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Best of 2020: Our Person of the Year, Paola Velez Transcript

Best of 2020: Our person of the year, paola velez

Paola Velez: Every day is a new day, and everything that happened yesterday is not going to hold back my today.

Kerry Diamond: Hey, Bombe Squad. Welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe, the show that's all about women and food. I'm your host, Kerry Diamond, coming to you from Brooklyn, New York. If I had to pick a person of the year for Cherry Bombe, it would definitely be Paola Velez. She is the co-founder of Bakers Against Racism, a global bake sale that raised probably more than $2 million at this point for causes related to Black Lives Matter. That is a tremendous feat, and so many of you took part and came together as a community galvanized by Paola and her co-founders. Today, Paola is the executive pastry chef at Compass Rose, Maydan and La Bodega Bakery in Washington, DC. And she is the cover girl of the most recent issue of Cherry Bombe Magazine. Paola and I had a great conversation earlier this year about her life and career, and we're bringing it to you as a holiday rebroadcast. I hope you enjoy learning more about this very special individual who is leaving a big mark on the food world.

Let's thank Kerrygold, the maker of beautiful butter and cheese from Irish Grass Fed Dairy for supporting this episode. If you are baking, and I know many of you are, I hope you're using Kerrygold.

Speaking of Kerrygold, they also co-sponsored our holiday baking extravaganza along with Amazon Home. Thank you to everyone who joined us for all the festivities and demos and panels. We had a great time and I hope you did too. Check out for recipes, equipment, cookbooks, and more featured during the programming and be sure to check out our new YouTube channel for anything you might've missed. Let's hear a word from Kerrygold and we'll be right back with Paola Velez.

Kerrygold Announcer: Kerrygold is delicious, all natural butter and cheese made with milk from Irish grass-fed cows. Our farming families pass their craft and knowledge from generation to generation.

Kerrygold Farmer: I'm fifth generation. It goes back over 250 years.

Kerrygold Announcer: This traditional approach is the reason for the rich taste of Kerrygold. Enjoy delicious new sliced or shredded Kerrygold cheddar cheese, available in mild or savory flavors at a retailer near you. Find your nearest store at

Kerry Diamond: Here's my interview with Paola.

So, Paolo, we're going to start at the beginning. Tell me where you spent your childhood.

Paola Velez: So, I grew up in the Bronx in New York City, and every summer for three, four months, depending on how my mom felt, I would go to the Dominican Republic and live there. She thought it was really important to make sure that I split my difference so that I knew my heritage, but also experienced the American way of life.

Kerry Diamond: And did you stay with family members in the Dominican Republic?

Paola Velez: Yeah, before everything happened with my grandmother passing away, my grandfather passing away, we would just stay at our family home in what we call "el campo", and it just means camp literally translated, but it's just the countryside. That's where I learned how to appreciate food and how to grow my own veg and herbs and appreciate fresh fruit. You see a lot of that in my desserts now.

Kerry Diamond: I'm so sorry you lost your grandparents. When did they pass away?

Paola Velez: I was young. I was fairly young. Maybe 10.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, that must have been so hard.

Paola Velez: Yeah, it was difficult but my grandmother, really with the time that we did have, she impacted my life and changed everything that I thought about, where before, I might have not appreciated food because when you think about American culture, you think about fast. She helped me slow down at a very young age and really look and see and appreciate what the earth gives us and how the world nourishes us. From a very, very young age, I understood the complexities of food and how we hold our heritage through it.

Kerry Diamond: Can you tell us some of the things that she both cooked and grew?

Paola Velez: She would cook a big meal, which consists of rice, beans, chickens that we would grow. Not grow, herd. It was very traumatic at first because they were my pets. And then I realized very quickly, the food system and I was like, "Oh." She would make this huge meal and she would invite everybody in the neighborhood. Everyone that was able to come, it didn't matter if you were rich, poor. It didn't matter if you were young or old. And we would all sit in the front yard and in the backyard and eat from my grandmother's food, and she had that meal and a cup of coffee ready in the middle of the day for everybody, always. It didn't matter what was going on in our lives. She had that ready. And that's something that we as a family now when we go to the Dominican Republic, we continue as a tradition. So everybody knows our family to be hosts. So, it's very fitting that now I work in the hospitality industry.

Kerry Diamond: Did your grandmother have a specialty?

Paola Velez: Yes. So she would make coconut rice with peas. So, moro de arroz con guandules con coco. And it was cooked in the wood fire. We had a house that was open-air that they had bricks that you put your wood fire in. And that's how she would cook. Everything was cooked by sobre leña which means over fire. Well, all of my experience in the Dominican Republic, I didn't know what a stove was in the Dominican Republic. My brain never made that connection that you could have a gas stove because we always use wood fire. So...

Kerry Diamond: How about some of the things that she would grow? You mentioned fruits, you mentioned herbs. What were some of the things in her garden?

