From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
A Conversation with Paola Velez

A Conversation with Paola Velez

Talking to the star pastry chef about narratives of success, ingredient accessibility, and creativity.

Pastry chef Paola Velez has been doing the work for a really long time. She’s blown up in the last few years for her work in pastry kitchens at D.C. restaurants like Maydan, Compass Rose, Kith/Kin, and more, as well as co-founding the massive fund-raising initiative Bakers Against Racism, gaining attention, awards, and accolades from Food & Wine, Esquire, and the James Beard Foundation. But here, we were able to talk about how she got a foothold in the industry, the “pink dungeon” of the pastry kitchen, and how she’s now navigating a huge audience and its expectations.

We discussed her Bronx upbringing, experience in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, and how she approaches accessibility in recipes for her online cooking show “Pastries with Paola.” Listen above, or read below.

This episode of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy is brought to you by Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras from Workman Publishing. Tour each continent through the book’s encyclopedic entries on some of the world’s most interesting foods and places. Did you know that spam was illegal in South Korea until the 1980s? Learn about this and more in Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide, on sale now.

Alicia: Hi, Paola. Thank you so much for taking the time today.

Paola: Hi, thank you for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Paola: So I grew up both in the Dominican Republic and in New York City. I'm a first-generation American Dominican. So my parents spent three months out of the year in the Dominican Republic, so I had a connection with my grandmother. And then the rest of the year, they went through all of New York City exploring places like Chinatown, Little Italy, K-Town and Flushing. I mean, there's also Chinatown in Flushing as well. And so forth. Maybe I grew up eating more pierogis than your average American kid. But I think my parents made sure that they kind of instilled a love of food, so that I would have a love of people as well. So they kind of made sure that they kind of disintegrated those divisions that we have through food.

Alicia: When did you know that you wanted to pursue cooking professionally?

Paola: When I had an existential life crisis in high school, and—Yeah. Oh, go ahead. 

Alicia: You go, you go. I'm fascinated to hear what happened.

Paola: Oh, no, I didn't know that I had anxiety and depression, stuff like that. ’Cause for Latino or children of immigrants, they pretty much tell us that we're okay. ’Cause, I mean, they're too busy to really understand and know. 

So when I wanted to pursue a career in art, which was not the career they wanted me to have in the first place. They wanted me to be an engineer, or lawyer or a doctor, or a teacher. They would have settled for a teacher. But I wanted to pursue art. I was like, ‘If I'm going to be successful in the arts sphere, I might have to pass away for somebody to notice me.’ And I was like, ‘This is so morbid. I'm having an existential life crisis.’ And I just went to culinary school instead. From one art to the other art. Equally unpaid. 

Alicia: Did you go to CIA? Which culinary school did you go to?

Paola: Le Cordon Bleu, actually.

Alicia: Oh, cool. Cool. 

And so, what was that like? Why did you decide pastry over savory cooking?

Paola: I didn’t. I'm actually a savory chef, classically trained. And then I self-taught myself how to do all my pastry work. 

Alicia: That's amazing. And what made you move from what your training was in classic savory cooking toward pastry?

Paola: Well, I had two modules in culinary school. They gave me one look up and down. And my counselor, I guess, that’s—maybe, I don’t know—she was like, ‘Uhhh yeah, you're not going to survive in pastry. You're never going to get a job. So you might as well just learn culinary. See if you can get hired as a prep cook or something.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, cool. Thank you so much for the inspirational talk. Now I'm thousands, thousands of dollars in debt, and I will never get hired.’ But she wasn't wrong. That's the crazy part about it, is when I went—

And I couldn't find jobs in Orlando, so I moved back to New York. And I didn't have the greatest time. They would tell me I would have all the qualifications to be promoted to do these things, to be a sous chef, but I just didn't fit the bill. I was too little or too soft spoken or not commanding enough. I wasn’t a bro, and I never had any intention of becoming a bro. I just was a wallflower within the industry. 

