Perfectly Paola

DC’s Paola Velez is one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2021

By Stefanie Gans

Paola Velez left Food & Wine’s Classic in Aspen celebratory weekend and went right home and slept off that long flight. She eventually found sustancence in garlic noodles from Balo Kitchen, inside Annandale’s The Block.

With her signature perfectly round black glasses and red lip, Velez has become just as known in front of the camera as in front of the oven. She grew up in the Dominican Republic and Manhattan, and sought out the best in the world of desserts, working as a sous chef under chocolatier Jacques Torres and then moving to Washington, DC as Christina Tosi expanded her Milkbar empire. 

By 2020, the acclaim was piling up. She was named a finalist in the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Award (the organization never named winners that year) and earned “Pastry Chef of the Year” awards from both Esquire Magazine and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

But it was her activism during the pandemic that turned Velez into one to watch. The 30-year-old co-created Doña Dona, a Latin American popup to benefit the restaurant industry’s  undocumented workforce through Ayuda DC. She also co-founded Bakers Against Racism, a worldwide bake sale—raising $2 million—supporting Black communities globally.

Velez emailed us days after returning from the celebration of her induction into the 2021 class of Best New Chef. Here, she reflects on how to change the restaurant industry and how she stays true to herself.

Congratulations on your newest accolade. What’s the biggest takeaway from your time in Aspen with fellow Best New Chefs?

I was reminded of how important and necessary community is. The chefs who are part of the 2020 and 2021 classes are amazing human beings, and I’m grateful to be in community with them.

How can the restaurant industry be a source of good for the world?

I think there’s a lot of new chefs that don’t want to continue in the toxic traditions that our industry was built off of.

The industry has to stop glorifying “the bro chefs and the girl bosses” and truly start focusing on those who maintain good relationships with their communities (staff, local neighborhoods/city, etc.) and those who support, give, and sustain, regardless of who is watching

How do you take care of yourself?

Oh my! I don’t really, I’ve been going a million miles per minute. But every now and then I get away to relax with my husband. There’s no greater joy than to put my away message on and hop in the car or on a plane to visit some friends and family or visit a new city.

As you come into this national attention, what scares you? What makes you feel brave?

Well, to be completely honest, it’s not exactly new to me, so I can’t exactly pinpoint a transition point. It’s been more of a steady crescendo dating back to maybe 2018 or so. I’m super grateful for the awards and recognition, but at the end of the day, that’s not what motivates me. In the midst of it all, it’s important for me to smell the roses and accept the flowers, but not lose sight of who I am and my core values. What does it matter if I gain all the fame in the universe if I have no one left to share it with?

How has your style evolved along with you finding your voice?

With fashion and clothing, I used to be very cautious about sharing publicly the pieces that I purchased or collected because I was self conscious of how others might judge me for the things I worked hard and saved up for. After a while, I just got over it and now I just wear and post whatever makes me happy. 

Food wise, I always felt like I had to do the most, make the most, be there before the trend went off. But as I’ve found my voice in the culinary world, I’ve learned that what’s right for me is what I now focus on. Not on the food trends, or what critics like, or what’s trendy on TikTock, but what resonates with me and my life experiences. That’s what I cook, that’s what I eat, and that’s what I’m posting. And that’s what ultimately makes me the happiest.

DC is lucky to have two representatives on Food & Wine’s 2021 Best New Chefs in America. Talk to us about Angel Barreto.

That man is a friend to my husband and I. He is kind and always mindful of my well being. I don’t typically go hang out with a lot of chefs, but if Angel is there I know I’m in good company. I was so elated when I found out he was in my class of Best New Chefs. I hope that the world recognizes his talents, he deserves it.

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