Paola Velez: Her garden consisted of this plot of land in front of our house and behind our house and we call it el cacao. And el cacao means the cacao trees. And it was just rows and rows and rows and rows of wild cacao that grew naturally in our backyard. Laced in between were mango trees, tamarind, avocado, plantains, right next to our house. Our well of rainwater was guava and passion fruit, which I always like to say, whatever fruits like to grow together will always taste good together. We had herbs in the back in the shaded area where it was anything that you can think of, achiote, cilantro, oregano, and more. We had... For me, we had lemongrass growing by the side of the house. And I would drink that tea and it would be a natural mosquito repellent. So, it was pretty nice.

Kerry Diamond: Oh my gosh! I'm starting to get the impression that it's no surprise you became a chef.

Paola Velez: I think so. It was a good fit. I feel like I was the only one in my family that took that same sentiment of food and being connected with nature like that like my grandmother did and turned it into a way to give back to the community. So, I've always been using food as a way to connect with other people, because I'm very shy. I don't make a great first impression. I'm very awkward at first. I'm like, "Oh, I'm sorry, you had to go through that with me." But with food, I can show you who I am without having to pretend. I'm going to show you my history.

Kerry Diamond: It's one of your languages in a sense.

Paola Velez: Yeah, I guess it is my love language. I overfeed people all the time. I'm like, "Ah, eat because you deserve to eat."

Kerry Diamond: At what point, Paola, did you decide that this could be a profession?

Paola Velez: I had graduated high school early. Well, I had enough credits to graduate early, but I didn't graduate early because I wanted to stay with my friends. I was now, looking back, I understand that that was a lot of my anxiety and my fear of the unknown. So, I stayed in something that I understood, in the familiar. But I had a year to figure it out and I didn't. And I finally was like, "Oh, maybe I can do art, maybe I can go to art school." And then I was like, "Oh, if I become an artist, then I have to make art and then die to be recognized." Because that's how all really good artists get recognized. They're like, "Oh, no, they're gone too soon." And I was like, "Oh my God, this is so crazy." I was like, "What's another way I can paint and make art?" And then I was like, "Oh, I can do it with food." And that was right when everything with TV chefs was appearing and it was every channel was trying to do a TV show. And that was 2007 until 2008. And then I went to school in 2008. My parents weren't very excited about that, they were not happy at all. They were hoping that I would become an engineer because I'm really good at building things and numbers and fixing broken appliances.

Kerry Diamond: That's a big skill in a kitchen.

Paola Velez: Absolutely. It turned out pretty well. I can now fix a tempering machine.

Kerry Diamond: So you went to culinary school down in Florida?

Paola Velez: Yeah, yeah. I went to Le Cordon Bleu. I wanted to go in Paris and my mom was like, "Absolutely not. You're not leaving this house until you have a degree." I think she noticed that I had flight syndrome. So, as my mom, she tried to protect me as best as I could to keep me as safe as possible.

Kerry Diamond: What is flight syndrome? I've never heard of that.

Paola Velez: It's where you want to escape your reality. You get so overwhelmed with anxiety and you're depressed and you figure, "If I leave this situation that I'm in, that's causing me all this grief, everything will become better." It took me a long time in New York to realize that that was a symptom of my anxiety and how I coped as a coping mechanism to make it better for me but now I have a little bit more resources and tools. But it wasn't always that way. I probably was not the best employee at a certain point in time.

Kerry Diamond: So, you're in Orlando and you decide you're going to go to culinary school?

Paola Velez: Yeah. Neither of my parents, my mom and my dad weren't really into it. But they've always been supportive of everything that I've ever done. They had a chat amongst themselves and they were like, "Why wouldn't we support her now?" They let me dig my own grave basically. And at first, it seemed like I had. I was just like, "Oh, man, why did I do this? I could have just been an engineer." But hard work pays off at the end of the day. It's not easy. The culinary industry isn't kind, but I've found kindness in it.

Kerry Diamond: How was your culinary school experience?

Paola Velez: It was fun. I liked it. And then anxiety kicked in. And then I was like, "Oh, my God, Mom, I have to quit." And she's like, "Why?" And I'm like, "I don't know, I just have to quit." She was like, "Well, can you maybe accelerate the program? Still, graduate, try to graduate." So, I went into the bursar's office and I was like, "I need your help. I'm going through this. I don't know what it is. I don't understand what it is." And that was when 2008 happened and we had the economic depression. So, all those jobs were disappearing. It wasn't easy to be a culinary student back then because you were looking at all your options.

You were like, "Where am I even going to stage? Where am I even gonna do my externship?" So, I asked the bursar's office and I was like, "Do you think it's possible for me to go to school all day and see if I can graduate early so that I can maybe get more working experience and maybe get a job?" And they were like, "It's intense," because I had already been going to school five days a week, we were there for eight hours. So, I had started to go to school at seven in the morning and then I wouldn't leave school until midnight.

Kerry Diamond: Paola, that's really intense.

Paola Velez: Yeah, but I feel like it prepared me for the actual restaurant industry. I had a competitive advantage once I went to work because I knew exactly what it felt like to just be stuck in a place working really hard. So, culinary school was cool, I guess. It wasn't as aggressive now as I think back on it because you had time to research and read and study and take tests. If I only knew back then, I would have prolonged it as long as possible.

Kerry Diamond: So at what point did you head back to New York City?