And you know, I still do. I'm freezing right now. But I have soft and small cold hands that are great for pastry work. So they would put me in the pink dungeon, what we’d call it back then. And back then, it was like 2008, 2009 so it wasn't like a lot of desserts were coming out of the kitchen in the first place. Maybe you would have a wonton-wrapped fried banana with whipped cream. They're like, ‘Mwwah, delicious! A la tarte!’

I found my husband. Well, back then, he wasn't my husband. But I was like, ‘Damn, I want to date this dude. But I'm always working until three, four in the morning.’ And for a long time, he would come and pick me up, and he would make sure that we had dates after my long shifts. He was a college student, went to CCNY, both undergrad and graduate school. And throughout his whole education, he was just watching me work, you know? I was like, ‘Damn. I mean, if I really want to be with this guy, he's gonna get tired of picking me up at three or four in the morning once he gets a real job.’

So I switched into pastry. I asked chef Jacques Torres like, ‘Can you just take me in? I've done all of this work. A lot of the chefs, they don't really want to hire me to be like a CDC or executive sous. I'd be junior sous at best.’ Once, I got a sous chef job. That was fun, but it was a union job and I maxed out of the hours and the union didn't want to take me as well. 

So Jacques was like, ‘What school did you go to?’ And I was like, ‘I could give you my résumé. I can do this.’ And he's like, ‘What school did you go to?’ ‘Le Cordon Bleu.’ He's like, ‘When can you start?’ I was basically like, ‘You’re serious? For real? You don't care about what I know?’ He's like, ‘No.’

So that opportunity kind of was a real blessing in disguise because—one, he’s Mr. Chocolate. For the kids nowadays who are Gen-Zers who are probably listening to this. That's Mr. Nailed it. If you don't know, now you know. Sorry, Jacques. I don’t watch the show. [Laughter.] But he kind of taught me everything. And I realized I had lightning in a bottle with this situation. I was with one of the best pastry chefs in New York, and he introduced me to the whole world of Food and Wine and Food Network and all of that stuff that I never even had an idea of what it was. 

Literally in culinary school, I—my joke was, they were like, ‘What are you gonna do with your culinary degree?’ And I was like, ‘Become a housewife.’ You know what I mean? And they're like, ‘Why are you here?’ And I'm like, ‘I'm not sure if I'm ever going to make it out. My counselor told me that I’m never gonna get a job, you know?’ 

Yeah, anyways. I digress. I'm sorry. I went on a tangent.

Alicia: No, that was great. [Laughs.] I can't believe your guidance counselor told you that. That's horrifying. 

You grew up in New York City. And you moved to D.C. In D.C., it seems like that's where you've really blown up as a pastry chef. And I wanted to ask what it was like moving to a different city. I feel like New Yorkers are very provincial sometimes, very attached to New York. I'm from Long Island, but I lived in New York for a long time. And yeah, what was the experience like of moving to D.C.?

Paola: For all intents and purposes, I had just reached what some folks would have considered a really big milestone in my career. I was promoted to pastry sous chef with Jacques Torres. It took four months. And then he was like, ‘You are very nice and very special and you're hardworking. And I don't understand how you haven't been promoted before.’ So he gave me a promotion. I was the youngest sous chef in his company.

But my husband got a government job. And when you grow up as children of immigrants, you—we don't have choices like that, when you have the opportunity to have stability and long-term success. And Hector, my husband, had sacrificed so much during his undergrad and graduate programs, that why wouldn’t I sacrifice for him? So I just kind of told Jacques and Hasty, I was like, ‘I'm so sorry. I gotta go.’ They were like, ‘You kidding me,’ you know? ‘Who’s gonna help us?’ I was like, ‘God, I don't know,’ you know what I mean?

But I went. And I actually didn't have a great time in D.C. At first, I didn't get jobs that paid more than $13 an hour. And that was for years. I would apply for chef jobs, and they would see me walk through the door and tell me, ‘The position has been filled,’ and sort of—I would go back online. The position was still available. 

