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Paola Velez: We Need To Rebuild The Restaurant Industry

Creating space and opportunity not just for Latinx workers, but for all those laboring behind traditional figureheads in the community.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work.

James Beard Award nominated Paola Velez is executive pastry chef of Maydan, Compass Rose, Doña Dona, and La Bodega at Compass Rose in Washington DC. Doña Dona, which Velez cofounded, is a Latin American popup to benefit Ayuda DC, an organization that supports the restaurant industry’s undocumented workforce. She is also the co-founder of Bakers Against Racism.

I’m a potato, la papa—“Chef Potato” is my on-camera alter ego. I am awkward and a little bit shy, but Chef Potato is a more confident version of myself. We all have to be comfortable being ourselves, because who you are genuinely is a million times more interesting than anything you can fabricate.

Black, Brown, and Indigenous folx are ignored from the conversation. We become a hashtag—it’s trendy to look out for us, but people forget. It’s important in the current industry that we accept ourselves for who we are and unapologetically be ourselves in all facets. In the restaurant industry, it boils down to being seen. The first instant of “feeling seen” was when chocolatier Jacques Torres promoted me to pastry sous chef. I am Dominican from the Bronx. There are a lot of assumptions made about you when you come from the Bronx. Stereotypes are a burden—people don’t give you the chance to explain yourself. They just assume that I am “something” with negative connotations. You wouldn’t know I am into art and art history. I am well-traveled. I am not just a product of the inner city.

For Torres to tell me “I need you to be in this position because you deserve it,” without caring where I was from or how I talked, was huge. He saw my work ethic and it was enough.

Photo: Courtesy Paola Velez.

Even just four years ago, our industry wasn’t very kind to BIPOC, especially if you wanted to be in a position of upper management. A lot of pastry chef roles were filled with figureheads.

I have an afro that is hard to tame—a lot of gel is involved. I would try to look “interview-ready” during my job search as a pastry sous when I first moved to Washington DC. Every interview ended with the same result—I was super talented, they told me, but that I didn’t “represent the company.” My voice is interview-ready, but then when they saw me, they would immediately tell me “the position was filled,” even as I was taking a seat.

Often, I was the only Black or Latinx in the kitchen. Being POC or Black in DC, we would band together, and our stories were the same. We were qualified enough, but could not represent the company or restaurant. We were only wanted behind the scenes. That devastated me, but it made me more unapologetically Black Latinx. It made me make sure that everything I did was for a purpose, for representation. Representation is so important. Representation is at the essence of what I do. I don’t do it for fame or fortune—what I can do is make sure to open up the doors for people that are going to come after us.

There was one time I had gone to an interview at a restaurant in Dupont Circle. I knew during the interview that it was not going in my favor because I had been on so many like this in the past few months. I told the hiring manager, “Look, I know how this is going to go. But if you could take a second and look at my portfolio—please. Please don’t judge me for how I look. I may look young and dumb, I may not look like a typical brand ambassador, but I will work twice as hard for your brand, and represent it as if it was my own. Your desserts will be something people talk about if you give me a chance.” They took a look at my portfolio and said, “Wow! You can make all this stuff?”

Photo: Courtesy Paola Velez.

And I said, “I can make this and more if I am given the opportunity.” They hired me on the spot. That’s the boldest I’ve been in an interview. I still rely on Chef Papa. It would be a disservice not to be myself, not to be exactly who I am. Now I go to interviews however I want.

It’s comforting to know I can be accepted for me, especially when society today wants nothing to do with POC, predominantly Black, Brown, and Indgenous folks. I am Afro Latinx a.k.a. Black Latinx. In everything I do, I want people to feel that they are included, so that BIPOC, trans, womxn, and gender-noncomforming folx can feel that I am part of them as much as they are part of me. While I am Black Latinx, I am not ADOS—American Descendants of Slavery. I respect ADOS. Whenever ADOS enters the room, I make sure I give them the space to make sure they are supported. I am a womxn of African heritage from the Dominican Republic who was born in the U.S. It is my absolute honor to create something like Bakers Against Racism to support Black lives in America, who have been oppressed for hundreds of years. There is no greater joy for me to shout it from the rooftops—“Black Lives Matter!”

I’ve never been asked to dumb anything down when it come to my pastry work. But when I was cooking for other people, I never commented, questioned, or varied from what they wanted me to do. I was their exact replica. I prided myself on being a good supporting role. If you told me to mix cake batter until it turned blue, I would do it. But when I was given the opportunity to have my recipes and flavor profiles showcased, I was always authentic to myself. If I had tamarind in a dessert, and people asked, “What is tamarind and why is it so sour?” I would explain what it was, and why tamarind is supposed to be sour. We would go through educating the servers and cooks.

If you are able to educate people on the product and its origins in your dessert, why it does a certain thing and how it is balanced in your dessert, people won’t say, “it’s aggressive” or “abrasive.” They will say “Wow, I want more of this.” I’m not just copying and pasting something on a baking sheet. Every dessert I create is a slice of my memory or personal experience I’ve gone through. Authenticity shines through. Never hold back your culture’s recipes—that extra pinch of spice, that extra layer of sour is beautiful. We need more of that in the world.

But in order to express ourselves and ascend within the restaurant industry, we have to stop fighting amongst ourselves. The Latinx community doesn’t accept Indigenous or Black lives. We need to accept each other. We as a culture need to course-correct to make sure that we are looking out for each other, and also looking out for Black lives and other Indigenous lives. As a whole in the restaurant industry, we need to look out for each other. If you are BIPOC in a management position, how are you going to promote or hire from within? What are you doing to train from within? How are you setting pathways for success for the people who have held your line? Are you providing healthcare and time off so that they can see their families?

What are we going to do as BIPOC folx in management positions, to mold and change the restaurant industry away from a triangular system, with a figurehead at the top who is white, and Black and Brown at the bottom? How are you supporting those at the bottom, and how can we put them on top?

There can’t be a beginning without an end. And what we are seeing right now is the end of the old guard of the restaurants. It is our turn to rebuild properly within structural foundations that will help us all have an equitable and sustainable quality of life as we create these beautiful dishes and history on a plate.

I think there is a big conversation that has to happen within the restaurant and pastry community. We need to give chances to Black and Latinx womxn. There is a lot of stigmatization about who gets to be a pastry chef. We owe it to our palates to let the food do the talking. We should be willing to learn different presentations of culture—not just on the plate, but human to human interactions as well. As we rebuild the restaurant industry, we need to see more womxn of color in positions of leadership, so that you would showcase their talents, stories, and efforts, and let them create beautiful things.