The James Beard Rising Star Pastry Chef nominee talks about finding her voice and empowering young chefs to speak up.

By Kat Kinsman
June 09, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Paola Velez

Paola Velez, now a nominee for the James Beard Rising Star Pastry Chef award, had been working in restaurants for years before she saw the kind of leadership she deserved to have. At 23, she began working for a chef who is a giant in the industry. The chef she lovingly calls "Mr. Chocolate" asked for her opinion, and made sure she knew he valued it. That this was a brand new occurrence for her helped her shape the vision of leadership she wanted to see in the world.

"I have been on a soapbox for a long time," she says. "Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but I have a button nose and cheekbones, so I'm easily forgiven sometimes. But I noticed a long time ago that the more I spoke up, the more that things would change in kitchens."

Fellow chefs and customers laud Velez for her desserts, and spring to action to join her when she uses her platform and craft to benefit her community with initiatives like Bakers Against Racism and Doña Dona, which use bake sales to raise funds to fight injustice. What fewer people get to see is the way she has run her department at Kith/Kin, where until the pandemic struck, she has worked as Executive Pastry Chef. (Velez is currently furloughed.) When Velez’s name is spoken, people in the industry perk up with respect and devotion.

In a recent Communal Table podcast, Velez shared some of the ways she's empowered her team to speak up, express their humanity, and even take care of her from time to time. (That part is a work in progress.)

This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation. You can listen to the whole thing in the video below, or on Communal Table, wherever you get your podcasts.

On paying attention and calling things out

When I'm working in the kitchen, there's always that respect I give. I'm never going to be talking to a chef in their face, like, "You know what, be quiet." But if I see something and I'm like, "Hey, I really do think that when you overwork the staff, they're more susceptible to have problems with their mental health or they're in a situation that they'll relapse if they're sober," then I am able to really show people that might have not been paying attention to little details because I was inside of the little details.

Now that I'm in a position of management, that's exactly the space that I create for the cooks that are right underneath me. They're able to come to me as early as 6 in the morning. And if they have something to say to me, they can say it to me face-to-face, and I take that constructive criticism and apply it to their work style.

It's only through that, once they start to see positive and healthy examples of work environments, that they know once they're in positions of leadership, they do the same. That trickle effect is going to be massive to all of us.

On making restaurant "family" actually mean something

Half of that battle is when you are a good chef, you can know everybody's story front to back. You know the ins and outs, when to be stern and when to be more relaxed. In knowing all of those little details of their lives, you know exactly how much you should be reaching out to them now. I talk to everybody, even folks that aren't directly in my little pastry group. They reach out and ask me silly questions or we share memes and we talk, and I encourage them to. If they have that passion to do something on their own right now, I'm like, "Now is the time." I'm trying to find the right word because [words] make you feel small, but people that need the most love, right. I figured out that it's all of us, even myself.

The other day I was talking to the girls [on the team]—and I don't even remember what they were talking about. They like to talk about my feet because they look like Cabbage Patch Kids dolls' feet, and that I remembered that laughter and jest and being around them. I started crying because I missed them. But in this [then] two-month period, so far, I feel like now that we're not so focused on making 500 or something to serve for dinner service, and we found friendship. Even if they never choose to work with us again, they have a friend in me now. I think that's one of those things I find the most beautiful, because that phrase like, "Oh, we're family," is often used to make you feel this sense of commitment towards a restaurant where, "We're family and we're all in this together, so can you work the 60 hour shift?" And then you're, "Oh, so we're not family, I'm more like Cinderella and you're like my stepmom."

Through this, we really did find that family, and we say it to each other now all the time, Everybody's like, "But you're home, you're with your family," and you're like, "But it's a little different because you're around like-minded individuals who really want to see that the thing that they're working on succeeds."

On leading with vulnerability

I've been very open. My first conversations when I hire staff or if I join a team, I'm like, "Okay. So I suffer from depression and anxiety, and sometimes it's a little bit of a roller coaster. Sometimes I'm going to be on top of the world and I'm going to be almost manically laughing and like doing stuff and creating, and then other times I'm going to be in a deep dark pit, and don't take it personally. This is not anything to do with you, this isn't something that you have to take on and deal with. And if I ever speak to you in a way that you don't feel comfortable with, you tell me, and I will snap out of it."

Now when I harp on stuff, focus on one thing that's bad and I'll be like, "This is wrong," they're like, "OK." They acknowledge and they're like, "We understand that this particular thing is wrong, and this is how this will be fixed," and I'm like, "Oh, OK," and then I move about, like I'm like, "Whoo, yay."