It's kind of hard, because I present, speaking wise, in a very different tone. I don't always sound like I'm from the Bronx. I didn’t use slang. But my voice is very passive. But everything else about me is not very passive. I'm not like your typical Latina. I'm not somebody that's just like on NBC or Telemundo. You know what I mean? I never got the opportunity here. And I had worked at jobs that just weren't paying me a living wage. And I figured that maybe this was it. This was my life. 

And D.C. now has been very kind, but only because I kind of presented—at one of the job interviews, I was like, ‘Please don't turn me away. I can't go through another one of these processes.’ And back then I was going through probably one of the darkest times in my life. And I told the chef, I was like, ‘Please just look at my Instagram. Look at what I can do. Don't judge me by how I speak, or how I look or what you think I can bring to the table. Just see what I can actually bring to the table.’

And I had built up my Instagram profile as a portfolio as opposed to my meme collection, which I guess now it's a meme collection again, but—and I showed what I could do. And I was like, ‘If you give me the opportunity, I'll represent your company. And I will make sure that I work diligently and I'm creative, and we can work together in tandem to get through and about, whatever. Whatever you can offer, I can take.’

And he hired me that day. I don't think that interview was going the right way in the first place. But he wrapped it up. He was like, ‘Ok, I'll call you for whatever.’ And I was like, ‘Please, just a second.’ But that’s the boldest I've ever been in my whole life. And until that point, I have not—the loud voice that you see now. I was very shy back then. 

And that job, I took the bull by the horns basically. And I was like, ‘Let's do this.’ I think I made like, 194, 197 desserts that year. And I tried to tailor it specifically for the Mid-Atlantic within Greek and Italian cuisine, infusing Latinx or Latine flavors. 

So a lot of people assume that my success has been overnight. And it's not. [Laughs.] It hasn't been. I've been working in this industry since 15. And now, it's finally where somebody is like, ‘Oh, hey, good job.’ And I'm like, ‘Thanks! I'm so burnt out. I wanna go home.’

Alicia: I mean, that's the thing about success, is it really—your story will be cut off at the point at which people know who you are, [that] is when people will start to believe that you were born, basically. And it is hard. 

I was reading all about you. I was reading all the stories about you. And I don't think I was getting this picture that you're giving me right now about how much you worked until this point to get to where you are now. And now, you're a huge success. I do wish that more, there was more of that story.

But there's been so much focus on—as you mentioned before, you call the pastry kitchen ‘the pink dungeon.’ And pastry chefs do tend to be ignored. But you really have this innovative aesthetic. You have such a great personality that you bring through to social media and also to “Pastries With Paola.” But you've also gotten so much attention for Bakers Against Racism, for your Doña Dona project. When did you realize that you could use your pastry skills to help other people to raise money, and why was that important to you?

Paola: So for me, I think it goes back down to my mom teaching me values on how to give, how to exist, how to be a member of society. My mom really taught me if we had $3 to our name, that we would give away one. And she always did that because she was very community-minded.

My grandmother was very community minded. My abuela would invite everyone from the neighborhood. And by neighborhood, I mean the town, because it’s not a big town. And if you were in need, or if you needed a moment to be with someone, if you felt alone, if you felt sad, if you were going through something, if you were celebrating something. It didn't matter if you just wanted to stop by, and you were passing through a cacao and you wanted to have a quick meal with us, a cup of coffee. She always had extra food to give.

My family grew up very poor, and we're still very humble people. But my mom's, especially with my grandparents, grew up with nothing. We had a well. We had a few trees in the back that would give us platano. And if we had some chickens, we would sell those eggs to the market, right? Instead of using it to feed them themselves, right? So that's the stories that I grew up with. 

But one thing that I never saw was my grandmother hoarding. Whatever she had, she would always give it away, you know? And she would tell me, ‘It will be replenished. If I give it, it will come back.’ So for me, very early on I knew I had to give. And giving was something that was a part of my family, a part of my—Well, my mom and me, I don't know if you go to my other family members if they would give. But I hope they are giving. If you're listening to this, give more if you're not giving. 