Paola Velez: Right when I had to do my externship in 2009. So, I did a two-year program in nine months and I graduated basically. So, I went back to New York and I was like, "I should go back to New York." So, what you guys didn't know was my mom and my mother's cousin, they had restaurants in New York. They were in St. Mark's and 91st Street and other places, kind of scattered through New York. It was like Tex Mex, very popular in the 90s, early 2000s for their margaritas. And my mom was always working in the restaurants. I figured out, I was like, "Hey, if I go back to New York, maybe there's more restaurants," because I knew of one, at least one restaurant that I could work at, but I didn't really work there. I worked everywhere else. So I worked at a French Vietnamese place, and I worked in a Dominican spot. I'm really good at peeling plantains now. I did so much, I worked with Columbia Presbyterian. But it wasn't easy to be in the culinary savory side. It was tough because it didn't matter where I went to work, they always put me in the pastry side of stuff, because they figured, "Oh, well, maybe you're not good at cooking but maybe you can at least make a panna cotta.

Kerry Diamond: And they did this before they even knew what your skills were?

Paola Velez: Right. I wasn't really aware. When you're that young in the industry, I always recommend to do as much as you possibly can so that you can learn what you're actually good at. Instead of assuming you're good at something, just learn and you might be able to be one of the best sourdough bakeries in the future. But if you don't introduce yourself to making your own starter and baking sourdough or grilling or being a butcher, how will you know what you're actually going to be good at?

Kerry Diamond: That's great advice. Can we go back to your mom for a second? I want to talk about your mom and her restaurant experience.

Paola Velez: Oh, yeah. So, I was almost born in my family's restaurant.

Kerry Diamond: Literally?

Paola Velez: Yeah. In the daytime, she was their accountant. So, she was making sure that they balanced their books. My mom is super smart. She doesn't like talking about it. She's super smart with numbers. I never need a calculator when I'm around her. And she was making sure that nine restaurants were running properly and efficiently and aboveboard because all of these folks... I grew up with them, they saw me almost born in these restaurants. So, these folks had worked with my family's company for years. So she made sure that she was always taking care of them making sure that the financials were right. And she was pregnant with me and the office was in the basement in 91st and Broadway. And she went downstairs and her water broke and she almost couldn't come up the stairs. She was like, "Oh my God!" And I was like, "I'm just out here just trying to be born and stuff. Hello guys. Y'all hiring?"

Kerry Diamond: Oh, my gosh! So she got to the hospital in time?

Paola Velez: They did, they got to the hospital in one of the biggest snowstorms in the 90s and I came out.

Kerry Diamond: But that would have been a good story if you were actually born in a restaurant.

Paola Velez: I know. But is that ethical? Is that up to code? I don't know. I feel like if I knew that story, I don't know. I'd be like, "Oh, why weren't you at home?"

Kerry Diamond: So, do you think given that your mom knew the industry so well, was she encouraging of you, or did she try to discourage you?

Paola Velez: She absolutely tried to discourage me. She was like, "Please." Because back then, in the 80s and 90s, the 2000s, people that looked like me weren't chefs. They wouldn't have gotten that opportunity to run a restaurant or a bakery, let alone be hired for more than maybe a cook position at the lowest tier. I was talking to a friend, Chef Ozzie from Laundry, and she was telling me in her experience in fine dining, all you see in the back of the kitchen is black and brown cooks. And then the representation in the front is all non-black, indigenous, or people of color. So of course, my mom was scared. She has me who has melanin in her skin, an Afro, button nose and she's scared. She's scared that the same industry that she knows was going to break me. And it almost did. Everything that I've experienced as a woman of color in the industry, it wasn't welcoming. It wasn't kind, it felt like I was fighting for my life every day.

Kerry Diamond: But still, you constantly pushed forward. I don't get the sense that you ever let that deter you. Can you talk about your experience with Jacques Torres and why did you decide you wanted to work for him and how did you get your job?

Paola Velez: It wasn't until three years later of working in New York kitchens, small restaurants, big restaurants, fine dining, and not, that I was finally like, "Ugh, I need a change of life, this is aggressive. I don't want to go home at four in the morning all the time, so then come back at noon." And I was like, "Maybe it's different if you work in pastries." And I was like, "Okay, so let's look up the best pastry chefs in New York?" Mr. Chocolate came up and I was like, "I've never worked with chocolate like that. I would like to learn." They had just moved to their Brooklyn Army Terminal location, where they have their factory. I was living in Harlem at the time. So, I went all the way to Bay Ridge. I forget names now that I'm living here in D.C. But I went to Bay Ridge and I just went to the factory and I was like, "Hi, you don't know me from Adam, but I would like to work here." And I had built up a good resume. I was a sous chef, I was willing to leave it all behind. I was just like, "I don't really care how much you can pay me. I just want to work for you. I just want to learn. I'm open and willing." And he was just like, "I respect that." And he hired me. And then within four months, I became his pastry sous chef, the youngest in the company.

Kerry Diamond: You just literally showed up on their doorstep?