Then they come back and they're like, "Hey, hug time. You need a hug. you're stressed," or they'll force me to take walks. The staff actually takes care of me a lot more than I feel like I take care of them, but I do take care of them too. It's like a giving cycle. It's been one of the healthiest years that I've ever had in a kitchen.

On where she started and where she's led

I started doing this when I was 15, and trust me, pastry wasn't as loving and as open as it is today. The kitchen in general, wasn't that way. Back then I was young and I was like, "Is this life. Like, what is this?" An older woman of color told me, "If you stick to one thing long enough then you'll become pretty good at it. You don't have to be perfect, but you can be good." And I took that to heart when I was younger and I just kept trying. I started off as a line cook and I was terrible, but luckily for me, they stuck me in the pink dungeon, we used to call it back then. And I was like, "Oh my goodness, I'm actually pretty good at this. My hands are really small and cold, and chocolate doesn't melt when I hold it. This is great, I can do this." And it was years later before I really transitioned into pastry.

The kitchen is made out of outcasts, and in the pastry kitchen, it's made out of the outcasts of the outcasts. But there you find people who have been maybe shunned one too many times, or were told you can't be what you want to be, which is an executive chef, because you are a girl. Back then, you would hear, "Only men can cook." You would listen to them. You would hear, "Maybe you're maybe you're good at this, but nobody that looks like you will ever get to that point." You hear enough—let's call it what it is, abuse—then you start to say, "When I am in this position, if I ever am, I'm never going to do that."

And that's exactly what I did. The first thingI did when I met DeAndra, my pastry sous who's been working at Kith and Kin since opening. They didn't have a pastry chef for a long time, so it could be very weird to feel like there's somebody that's coming in with whatever reputation. I could have just barreled in and been like, "This is my way oi the highway, blah, blah, blah."

And I said to her, "Hey, can we sit down?" Because the kitchen was looking and seeing like, "Whoo, are they going to beef it out? Is it going to be like the battle of the pastry chefs?" I sat her down within like the first few moments of meeting her, and I was like, "Tell me how you feel," and she just started crying.

She was like, "This is the first time I've ever had somebody ask me that." And I was like, "So this is what we'll do. I can't ask you to stay with me for a whole year, but let's do three months, and let's make a plan. What do you want to learn from me, and then what do you see in the longterm how I can help you in your career path? What can I do for you?" And we were both crying, we realized then that we were like the same person basically.

Three months passed, then six months, and then a year, and we talk. She's seen me in the office crying out of frustration, and she'll run to the smoothie store and buy me a smoothie and say, "You need to hydrate. You need to do this. You're great." She'll build me back up when I'm down in the same way. And I've seen DeAndra grow in such a magnificent way where I see her I'm like, "Oh my God, she's going to be a pastry chef."

On leading outside the kitchen

At Yale, I talked about sustainability and equity within the Latino and the Black community, and I tried to expand it even as far as all people of color, women, LGBTQ, everyone, because I was like, "This isn't us, one group." I explained to the students that when we band together, united, one voice, we become so much more powerful than if we're all fighting for our individual causes.

One thing that I really told them was, "You guys are the future." I will, at one point stop creating. I'll become tired and my back will hurt, and I will retire, but what they will do for us and how they will implement change via policy and how they will be able to guide the inner workings of what makes our lives tick, I was like, "You guys are holding the power. You guys hold my voice. Right now you're listening to my voice, but I'm entrusting it back to you."

They were all so surprised because most of the time people come up to them and they're like, blah, blah, blah, jargon, jargon, jargon. And I was like, "No, man, you guys are so powerful." If somebody had just talked to me straight-up when I was younger, instead of telling me all the no, telling me all the yes.

It's giving them the tools to be able to move forward in life. Maybe five years ago, none of us would have been able to be in the spheres and the spaces that we are in now. I love being able to give them the strength. It's so hard to be a person of color in any industry, because you could even be a doctor and still have somebody undermining you. You're working for 10-plus years and somebody is like, "I don't think you're doing this right."

This one is the one that's the tough one. Once you have the platform, start to call out people that aren't doing right. If they're continuing to treat and use the beautiful Black and brown bodies that create so much culture, then say something and be like, "Hey, why are you doing that? Why are you treating them that way?"

Either a very healthy conversation is going to happen or people's mess could be revealed. It's those difficult and weird conversations—I've personally never liked them—but I feel like I'm always in the sphere to be a part of them. It's also allowing from a young age building the resources within our inner city kids and giving them all the tools necessary. Going from the Bronx to Orlando, I was given more opportunities in my education. But if I had stayed in the Bronx, my resources would have been so limited that I might have never known that a career in culinary and the facet that I'm practicing, would have never been possible.

It's a powerful combination of three things: give them strength, support them, and give them knowledge, People catapult out of their mindset. I've seen it many times.