My mom grew up a single mom in the Bronx with me. She was just 30 when she had me. And she was alone. This was our first time in a country by herself. A biochemist who had to work in factories, work in the industry, in the culinary industry, never using her degree ever again. And yet she found time to give to the community, give to her neighbors, give to her friends, give, give, give. 

And when it was my turn, I was a broke New York line cook. And back then, I wasn't getting paid $13 an hour. The dream was to come to D.C. and get paid $13 an hour. I was getting paid $8, $7 an hour, most of the time $6, because a lot of people thought that they could get away with wage theft and not pay minimum wage. 

But regardless of that, I knew I had time. And my time and my resources were a currency. And I would bake in soup kitchens. I would cook. I would make packaged meals for kids in Williamsburg that were in daycares and pre-K and kindergarten. And those kids, they did not have food through the weekend, food for dinner. They had two square meals a day, but then they would go home and not eat. So I was doing programs where I was just packing food, delivering food out, cooking with the girls and teaching them a life skill on Tuesdays and Saturdays so that they perhaps would see me and be like, ‘Oh, I could do a trade. I don't have to be a genius, right?’ 

So when people see my activism work they’re like ‘Yeah, she just one day woke up and was like, ‘I'm gonna bake.’’ And I was like, Yeah, I wish. No. I was doing little fundraisers in Williamsburg way back in the day, just trying to buy feminine products for the girls that I was cooking in the community with. 

But I think there's a lot of power in food. For me at least, it's a way to kind of hold a time capsule of my grandmother who's no longer on Earth. And just, everything that she was able to teach me. I think I'm probably one of the only people in my family who actually knows her recipes, which is awe-inspiring and very scary at the same time. Because if something happens to me, that's it. My family lineage is done. [Laughs.] 

Alicia: Well, one thing I really love about your work, especially with your new Food & Wine series, is that—and now I understand more that you used to teach kids. And now, I understand. But you are so good at teaching people and making approachable things that people think are super complicated, like tempering chocolate or making homemade sprinkles. 

How do you do that? How do you translate the talents and skills of a restaurant pastry chef to the home cook, especially when people are so touchy about baking? So many people I'll talk to, and they're like, ‘I love to cook but I am a terrible baker.’ And they just are so afraid. How do you get people over that, and—because I think you do such a good job of translating these things that we think are complicated.

Paola: I think for the most part, I just want people to feel what I feel, right? I took two pastry classes in culinary school. You know what I mean? I got A's on them, but I'm not making a St. Honoré anytime soon. [Laughter.] But I don't know. My thing is in the kitchen, the kitchen is a place for all misfits, for all folks who are down and they need some help getting back up. So I don't expect CIA students to walk through the door, I really don't expect them to get into pastries. If anything, they get hoarded over to savory. 

So a lot of folks that are working with me aren't folks that are career professionals like I am, or folks that know all the techniques. But I have to figure out a way to make it easy, and make it easy for them so that I'm proud of them and that we're doing something beautiful together. And that, it's not a situation. If they're not doing these beautiful piping techniques, man, that's beautiful either way. Put it on the plate!

Because at the end of the day, if they're not happy working with me, if they're not happy and they don't feel valued, and—then it doesn't matter. My ego can take a bench, you know what I mean? I know how to do all these things, but not everybody is me. And that once I figured that out, I realized that I had to have the same grace that I have for the community when I give, it’s the same grace that I had to have for the pastry world when I teach. 

And then, also the same for home bakers I think that a lot of people, they're so afraid because so many people are like, ‘Baking is a science lesson that you can't mess up.’ And I'm like, ‘Man, man, you know how many times you’ve fried that chicken? That joint is messed up.’ You know what I'm saying?

