Selena Gomez taps DC’s Paola Velez for HBO Max’s ‘Selena + Chef’ show

Foodie Washingtonians might recognize a familiar face cooking next door Only murders in the building actor Selena Gomez in the latest episode 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 cookie cooler cakes and beef empanadas on the episode, which made its streaming debut on September 1.

Selena Gomez prepares empanadas according to the instructions of Paola Velez. Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia.

Acknowledging that Gomez is a layman trying to learn a new recipe on the fly from Michelin-winning chefs and James Beard, Velez says she hoped to be an accessible presence in the kitchen. “[Selena] is hyper-involved in what’s going on – she’s actually really scared of making 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 to think I’m that perfect leader, because I’m not. It breaks up that stuffy celebrity chef vibe.

Beef empanadas.  Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia.
Beef empanadas. Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia.

Interspersed with instructions on whipped cream and batter discs, Velez — who communicates with Gomez via video — shares anecdotes about why she became a pastry chef (a line cook’s schedule makes difficult planning dates) and why she chose her recipes – especially the empanadas, a tribute to her husband’s late grandmother, a prolific holiday empanada maker. Velez, who has roots in the Dominican Republic and the Bronx, has 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,” says Velez. “How can I honor everyone who grew up eating Spanish food and this cultural identity crisis that we all have? How do you fit into Americana? In that, the show made me love being an Afro-Latina and being a Latina in general.

Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia.
Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia.

The show also highlights Velez’s dedication to DC. In each episode, Selena + Chef makes a donation to an organization chosen by the guest 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 cooked with Ayuda in mind. After pandemic furloughs forced Velez and her staff to maneuver the unemployment compensation process, she thought of immigrant communities without access to the same resources. Vélez launched Ms Dona, a pop-up donut to benefit Ayuda, and the TV show is her latest baking episode to support the DC-based organization. “I want to make sure I don’t forget about DC just because I’m in a more national space,” Velez says. “I always thank DC, because without DC I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Daniella Byck

Lifestyle Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in 2022. She was previously with Outside magazine and lives in NoMa.

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