An avalanche of accolades in a dizzyingly short amount of time could drive anyone to get swept up in the moment and lose a sense of who they are. And yet, the James Beard-nominated, RAMMY Award-winning powerhouse pastry chef behind internationally lauded fundraising initiative Bakers Against Racism strikes me as a woman who approaches each day with a level of calm and resolve reserved for those who know they are just one of many working to make a difference for the greater good.
Paola Velez and I are sitting opposite one another at Compass Rose when I come to this realization, listening to her speak about fighting for social justice, keeping her staff gainfully employed and finding ways to keep the D.C. community connected mid-pandemic. She’s sporting her signature round glasses, this pair made from vinyl records and purchased at a mom-and-pop in Richmond, and a fuzzy pullover that she notes keeps her warm in the often-chilly kitchen of her La Bodega Bakery, located in the U Street Corridor restaurant’s basement.
She’s soft-spoken and demure, and yet she speaks with a steely resolve on most every topic. She has a contemplative nature that draws you in and makes you want to pick her brain; she’s someone we can learn a lot from, especially in such a tumultuous year for the hospitality industry and the Black community. For starters, she turned me on to the term “restructure” as it relates to how D.C.’s dining scene is being rebuilt, which has since informed a great deal of the angle for this issue of the magazine.
“We’re restructuring the industry,” Velez says. “I think pivoting was what we did in February [and] March. We pivoted and adjusted. Now, we have to restructure whole business plans. We have to think outside of the box in a way that is otherworldly. Chefs and restaurateurs have to create magic. [We have] to be able to reimagine what a business looks like forever. It’s a different playing field.”
Velez began her own restructure in the early days of Covid, when she decided to leave her position as executive pastry chef at Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith/Kin “as soon as I saw the pandemic was ravaging small businesses.” James Beard-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi, the culinary mastermind behind the trendy locale at The Wharf, also resigned this summer.
“The hotel industry will rebound,” she says. “Something didn’t settle right with me working for a hotel knowing that small businesses need people like me, creatives, to come back and really jolt their situation. From March until now, thousands of restaurants, bakeries [and] bars have been closing. Instead of being every man for themselves, I think we all need to – as a unit, that power of the collective – come together and really figure this out until the government steps in.”
She immediately called Compass Rose and Maydan owner Rose Previte, who she credits as an established force in the D.C. hospitality industry and one of the few people who she can trust with her brain. What began as a cathartic conversation where Velez sought advice ended three hours later with a job offer. While Previte wasn’t looking for an executive pastry chef, she decided to create that exact position for Velez at both of her restaurants. By August, the pair had joined forces.
“At this stage in my career, who do I trust?” she asks. “Most people would have seen the James Beard nomination, the RAMMY nomination [and] Bakers Against Racism, and would have been like, ‘Perfect, come to my team.’ They’d milk me for all the PR I’m worth and then at the end of the year, they might just say, ‘We can’t afford you anymore.’ Who do I trust that [doesn’t] see me as a marketing vessel [or] figurehead or, ‘Hey, look at us. We have somebody who’s brown on this team [or] who’s Black on this team. It’s a gift. [Rose and I] gave each other a gift.”
La Bodega Bakery operates out of Compass Rose, where Velez and her team craft delicious desserts for their homebase and Maydan like dulce de leche babka, Portuguese egg tart and New York-style cheesecake inspired by the Bronx-based Cheesecake Factory the pastry chef grew up near. The bakery also serves as a retail space with presale baked goods and a daily rotation of sweet treats available for socially distant pickup. Her doughnuts are a fan favorite, and she keeps things interesting with a slew of new flavors like ube finished with cornflake crunchies.
“It’s really cool to bring a taste of New York [and the] bodegas I grew up in here to D.C. I just want people to feel like they can travel again, even if it’s just through a dessert. I want them to feel like something different is happening. We’re constantly pulling from like, ‘Oh, I went to this place once, and I think that this memory and this memory would do very well together.’”
Velez has been encouraged by the steady stream of customers to the bakery itself, and the happiness it seems to bring them by having a reason to be out and about to pick up a sought-after dessert item all while remaining safe and healthy. But her concerns for the future are great, and she stands firm that without government assistance, the hospitality industry cannot survive the undeniable economic consequences of the pandemic.
“We are one of the biggest stimulators in the economy. Yes, you want to go out and celebrate and have fun – it’s a social interaction. But also, every single dollar that a dishwasher makes gets put back into the economy. We stimulate the economy in a very real, tangible, day-to-day way.”
She implores patrons to go above and beyond to frequent their favorite local restaurants, if they feel safe. And if they aren’t comfortable eating out, she says consider telling the staff at their neighborhood eatery, “Thank you, because you don’t actually have to be here. You could shutter down and be safe at home.”
Her conviction extends in full to the wildly successful initiative that’s kept her in the news since this summer and considered by many to be a local hero. In only five days this June, what began as a small pop-up in support of immigrant organization Ayuda grew to a virtual bake sale with thousands of contributing home bakers and professionals like Velez who raised $1.9 million for social justice organizations. Her collaboration with chefs Rob Rubba and Willa Pelini has become an international movement that’s taken on a life of its own.
“Bakers Against Racism was born out of a need. I wanted to give people a way to actively engage and stand up for what they believe in without having to go outside during a pandemic, because we’re dealing with two pandemics: racism and an actual pandemic. It’s a true showcase of the collective. There’s nothing that I could have ever done to make Bakers Against Racism what it is today without other people. I’m very grateful that our baker community is so strong and resilient. Even though our industry is failing, we’re willing to stand up for what’s right.”
Velez remains at the helm of the initiative, with Pelini on to her next professional chapter in a new city and Rubba supporting as needed while also juggling his own operations at Oyster Oyster. In October, she wrapped a smaller activation leading up to the presidential election called Bake The Vote to encourage people to vote, and is now working to solidify partnerships so bakers can have more access to product in tandem with prepping for a more wide-reaching holiday bake sale in support of racial justice at the beginning of December.
“We want [the holiday sale] to be an expression of love toward each other in the pastry and baking community, but also an expression of love to the Black community. What happened in June was powerful, but it’s starting to fade away. If businesses are going to say, ‘Black lives matter’ [and] if people are going to restructure how they do things, then we need to keep that constant reminder happening. We need to actually say that and mean it, so we’re excited to be bringing another bake sale to life. We use these as a form of encouragement. In the restaurant industry, we always use desserts to accommodate a meal to say, ‘I’m sorry’ if we messed something up. But now, we’re using dessert as a weapon to fight for what we believe in.”
Velez recently partnered with another baker to launch Bee’s Grocery Fund, which provides $50 worth of groceries to essential workers, and also sits on the board of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. With any spare moment she may have (and they’re rare, for sure), she’s with her husband Hector, exploring Glenstone museum in Potomac, Maryland or practicing self-care by convincing her mom that FaceTime is a worthy alternative to catching up in person.
“I don’t have a good balance yet. I just think there’s a lot of work to be done. I endure – for now. Then slowly but surely, I know things will stabilize. And once they do, maybe I’ll take a nap.”
For more information about La Bodega Bakery, visit www.compassrosedc.com/la-bodega and @labodegabakerydc on Instagram. Support Bakers Against Racism at www.bakersagainstracism.com and @bakersagainstracism on Instagram. Find out what Velez is up to @smallorchids on Instagram. Find out more about Previte’s restaurants below.
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