So people have the same adaptability to make rice and make it bad and still eat it. Then, why not pastries? So I break it down in a way that's a little simple. I do feel a lot of people think that “Pastries With Paola” is a kids’ show. I'm sorry, I don't know how to change my voice. Maybe we'll put a voice module and we'll be like, ‘Hello, this is “Pastries With Paola.”’ Think that'll help adultify the content?

But it's just one of those things where I just want people to feel they can do some things for their friends, families. And all the stuff that I get tagged it's like, it's as if I were making it. And I think one thing that I love the most is that you can see in our—if you ever see the end of our videos, I don't gussy it up. I don't put it as if it were a restaurant quality, you're allowed to take a magazine spread photo shoot of the picture of this product, right? I'm like, ‘No, look, this joint look weird too!’ So eat things, have fun.

And I think that kind of gives people that breath of relief, right? Because pastry should be fun. You should use them to celebrate or to cope. And I hope more people can bake and more people start to approach baking, how do they share these recipes in a more tangible, realistic way? 

Also, I don't have 70 bowls in my kitchen. I don't know where these influencers are getting all these bowls from. I need to figure out how to do this in one bowl. I'm in a one-bedroom apartment. Now, that’s neither here or there.

Alicia: No, it's really funny. I was thinking that the other day, because some cookware company was like, ‘Hey, can we send you some pots and pans?’ I'm like, ‘No, because I don't have—I have pots and pans, and I don't need anymore. Where am I gonna put them? My kitchen extends into the living room.’ Like, ‘Yeah, thank you, but no.’ [Laughs.]

Paola: I have under my dining room table ’cause we have a little dining room table. I'm pretty sure we're not supposed to, because my apartment’s so small. But underneath it, it's Creuset pots, two kitchenettes. And I'm just like, ‘I have to stop saying yes to these things.’ They’re like, ‘Hey, do you want this pot and pan?’ And I’m like, ‘Whatever. Sure. Send it.’ And I'm like, ‘Why?’ I have one mouth.

But thank you, everybody who's ever sent me anything. Thank you so much. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Well, you’re a Food & Wine Best New Chef now, so I think there are—there will be more, I think, offers coming your way for that kind of thing. 

How was it? How was the experience of going? You were in Aspen? How was that experience?

Paola: I feel like I have always wanted to go to Aspen. And now that I've gone, I think that it's a great experience, like a checkmark. If I ever get to travel to Mars, I think I would go once and then be like, ‘Wow, I can't breathe over there. So I might as well stay on Earth.’ 

I'm about to be 31. And I'm too old to want to be in spaces that aren't for me. And I just, I don't know, especially after this global pandemic, I'm just trying to be doing things that make me happy and comfortable. And where I could see like-minded individuals, whether or not they look like me, together.

I will say that the class, we are very like-minded, my whole—even the 2020 class. Khushbu Shah did such a spectacular job at getting us all together, and grouping us together. I've interacted with Chevelle and Rina before, and in my class—I knew almost my whole class. And it was really fun to just kind of be together and experience this together, and know that perhaps if you've gone through something before, I can get—you can give me advice, and vice versa. 

And I think that a lot of the chefs beforehand weren't doing that, you know what I'm saying? They were all fighting each other. And a global pandemic really had to teach us like, ‘Ain't nobody fighting you. I don't care where you’ve been, if you succeed. I'm trying to succeed, and we can both do it at the same time.’ A garden is only beautiful when there's a multitude of flowers. 

But I think back in the day, it was just this competition. And I think that's why there's so many competition food shows, because it was just all about winning and the one person dominating them all. And now it's—I look at my class, and we want all of us to succeed and all of us to have the most successful time. And it's very jaring, because I've been in this industry since I was 15. So I know exactly what was going on 15 years ago. Well, more than that now.

I think it's an honor, but I think more so, less about me and more so about the opportunities that will happen for those that are coming after, right? I think that that's really the biggest part of it, right? I understand what it means for me, right? But maybe it'll be now this year, and then next year, it's over. And that's okay. But if somebody this year sees me and hires an Afro-Latina from the Bronx, maybe that person will have a chance at this, too.

