Friend of Graza: Tessa Velazquez

Friend of Graza: Tessa Velazquez

The founder of A Baked Jointla Betty, and YESBABE on her favorite menu creation, tips for getting creative while hosting in small spaces, and takeaways from her time training with a Nonna cooking pro.

Q: How do you describe yourself?

Tessa: I’m just a girl from DC living in Brooklyn who f*cking loves food 😊

Q: Finish this sentence: Cooking for me is...

Tessa: my JOY.

Q: What's your current favorite grocery store find or obsession?

Tessa: I’m obsessed with cookie butter spread from Trader Joe’s. I actually made a rule for myself that I’m not allowed to buy it anymore because I could eat a whole jar in >3 days : 0

Q: What's your go-to crowd-pleaser meal?

Tessa: Bolognese. And if I’m making that for you, it’s because I love you. I simmer it low and slow for several hours so it’s super flavorful. It’s so simple but so homey and nostalgic.

Q: Who do you turn to, watch, or follow for food inspiration?

Tessa: Tiktok has actually been a huge inspiration for me. I love seeing people all over the world, many of whom aren’t even trained chefs, showing us these amazing recipes they’ve come up with. It’s such a creative platform, I love it.

Q: What’s one piece of advice or a practice you see in the food world you think is overrated, overly aspirational, unhelpful, or is otherwise just not the vibe?

Tessa: I think generally anyone in the food industry telling you that you *have* to do anything in order to be successful is overrated. You don’t *have* to go to culinary school (although for some that is very helpful). You don’t *have* to stage at a restaurant for free to get experience (again, for some that opens lots of doors for them). It’s a whole new world out there for chefs and we can all forge our own paths.

Q: What are your all-around life mottos, mantras, philosophies? What guides you in the kitchen?

Tessa: My mom is also a professional baker and cook so I grew up following her around the kitchen. She always says “through food, you find home.” She taught me to cook with love, and that food has the power to bring someone to find joy, and really actually come back to themselves. It’s a beautiful responsibility that we have as chefs and I always think of this mantra whether I’m cooking for friends / family or professionally.

Q: You moved in with a REAL LIFE NONNA to hone your kitchen skills! What was the biggest lesson you learned? How about something small that stuck?

Tessa: Besides learning how to make tomato paste while sweating in 110 degrees? The biggest thing Nonna taught me was the power of using high quality, but simple ingredients: good olive oil, good tomatoes, good fish – if you have that, the ingredients really speak for themselves and you don’t need to do anything fancy to create amazing meals.

Something small that really stuck was that she never used a cutting board. She cut everything with a cheap knife right in her hands and straight into the pot. She would always make fun of me for dirtying up a cutting board.

Q:  You're known for your superb hostessing skills. What are the keys to setting the vibe through the menu?

Tessa: Some essentials are for sure a good playlist that has your guests boppin’. Lighting is *key* - I do low lighting and set candles candles candles everywhere to set the mood. Since my apartment is so small, I’ve had to get creative, but it’s been a blessing because it’s also created a great vibe.

My biggest trick is to roll out butcher paper on my kitchen island, and cook throughout the party on full display. As food is ready, I just set it on the butcher paper, and guests just grab it as it’s hot. That way, I save on washing a bunch of dishes and the pressure of having everything hot and ready at one time -  and it’s actually really fun for my guests to see me cooking! It's like a mega chef’s table vibe.

Q: What are your pantry essentials for hosting?

Tessa: Maldon Salt for sure. I’ll always finish a dish with a bit, and everyone loves to see a lil’ salt sprinkle. And of course, some Graza Drizzle – I put it right out on the table so people can drizzle their hearts out 😊

Q: You're behind some of our favorite DC spots—Baked & Wired, A Baked Joint, and la Betty. Of all the delicious offerings, what has been your favorite menu item you've ever created?

Tessa: I came up with the Tessita Cupcake – which is vanilla cake, dulce de leche filling, chocolate hazelnut ganache, and topped with a toasted hazelnut. My grandmother used to call me “Tessita” which is Spanish for “little Tessa.” I wasn’t above naming this cupcake after myself 😊

Q: What has been bringing you joy lately?

Tessa: Cooking really is my joy! Any chance I get to grab some fresh ingredients, cozy up at home, put on a great playlist, and cook up a nice dinner makes me so so so happy.

Q: What's on the horizon for you!

Tessa: This year I started a women’s culinary collective with my dear friend, Veronica Cabezas called YESBABE. Our mission is to break down the barrier between front of house and back of house, and cook with flavors and techniques from all over the world to inspire connection across people and borders. We’re excited to host our own events and work with partners which celebration and collaboration across the food industry!