Paola Velez: Yeah, I feel like back then, you didn't have poach jobs or culinary agents to lead you to the water to drink. So, you had to do... I don't want to say grassroots, you'd have to be pretty aggressive. It's like finding an apartment in New York, you have to be very aggressive to get it. And that's the same thing with jobs that you feel like are going to impact your career. It's not easily attainable, but the only thing that I was very moved by was that Jacques didn't ask me any other questions more than, "Where did you go to school?" And that was it. He didn't ask me my work experience. He let me start at zero, knowing that I had experienced but that I was willing to not use it as a crutch to say I'm good or I'm good at this. I was just very humble like, "You know more than me, so if you can teach me, I will work here." And it was the first time ever in the industry where I was treated like a person.

I wasn't yelled at. I had weekends off. I would work nine to five basically. And they promoted me. They told me they're like, "Hey, you're learning about chocolate and you're creating all of these things at lightning speed, that's not normal. Do you want to be a pastry sous?" And I was like, "Is it anything different than what I have to do now?" And they were like, "No. Absolutely not, but it's a title." So, they rewarded me for my work. And that's the first time that I ever felt validated. Like chef Hasty and at one point, we designed a chocolate line of shoes and purses, I was able to come up with ice cream flavors and there's a creativity to my job that I've never experienced before. I never had the opportunity to be creative. And then once they saw that, they didn't want to let it go, but life is tricky like that.

So I was like... in wanting to know more, I was like, "I have to see how far I can push these limits." I asked to work at different places. So, I hopped around in New York and I experienced a world that I had been shielded from for a year and a half. A lot of people would hire me or allow me to come into their kitchen and they would say, "Do you think you're somebody because you work with Jacques Torres?" And I'm like, "No, I don't think I'm anything, I just want to learn."

Kerry Diamond: So they would literally try to tear you down before you'd even started the job?

Paola Velez: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Honestly. And it was very dehumanizing. And I vowed that if I ever became a manager, I would never treat anybody like that again. I would never treat anybody how I was treated. I would never let anybody come into an interview and look at them and rip their application in their face.

Kerry Diamond: You think they were doing that because you were a woman of color or do you think they were trying to exert dominance over anyone who walked in the door?

Paola Velez: It could have been a mixture of both, right? I had a level of confidence after being told that you're good at something for a year and a half. And then knowing that they allowed you, that they let you go and explore more options. Of course, you feel like, "I'm ready to take on the world." And till this day, I still don't go into any place shy anymore. In the beginning of it, I was very shy and Jacques and Hasty broke that in me, they were like, "You need to own up to what you know. Your mind is a little different and if we could replicate you and have you everywhere we would want that, but we can't. You're just you." So, that kind of encouragement built me up into the person that I am today, where I'm not cocky, right? Because I feel like if you're like overly secure in yourself and you're like, "My desserts are the best thing on planet Earth." Sometimes they just stop being the best thing on planet Earth. But I know that there's confidence.

I'm very confident in me being able to make something as simple as a bonbon because Jacques and Hasty were able to positively reinforce me every day. But then going into the industry again, coming out of little safe haven that we had at the Brooklyn Army Terminal with Jacques Torres, I felt so defeated. That was when I finally realized that I had issues with my mental health. Because I was broken. I had somebody treat me so badly and dehumanized me to the point where I lost control of who I was and it was after therapy and after getting back into a place of Zen that I realized that I was conditioned to think that I was less than. And then somebody told me I was a little... I was better. And then somebody had to remind me and crush me. I never experienced something that intense in my life again. And I'm very careful with how I operate now. It changed my whole being.

Kerry Diamond: Paola, was that a work experience that did that to you?

Paola Velez: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: We weren't even talking about mental health issues in the industry back then and you were going through that. How did you find the help that you needed?

Paola Velez: I found support in my friends in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I made really lifelong friendships and my then-boyfriend, now husband was able to steady me. I think if I didn't have that support system, I might have never returned to the industry ever again. And then my mom of course. My mom, she helped me go through the process. In the Latino community, it's not really easy to say you have mental health issues because then that's a sign of weakness, but my mom was like, "There's nothing wrong with not being yourself in that respect." If you need help go get help. And everybody surrounding me and embraced me and then I asked Jacques to come back. I was like, "Can I come back to work?" And he was like, "Yes, absolutely." Like he had my job on hold. Then I had to move to D.C.

Kerry Diamond: Because your husband had a job there.

Paola Velez: Right. I had gone through everything. I had my spirit broken. And then I had returned back to... I had gotten married and then returned back to the chocolate factory. And then a few months later I had to up end my life again, to come to D.C, which wasn't a bad choice or it wasn't... It was just the timing. Life is very precarious, while it can be serendipitous, life is complicated.

Kerry Diamond: I think it's remarkable you didn't give up on the industry. I know how talented you are. So, it would have been terrible for this industry to lose you. But given what it had put you through.

Paola Velez: I almost quit. I almost quit. I almost worked at the Post Office. I had a job and everything. I had it lined up. All I needed to do was accept and I might have been getting a government pension and my life would have been a lot different.

Kerry Diamond: We're very lucky that you stuck with it. We're going to jump ahead a little bit. We're going to have you back on the show to talk more about your career. But I want to jump ahead to Kith/Kin, because it's a different kind of restaurant. For those who don't know what Kith/Kin is, can you tell us?