Alicia: Yeah, my friend Paxx was a Best New Chef a few years ago. That was fun [laughs] going to the party.

But yeah, it's a lot of competition in food. I know the James Beard Foundation announced new rules today about the chef competition. And I mean, for me personally, I was a little bit like, ‘Well, why just no more competition? Why don't we just have, rethink this whole thing about someone being the best and that sort of thing?’ But we'll see what happens. [Laughs.]

Paola: Yeah.

I don’t think I'm the best in anything. My husband's always like, ‘Huh?’ I'm all right. I think, though, I'm the best when I'm with my team. And whatever it is, whether it's with Food & Wine, my team over there is really—we're all just in tandem. And whenever something is going on, whenever we need to do something or reach an audience, we talk about it. And I tell them, I'm like, ‘Look, I'm not putting something on a—the boiler. I'm gonna use a microwave, because who has that many bowls.’ Seriously. I want to know. I want to own a house in New York City, in D.C. has like 20 bowls. Make it make sense.

Alicia: No, I have to be more conscious of—I think I've tried to be. I've done a few recipes lately where it's, you just need a pan and a whisk and that's it. And so, I'm trying to be more conscious of that. 

Especially because moving to San Juan I didn't realize, and I should have realized, but having an oven isn't standard here. I’m lucky to have an oven. Now I'm like, ‘Oh boy. I have to rethink everything.’ [Laughs.] 

But I love—No, you go.

Paola: Yeah. My husband’s—No, go ahead. 

Oh, my husband's abuela, she uses the oven as storage. It’s always full of something. I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna bake you a cake.’ And then I turn everything on and she's like, ‘No, Paola, wait!’ And I'm like, ‘What’s in here? Why’s there a paper in here?’ You know what I mean?

Alicia: I love that you made tamarind jelly candy in one of your videos. And in that caption on Instagram, you talked about supporting your local market. But you bought a brand—we all know which brand—whose politics no one approves of anymore.

But I wanted to ask, because you're working with a lot of the tropical fruits. How do you approach sourcing ingredients in a way that balances accessibility and supporting the kind of companies and sourcing that we want to sort, support? [Laughs.]

Paola: Yeah.

So, what's funny is I have been going into—any new spices that I buy are either La Fe, or companies like—Oh, no, now I forget the name. Oh. They're really nice. They're made in New York.

Alicia: Burlap & Barrel? Oh, no. Loisa? 

Paola: Yeah, them. 

I've been making that shift. But even when I started protesting my use of that product which we will not name, I told people, I was like, ‘Don't throw it out. Use it?’ I don't know, actually. Because the baked adobo lasts a long time. 

But I was like, ‘Don't throw it out.’ Because food waste is a thing. And there's so many people even in the Bronx that don't have the money to buy sazón, let alone have access to—Which brand are they going to buy? It's just whatever brand’s on sale. 

But here in the DMV area, we have something similar with our kind of Salvadorian Guatemalan community, where it would be so detached from the actual reality of what our Latino immigrants are going through if I were just like, ‘Don't buy this. Protest that.’ Or I'm like, ‘Clean your cubby and start over.’ My mom wouldn't be able to do something like that when I was growing up. 

So when I walk into my local market—and I try to find all of my local Latino markets. And I go to H Mart, and I try very seldomly to go to the bigger name companies, because it's just something that I've done. And also, I can find better platanos where I—Yeah, if y'all are not in a region where there's a lot of Latinos, try your H Mart. They be having platanos in there, you know what I'm saying?

But I walked in for this shoot. And anytime that there's super specialty items, I just go and buy it myself. Because I know where to buy them for them actually, supporting these brands and these—the communities around me. And I went in. And to be honest, I had two packets. There was two packets of tamarind left, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what time of the year is it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it's the beginning of summer. They're making agua frescas. I didn't think.’

