mixing bowl and stir well until completely combined. Divide the batter between the pans and bake 25 to 30 minutes or a cake tester comes out clean. Cool completely, run a knife around the inside of each pan, and carefully invert to remove each cake. Cut into slices and serve with dulce de leche ice cream.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!