Paola Velez: Yeah, So, Kith/Kith is an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in The Wharf area in Washington, D.C. We tried to take flavors from the African diaspora and represent them either in fusion or in its totality to just give people an idea of how big the African diaspora actually is in the whole world. It's really like a movement or like a sonata of the slave trade. But the story being told via food.

Kerry Diamond: And how did you and Kwame connect?

Paola Velez: I had moved to D.C., and D.C. is actually pretty small. So, everybody thinks that D.C. is a big city. It's not. Everybody knows each other, everybody knows everybody who's working in the industry. If you're in D.C., don't burn bridges. It's not really good because we all know each other. But Kwame saw me at events and then reached out. He was like, "Hey, are you from the Bronx?" And I was like, "Yes." And he's like, "Okay, keep in contact." So, it didn't matter what events I was going to or what was happening, he was always a big support. He would always make sure to reach out and say hi. And I had gone to my first pastry chef job where I finally took the big leap of faith, instead of being somebody's assistant or somebody behind the scenes, which I was very comfortable in.

I liked being a supporting role. But I figured and I was like, "I'm not getting any younger, I'm going to hit 30 in a few years, I should try to at least do this to see what happens and then I can always just go back to doing what I'm normally doing in my supporting roles." Iron Gate hired me and it was like a whirlwind over there. Everybody was just really enamored with what I was able to create in the stories that I was able to tell and then the fusion that I created with my heritage and Greek and Italian cuisine. And Kwame was always going to eat desserts. I didn't know because I was always in the kitchen and I was very shy. And finally, he reached out and he was like, "Hey, I would love for you to join my team, Kith/Kin, I see what you're doing with these Afro-Caribbean flavors, that's what we do here, so come do it here." And I was like, "Oh, I guess this is the next logical step. This makes sense."

So, I didn't know what I was expecting, but I just wanted to create desserts and keep creating and the opportunity to be a pastry chef doesn't come often to women of color because if people write about you, then they take your picture and then you're representing the company and I've been told several times that I don't fit the look or I don't fit the theme of what they want as representation in restaurants. It's the sad reality. We all didn't speak about it because we were just so nervous to be seen as the whistleblower. And we were like, "Maybe we need to stay quiet so that we can get jobs." So, a lot of us endured like that for... We would work together and we'd be like, "I just went to this interview and they looked at me and then they told me that the position was filled and then the very next hour, they put up a new job ad looking for a pastry chef." We all are trying to navigate, it's still not easy. You know what I mean?

And I wrote in the Washington City Paper here on ways to promote from within and to stop this racial bias that you have when you're picking what you think is going to be your public figure for the restaurant. None of that matters if the food tastes good. So, Kwame really brought me in and then... I wanted to be there to support him in everything that he was doing and if you remember anything about last year, it's that, it was a crazy year for Chef Kwame. So, I was just there, making sure that the restaurant was following through with what his mission was and his vision. And people started learning about my desserts. I don't think that they're these over the top or ornate. I just tell a story and I use my childhood flavors to guide you through my life experience.

One of my favorite desserts that I have on the menu is the plantain sticky buns. And that was inspired by my mom. She loves all things sweet plantains and she actually eats them with brown sugar and cinnamon, she roasts them. So, I made that dessert because we were watching Guy Fieri, my mom's like favorite character on Food Network and mine also too subsequently, is Guy Fieri. So, I was like, "Oh my gosh, my mom loves this pecan sticky one that he's enjoying on this show. And my mom loves sweet Plantains, so I'm going to make this dish for her." It was actually pretty fun to make that dish because one thing that I do, is when I'm making a dish, I include the whole kitchen. Front of the house, back of the house, sweet and savory. And they all get to give me pointers and they taste all of our foods. So, we work on a dessert for at least the whole month before it goes live.

Sometimes it's the ideas right there and I just make it. And other times I want to see them interacting with this dessert, tasting it, seeing how I change the salt levels, and using coconut sugar as opposed to light brown sugar. And it was just like a mini viral phenomenon inside of the kitchen. We were all tweeting about it. We were all doing Instagram lives about it. We had the... I think it was like the launch date was like January or something like that. And people were having countdowns. And they were like, "Oh, my God, is going to come... Plantain buns!" It's just so much joy.

Kerry Diamond: Did it wind up that every single diner in the restaurant would order them for the table?

Paola Velez: We would make over... I didn't even know how many... Over how many, but every day we had to have them on a count.  I would have at least 100 portions and they were all on a count and they would all sell out. I guess it was like a cult favorite because people would be like, "I'm here for the plantain buns." I'm like, "Why are you whispering? Why are you whispering? Why are you so excited about this plantain bun?" But you can taste my mom's joy regarding her love of Guy Fieri and plantains, you can taste it in the dish. And that's exactly what I do. I just take memories and sentiments and I put it on a dish and sometimes it's not beautiful. Sometimes it's very straightforward and people just... They feel it. You can feel that connection when you eat food like that.

Kerry Diamond: Can you tell us about another dessert?

Paola Velez: I have something called the chocolate chip Thick'ems. And I called it that because I wanted to take away that negative connotation with the word thick and fat and juicy. Because usually when you look at a black or brown woman's body, you're told, "Oh, she's too thick or it's not the right proportions or it's too..." And you feel like you are an object on display. So I wanted to make this big... Can I curse? Never mind.