But it was two packets. One was the brand that we're not going to name. And then, another one was La Fe. And when we had our recipe tester make sure that the final recipe was done correctly—

Because what I might have on my notepad might not translate well to digital, right? So there's somebody that tests each and every version, just so that I feel comfortable. I could see the results of somebody that's not my hands, ’cause I could probably be like, ‘Yes, that's one!’ And then I'm like, Oops, that’s four.’ And then I miss steps two and three. And I'm thinking it's common sense, logical for the home baker to understand that you're going to put something like this and do this. But I don't always think that way. 

But she used the La Fe. And I was like, ‘No.’ Oh, my gosh. And I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ And we tried our best. We held it, and we tried to cover it. But right in those little sidelines, you could see it. And I was like, ‘Damn.’ 

But you know what, though? It's okay, because I still supported my local Latino market. And sometimes this is easier for them to buy. Or let's say, if that certain particular brand is going through a hard time because all of us are protesting, and they lower the rate of how to acquire this product? There is literally a owner that is making that decision, like ‘This is cheaper. And I can feed my children. I could put them through college if I do this.’

It's so complicated, because you can make these stands. But sometimes, the community that you're doing this can suffer and get impacted. Especially where it’s so many. There's not a lot here. It's not New York, you know?

Alicia: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

No, no. Yeah, I live in San Juan, obviously. But I live in Old San Juan, and we don't have a good grocery store at all. And so, when I'm working on something and I'm using a lot of coconut milk, sometimes I end up using their coconut milk. And it's better than me getting a car and going to, out to—And going out, you have to make all these different complicated decisions every single day. 

One thing I wanted to ask you, because I'm just—you have such a great presence on Instagram. And you do a ton of AMAs with—And you're so engaged with your followers. And I'm like, ‘How does she do it? How does she have that energy and that—’

But what keeps you being so generous with your audience? And does it take a lot of energy?

Paola: Oh, yeah, it takes so much energy. It's very taxing, especially when, ’cause behind the scenes folks don't see all the mean stuff, you know? And sometimes I'm like, ‘Should I make a joke about this?’ But never mind, you know what I mean? I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t give you the time of day.’ 

But I think there's so many people that just haven't seen somebody like me in this space, you know? And I want them to remember that I'm not this figure in the sky. You didn't know my story. A lot of my followers do, because I just share it. I'm like, ‘Hey, man, when I said, ‘We going from the Bronx,’ I'm not joking. It's not a joke. It’s not a punchline.’ You know what I mean? I grew up in the Bronx. I grew up next door to the Stella D'oro factory before it was gone. 

I think I engage with them in that way. I try to make myself available to a point, ’cause I'm not always on. I'm not always doing them. I try to answer DMs and—comfortably. If it's uncomfortable, then I'm like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ And maybe I might respond, like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ And then they’re like, ‘I'm sorry, I didn't know.’

Somebody told someone, I won't name names so that nobody looks it up. So they were like, ‘Give Paola’s abuela a knuckle sandwich.’ And I was like, ‘My abuela’s dead. She might give you a knuckle sandwich. That’s the way it works.’ 

So, it's very interesting how to navigate this world. I don't know. I just do it. And then when I can't, I can't. I stopped doing Method Mondays ’cause I was just really exhausted. And I was running out of things to do. I mean, I had more things, but they were starting to get more complicated and more technique driven. And I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. [Laughs.] I need to slow my horses down before I burn out,’ you know?

And then, I've actually started to say no to recipes. A lot of people, they’re like, ‘Recipe!’ And I'm like, ‘No.’ So they're like, ‘Oh, brother, this guy stinks.’ [Laughter.] 

Alicia: Yeah. 

It's such a hard thing to navigate. I don't have as big an audience as you obviously. Even just with the small amount of people it's—the audacity that people have sometimes in what they say and making fake accounts or something just to call—speaking for me—to call me a bitch. And I'm like, ‘What? What did I do?’ And it's just really hard to navigate. 

