The James Beard Awards, which honor extraordinary chefs, restaurants, cookbooks and more, are postponing their annual celebration due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paola Velez, the executive pastry chef at the Washington, D.C., restaurant Kith/Kin, was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year — an honor that goes to chefs 30 and under who are likely to make big impacts in the industry.
Velez has also been on furlough from her job, much like many others in the industry. Restaurants lost more than 6 million jobs in March and April, enduring more job losses than any other industry during those months, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But she says she’s been using this time to work on other meaningful projects, such as co-founding Bakers Against Racism.
Founded by Velez and two other Washington, D.C., chefs, Bakers Against Racism brings together professionals and home bakers to create sweet treats for a virtual, decentralized bake sale.
“It's just a way to really activate and use the skills that we know how to utilize best, which is our food,” she says.
All proceeds go to organizations that fight for change against systemic and structural racism. In a week, the organization raised $1.6 million “that went directly to organizations that are supporting and uplifting Black lives and Black communities,” Velez says.
In response to the police killing of George Floyd and mass protests over police brutality and anti-Black racism, many industries are finding ways to address racism within their companies.
Racism in the food business, especially what Black culinary workers often endure, can be both systemic and overt, but the “new guard of the new generation of chefs” is largely working to change that, Velez says.
“We're really changing that narrative and making sure that we empower and we build from within,” she says, “that we promote and hire diverse staff so that we have a very wide range of opinions when we're making decisions.”
Saying Black Lives Matter means everyone in the culinary world must address "the tiniest bit of discomfort," so that the industry is a better place to work and enjoy, she says.
Velez is no newbie to the restaurant business: A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, a cooking school in France, she went on to work with high-profile names such as Christina Tosi of Milk Bar and master chocolatier Jacques Torres.
“I went to Jacque Torres' factory up in New York in Brooklyn, and I just asked him for a job. I was like, ‘I don't know a lot about chocolate, but I'm a fast learner and I listen very well, so please hire me.’ And he did,” she says. “He gave me my first pastry sous chef job within four months of joining his company.”
Velez, who was raised in the Dominican Republic and the Bronx, says she learned the value of care — for both people and food — while attending school in the Caribbean country.
“The Dominican Republic helped me slow down enough to be able to see people and make sure that they were valuable just as much as a plated dessert,” she says.
At Kith/Kin, she pays homage to her country by taking traditional desserts, such as a rum cake, which she transforms using Dominican chocolate and Puerto Rican rum.
She also bakes hot sticky buns with pecans and a salty Amarula caramel, which was inspired by her mom and restaurateur Guy Ferrari. The buns, a combination of sweet and savory, incorporate plantains, one of her mom’s favorite foods.
Velez saw many posts from new and seasoned home bakers in action during the pandemic. For her, furlough and quarantine life made her think about the ways in which her industry was unprepared for a crisis such as COVID-19.
“I personally didn't touch flour or sugar for a month and a half because I was pretty furious that our industry was so unstable, that it collapsed so quickly,” she says. “And there were no fail-safes to protect the staff and the employees and any of the restaurants.”
Now that restaurants in many states are reopening both indoor and outdoor seating options, she’s worried restaurant staff members are potentially taking valuable PPE away from health care workers in order to seat people again.
Despite her reopening concerns, she notes her industry is “resilient” and will find ways to move forward post-pandemic. Just take Bakers Against Racism, for example, where most of the collaborators were laid off or furloughed, yet still were able to use their craft to raise money for a good cause.
“Our industry is just the giving tree of industries. We're the place that celebrates with you, that congratulates you, that sustains you, that makes life a little bit more comfortable for you,” she says. “I just wish that every other industry could see that and support us when we need them the most.”
To young chefs of color struggling in the current economy, Velez says not to worry about missing out on career experiences and know there are culinary professionals working to change the industry’s culture.
“Make sure that you keep your head high and know your worth and your value. And know that eventually, people will see you,” she says. “I wish that somebody told me that when I was in the industry at first, too.”
This segment aired on June 24, 2020.