Kerry Diamond: Sure.

Paola Velez: Yeah, I wanted to make this big cookie to be powerful that it'd be like this is a chocolate chip Thick'ems and I want you to say “Thick'ems” over and over when you have to order this and people are so uncomfortable. They're like, "Can I get the chocolate chip tha..." And I'm like, "Say it." There's nothing wrong with being thick, there's nothing wrong with having curves. There's nothing wrong with who you are. There's nothing wrong with that word. So, break that stereotype. And I feel like there's only one place on planet earth that would have let me do something like that. So, it was Kith/Kin. I had been working on that recipe since I was volunteering in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a homeless shelter. I would use cookies like that to sell on the corner Williamsburg to raise money for feminine products for the local girls that were going into that stage in their life.

Kerry Diamond: Paola, you're remarkable. That is a good segue into Bakers Against Racism because clearly, philanthropy, standing up for people, standing up for yourself trying to make a difference is something you've lived your whole life.

Paola Velez: Yeah, I've been pretty quiet about it. Like I said before, I was very shy, still am, I guess. I don't know. It seems weird because it seemed like an oxymoron, because I'm always in the public light now, but it's like pulling teeth actually to get me to do stuff like this.

Kerry Diamond: Well, I didn't mention that you were a James Beard nominee for Rising Star. How did that feel then?

Paola Velez: I don't know. So, I don't know. I don't think about it often. I don't let it cloud my judgment. The things that are the most important to me are making sure that people are safe and people are happy and that I can create a good work environment and that people can find joy in their jobs when I couldn't find joy in my job before. While I'm very honored, thank you, James Beard Foundation, but to me, to talk to Diandra, my pastry sous chef, and hear her say the words, "I love you" to me, that's on similar levels of getting nominated for the James Beard.

Kerry Diamond: It must have been... You can tell me how you felt, but I would imagine it was crushing to be nominated to be working at this very different kind of restaurant run by Kwame, who has been very open about the discrimination he's faced in the past. He clearly wanted to create something different from what he had experienced, and then Coronavirus strikes and the restaurant has to close. How did you handle that?

Paola Velez: I think it was good for me. At Kith/Kin, we were running at 100 miles per hour supporting chef Kwame, and then all of a sudden, I was running at 1000 miles per hour because I was supporting chef Kwame and then all of a sudden, all of these accolades started amounting to me. It's a lot of pressure to keep up when people don't often see a woman of color, a black woman from the Caribbean in these positions that are so esteemed and getting recognized from organizations and from foundations that are so highly regarded. There's so much pressure to make sure everything's right while making sure that your staff is good, making sure that they're not being overworked or put in a situation that's not right because you want to keep up with the clout. So, Coronavirus stopped and we all had a moment to breathe and focus again on our mental health and I'm closer to Nikki and Diandra and Ceci and Flor and Freddie, my core team, because I have time to talk to them more now. We text, we call.

Kerry Diamond: You did not use this time as a hiatus?

Paola Velez: No, no. No, I felt like there was a lot of injustice regarding the immigrant community, the undocumented community in the restaurants, so I use my time and my resources. I donated my time 100% with Daniella Senior at Serenata, she's also Dominican like me. And we were just raising funds for an organization here called Ayuda D.C., that helped undocumented immigrants get legal funding or get help for rent, now that Coronavirus was a very real and present thing. And their stimulus checks and their unemployment checks weren't coming in. So yeah, I used my time to give back to a portion of the community that I believe 100% is the sustaining pillar of the restaurant industry.

Kerry Diamond: And tell us about your donut project.

Paola Velez: Oh, yeah. It's just donuts that have my childhood flavors. There's not a lot of Dominican people in the DMV area and that's D.C., Maryland, Virginia. So, I wanted to give people a taste of home, as we all were kind sheltering-in-place and unable to go to our families or go back home to the Dominican Republic. I wanted to give them those familiar flavors in something that was very familiar in American cuisine, which is doughnuts. It's a great vessel. You can't go wrong with a good donut.

Kerry Diamond: Tell us about some of the flavors.

Paola Velez: So, we had the Bizcocho Dominicano which was a pineapple and guava filled brioche donut with suspiro, which is Italian meringue, the Dominican cake, that is the country's national cake. If you go to any Dominican birthday party, that's what you would eat. And I made that into a donut. And then I had an old fashioned donut with a little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon and passion fruit and hibiscus glaze called Como La Flor, to give homage to Selena and how her representation on TV empowered me to see a Latina woman on TV. And then I had another one, is called Dulcey de Leche. So that was an homage to Valrhona, actually, because they were the only company that had ever reached out to me to kind of include me in the conversation as a chef, they would reach out and make sure that they answered all my questions and they would let me try products or take me to events or whatever.

And when you think about it, a lot of chefs when you get to a certain level, everybody's trying to get a piece of them. And Valrhona was the only one that was like, "We see you and we value you." So I did that Dulcey de Leche for them, but it's a play on words because they have a toasted white chocolate that's called Dulcey. And we have in Latinx culture, something called dulce de leche, which is caramelized cream. And I turned that into a donut flavor mimicking the dulce de leche with the Dulcey chocolate using a little bit of malt vinegar and coconut oil.