And I think people aren't—like you said, if you tell people, ‘Hey, why are you doing that?’ And then they realize you're a person that they need to have better boundaries online. But a lot of people for some reason don't really understand that the corollary to real life from—

Paola: No, I don’t think so. 

And I don’t think they care, either. They want the escape. And for them, I’m this wunderkind. You know what I mean? I'm just 13 and I'm not 31. They’re saying I am this person that had everything given to them. 

So, I let them believe whatever it is that they want. I know my story. I know what I do. I know what it took to get here and the sacrifices that I had to face to get to where I am. So I find peace in all of that. 

Just because I go through a moment—if it's a really hard moment, I’ll pull that person to the side. I'll be like, ‘Yo, let's call each other. We need to have a talk.’ And they're like, ‘What?’ And I'm like, ‘No, I need to call you ’cause I think that what's going to happen next is going to turn into this rivalry or beef. And I don’t have time for it. So you're going to feel even more offended when I don't respond to you.’

So literally, I'll just be like, ‘Look. This is how it makes me feel. If you can, don't, you know what I mean? And if you do moving forward, understand you don’t have my blessing.’ And that's it. And a lot of stuff gets squashed. I think a lot of my beefs get avoided ’cause I am still very much so a middle-aged millennial, you know? [Laughter.] And I'll call somebody. I'll be like, ‘You need to get on the phone with me right now.’ Like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I'm like ‘Yeah. Come on. Let's talk before we start going on this rivalry. ’Cause I don't have the stamina to do that. I gotta answer questions.’

Alicia: That's great. I need some of that, because I can get—I've tried to temper it, but I can be a little nasty in my responses to people. And sometimes, it doesn't go well. So I need to learn a lesson from you. [Laughs.]

Paola: I just tell people what it is. I'm like, ‘This is what it is. This is how I feel. You're entitled to your feelings, and if you think I'm hot garbage, then I'm always gonna be hot garbage to you. But another man's trash is another man's treasure.’

Alicia: Right. [Laughs.]

Well, for you is cooking a political act?

Paola: Inherently, I don’t think so. I feel if, when I cook white rice to pair with my rice and beans, that's not a political statement. 

But also when you start thinking about it, like yeah, maybe it is. How do we get rice to the Dominican Republic, to Latin America, to all of the Caribbean nations that are of the diaspora? How did we do that? It's a fine line between sustenance and ljust history, right? Because rice has a history doesn't make it left-leaning or right-leaning. 

But I think that if we stop shying away from what food means to our cultures. And like I said earlier, for me, it's a time capsule, all my recipes. Everything that I do is setting up the stage for those that are coming after me, right? So while obviously me baking a pie isn't me raging against the machine or baking against the machine, which is what I like to say, which is so funny, because this is how I say it when I'm typing. I'm like, ‘Baking against the machine.’ And I don't mean—it's super ironic. But people understand. I hope they do. Baker's if you're listening to this, I still love you. 

But I think that there are so many things that are political about food, access to food, access to capital to make food is very political. What is deemed appropriate to eat and not appropriate to eat. I personally can't go around saying that I like to eat a certain type of fruit, because of the connotations that are implicitly implied for people that look like me, right? It’s just insane. But this is the reality that we live in. 

I think for me, my trade, how I manipulate foods into a political act in baking or raising funds or doing what I do with Bakers Against Racism is what I do, because I'm not a trust-fund kid. I don't have money. Still got my student loan. Sallie, if you want to cancel them, I'm here for you girl. Cancel my student loans. 

But I don't think that it is one of those things where it's just super black and white. I think food is a gray area of happiness and sadness and anger, of us being picked up and dropped off with, against our will. And now, I speak Spanish. Here, I'm saying it's just one of those things where I don't think that a lot of us understand the full scope of what food is. But I think historians in the future will use that, those recipes and food to track our people and track who we are and why we are the way that we are.

Alicia: Right. Thank you so much for your time today.

Paola: Thank you for having me.

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.