Washingtonians with a sweet tooth may recognize a familiar face cooking alongside Only Murders in the Building actor Selena Gomez in the latest installment of her cooking show, Selena + Chef. DC-based pastry chef Paola Velez, co-founder of activist bake sale Bakers Against Racism, guides the pop star and her friends through chocolate sandwich cookie icebox cakes and beef empanadas on the episode, which made its streaming debut on September 1.
Recognizing Gomez is a layperson attempting to learn a new recipe on the fly from Michelin and James Beard Award-winning chefs, Velez says she hoped to be an approachable presence in the kitchen. “[Selena] is hyper engaged in what’s happening—she’s actually really scared to make a mistake. It’s not just a schtick,” says Velez. “I kept making mistakes and I kept calling things the wrong thing. It disarmed her from thinking I’m this perfect chef, because I’m not. It breaks down that stuffy celebrity chef vibe.”
Interspersed between instructions on whipping cream and frying discs of dough, Velez—who communicates with Gomez via video—shares anecdotes about why she became a pastry chef (a line cook’s schedule makes it hard to schedule dates) and why she chose her recipes—specifically the empanadas, an homage to her husband’s late grandmother, a prolific empanada maker during the holidays. Velez, who has roots in the Dominican Republican and the Bronx, also opted for dishes that express her overlapping identities.
“I never wanted to be typecast, but I also have to remember that when you Google ‘Dominican pastry chef,’ I come up,” Velez says. “How do I honor everybody that grew up eating Spanish food and that cultural identity crisis that we all have? How do we fit into Americana? In that, the show made me love being an Afro-Latina and being a Latina in general.”
The show also highlights Velez’s dedication to DC. In each episode, Selena + Chef makes a donation to an organization selected by the visiting chef. Velez opted for Ayuda, a group that supports low-income immigrants in the DC area. This isn’t the first time the pastry chef has baked with Ayuda in mind. After pandemic furloughs forced Velez and her staff to maneuver the unemployment benefits process, she thought about the immigrant communities without access to the same resources. Velez launched Doña Dona, a donut pop-up to benefit Ayuda, and the TV show is her latest bout of baking to support the DC-based organization. “I want to make sure that I don’t forget about DC just because I’m in a more national space,” says Velez. ” I always thank DC, because without DC, I wouldn’t be here right now.”