Kerry Diamond: I'm very sorry I don't live in the D.C. area to be able to try any of these. I think this is a theme for a lot that you do, but this became wildly popular also and took off.

Paola Velez: Yeah, I think it was just folks found themselves in these doughnuts. It didn't matter if you were Dominican or if you were just Latinx identifying, you found home. You could taste home in that. I had with Daniella and Andrew and AJ from Serenata we had devised a plan to launch a successful pop-up while being socially distant. So, I had made up the concept, made up the logo, and then the plan on how to sustainably offer this food without having to make more or less than what you need to make. So, it makes a little bit of an impact in the environment. You only use what you need to use. People only come to the establishment for a reason. And then pickups were a minute, two minutes each. If we said hi, maybe it was four minutes. So, we kept people as safe as possible. So, it was something that we prided ourselves in because it was just so effortless. There was no hiccups ever. And that's not easy to do when you're first launching a pop-up in the middle of a pandemic, which was how I segued into Bakers Against Racism.

Chef Willa, she works at Emilies here in D.C., and she's their pastry chef and I'm actually a big Willa fan. She didn't know that at the time because I'm very private and I like sneaking out of restaurants when I eat, so that they don't have to spend more money in sending complimentary stuff because that's how the industry is, but I don't want them to spend anything more than why I ordered because I want to support them. And Willa was really good at mashing up flavors.  And she had this coconut pandan pudding with this roasted banana and coconut chips. It was just great. Willa reached out to me and she was like, "Hey, I see everything that's going on in the news with the protests and Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd. It breaks my heart. I saw that you were hosting a really successful pop-up for Doña Dona, benefiting Ayuda  D.C. Would you be interested in doing something similar with me for the Minnesota Freedom Fund?" And I was like, "Well, give me a day to think about it." And she was probably mortified.

She was probably like, "Oh, my God, in trying to do a good thing, I maybe asked her to do too much. I wasn't being..." And she messaged me on Monday and she was like, "I'm so sorry, you don't actually have to do this with me. We don't have to bake anything. I'm sorry if I took up your time." And I was like, "Oh, no, Willa, what's your email?" And I had formatted everything that we have done at Doña Dona into an accessible document. And I made a mission statement and I was like, "If we're all going to bake, you and I at most can maybe raise $3,000, $4,000 which is a small amount of money, but imagine if we got more bakers to come and join us."

And I had put that into writing. I had given guidelines and a mode of operations to host a successful pop-up, but it was a virtual bake sale that was decentralized, open to all because I saw all the Instagram posts. I saw all the hashtags. I saw you guys baking your sourdoughs and banana bread and I was like, "You can sell that and raise funds for organizations that are localized to you that are going to impact black lives." And I had reached out to Chef Rob, here in D.C. He owns Oyster Oyster, that's about to open. And I was like, "Hey, Rob, I love your graphics all the time and I know you make them yourself. Can you help me?" He's like, "Sure. What do you need from me?" And I was like, "I need you to make a logo that says Bakers Against Racism, you have all creative freedom." And he's like, "What?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm sorry I put this on your plate, but please, please." And it just took off from there.

Willa reached out to me on the 30th. That was my last pop up day and I was so tired. And I had only raised $1,100 for Ayuda and then Rob made the graphics on Sunday. I compiled everything into a Google folder. I emailed Willa on Monday. I had talked to Maru from Serenata, she does our PR and I was like, "You can talk to them locally and maybe some people want to join locally." And I was telling Willa, I was explaining to Willa, I was like, "Hey, we only need 80 participants to join this in order for it to be impactful." And she's like, "What do you mean?"

And I was like, "If we all bake 150 desserts at eight dollars, all we need is 80 people and we would raise $96,000." And she's like, " Whoa, Oh, my God!" And I could hear Willa's brain going like “pew!” And Willa was so excited. She was like, "Oh my God, $96,000!" Luckily, my husband was very like good at logistics and stuff. And he was just like, "Do not accept any of the money yourself, make people donate directly to the organizations and it'll be less hassle for you." And I was like, "Yes, that sounds like a very wise idea."

Kerry Diamond: So you were hoping you would get about 80 folks participating?

Paola Velez: Mm-hmm.

Kerry Diamond: What happened instead?

Paola Velez: Oh, my goodness. So, we launched on Thursday night, I had secured a hashtag and an Instagram and a Twitter, and I made a Google email. It costs zero dollars to make this. Literally, it cost us zero dollars to start this initiative and I launched it and I just was like, "Hey, bakers." Because I feel like if I explain how I talk, people are going to be like, "Oh, no, it's so awkward." But I was like, "Hey, bakers, do you hate racism?" And I was just like, "This is how you can join us. Use these hashtags, but donate and learn about the organizations that are actually impacting black communities and enriching these communities and protecting these communities."

With Bakers Against Racism, I really wanted people to get into, instead of it being a hashtag, where you say Black Lives Matter and then you move on, you're baking, you're doing something that's so personal. My grandmother taught me how personal it is to cook for somebody. To cook for somebody and feed them is wanting them to live. So, in Bakers Against Racism, I was making a call to action for people to want black lives to live. And that's why we say Black Lives Matter. So now, we're on five continents, 17 countries, and over 41 states, over 200 plus cities. We have Bakers Against Racism, Berlin, Paris, London, Australia, Richmond, we have the Cast Iron Collective in Los Angeles, Seattle, we have Toronto, New York, did I say Philly already? I'm getting confused. Miami, Texas, Minneapolis.

It's something that...Like I said, it cost zero dollars to make. I just gave people my resources, something that I learned during COVID and gave them the opportunity to join and people were willing. The same sentiment that Willa had in her heart, we were able to turn it into this huge worldwide event.

Kerry Diamond: You've had such an interesting journey Paola, and faced so much discrimination in the industry, does this give you hope for what comes next?

Paola Velez: I think it opens up the door. Bakers Against Racism is the first step in creating lasting change in black communities, especially within the restaurant industry. Well, I'm so excited that people are participating, I want to see what you guys do after Bakers Against Racism. I want to see how you hire from within. I want to see how you educate and empower people of color to become leaders in the culinary industry. I want you to really care about black lives. It's not just a one-time thing. It's not just, "we’ll revisit it in the future." This is our life that we're asking you to care about. So, after Bakers Against Racism ends, I hope that people keep the same energy and the same momentum to keep moving forward for a change.

Kerry Diamond: Well, you've planted an incredible seed, and knowing you, I'm sure there's going to be a part two to this where you can track what's going on. But I'm not even going to ask you about that yet because I want you to be able to enjoy this moment. And you're also participating.

Paola Velez: Yeah, I think it's a lot now. I actually am doing passion fruit strawberry buckle cake, to play a little bit of homage to the south, but still, keep in my heritage and then highlight the season that we're in. And then Diandra, my pastry sous chef making a pina colada cake, which sounds very tropical, but it's very southern. And it's her mom's favorite dessert. So, it's an homage to the black woman. And Nikki, she is my head baker from the Philippines and she is making her famous banana bread. It's like a local staple here. We all love it. So, everybody's pretty excited. I've already sold out. We've all sold out.

Kerry Diamond: How much do you think you'll potentially raise?

Paola Velez: So much. We're tracking it right now, we have our donation tracker and the number just keeps jumping and I just keep getting lightheaded. And I'm like, "This is intense." I thought it was intense when I saw the number of bakers, but the generosity in people's hearts right now, especially for so many different organizations, we have the Okra Project, the Black Mamas and we have the Innocence Project and people are really researching what these organizations are doing. Organizations that have been here for 10, 15, 20 years, they're now just finally aware of them. And people are giving. People are giving wholeheartedly and that's beautiful. I don't have to will you to give, I'm not coercing you, I'm not forcing you, you out of the abundance of what you're feeling in your heart, you're taking not only your time and your talents but your resources and then the people who are buying their donation and buying and trusting that we're going to just make an impact that's bigger than ourselves.

Kerry Diamond: Absolutely. Well, Paola, I've loved talking to you and I can't wait till you come back on the show once you've had a bit of a break personally and professionally. You just have so much wisdom to share. I have to ask you one last question. I know you're still young, but I would like to know what your advice is to young or aspiring pastry chefs.

Paola Velez: Don't give up. This industry is very difficult: we have to stand and exert a lot of physical energy and also mental energy. Don't let the burden of being successful distract you from the joy of creating and expressing yourself through food. I would just take it one day at a time. My biggest thing after realizing that I was going through all of my struggles, was that I reset. Every day is a new day, and everything that happened yesterday is not going to hold back my today.

Kerry Diamond: That's beautiful. Paola, you're really The Bombe. Thank you.

Paola Velez: Thank you.

Kerry Diamond: That's it for today's show. Thank you to Paola Velez for inspiring so many of us and for being such a good friend to me and to Cherry Bombe. If you'd like to support Paola, you can follow her on Instagram to see what's up with Bakers Against Racism, La Bodega Bakery, Compass Rose, and Maydan. She is a very busy woman. La Bodega Bakery, by the way, does ship some of its wonderful baked goods, so check them out. I am very partial to the chocolate rum cake. If you would like to purchase a copy of Cherry Bombe with Paola on the cover, check out our stockist list, that is not easy to say, stockist list on and support one of our favorite bookstores.

Thank you to Kerrygold for supporting this episode. Radio Cherry Bombe is edited by Kat Garelli and produced by Cherry Bombe Media. Our theme song is All Fired Up by the Band Tralala. Hang in there everybody, and thank you for listening. You are the Bombe!

When Harry Met Sally Clip: I'll have what she's having.

Abena Anim-Somuah: Hi! My name is Abena Anim-Somuah, and I run the @baking_beanss account on Instagram. Do you want to know who I think is the Bombe? Adrianna Adarme, the fae behind A Cozy Kitchen. Through her blog and illustrious videos, Adrianna creates amazing dishes that are easy to execute and packed with sophisticated flavors, like her gingerbread cake or her famous banana chocolate chip cookies. Adrianna also channels her Latin American heritage into her work, as well as being a constant advocate for making the culinary world more equitable. She is the Bombe!