Latecomer chef isn’t afraid to take risks
By Callie Evergreen
Katy Velazquez moved to Chicago after culinary school, where she became a test kitchen director and culinary assistant to Chef Rick Bayless.
Katy Velazquez thought she was going to be a theater major in college, then quickly found her varied interests made it difficult to stop changing her mind. She ended up graduating with a degree in psychology in 2010, but on the way also dabbled in the catering and banquet serving industry as a side gig.
Velazquez also learned how to feed herself during college, a feat some never quite master. “I fell in love with cooking and feeding people. I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Velazquez said, which is exactly what she does as executive chef at 750-unit Qdoba.
The Irvine, California, native set off to Baltimore, where she attained her culinary arts and chef training certificate from Stratford University. To help pay her way through culinary school, Velazquez worked as a prep cook at the upscale Wit and Wisdom restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore. She also started her own personal chef business, where she cooked meals for families that they could reheat at home later.
“It was totally illegal. I ran it out of my home without any type of licensing,” Velazquez said. “But it was a great way to make money and feed people healthy meals.”
Velazquez moved to Chicago after culinary school in 2013, where she became a test kitchen director and culinary assistant to Rick Bayless, a chef and restaurateur who specializes in traditional Mexican cuisine and is known for his PBS series, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” Velazquez spent more than three years as Bayless’s righthand woman, working on recipes for all his restaurants and traveling to Mexico with him for the TV series. She even tested and wrote recipes for his cookbook, “More Mexican Everyday.”
“It was such an incredible experience. I had an array of different opportunities and exposure to different areas of our industry, including food media,” Velazquez said. “I inadvertently became a specialist in Mexican food from traveling all over the region, and it accidentally became what I focused on.”
After spending two seasons on the PBS show with Bayless, Velazquez wanted to move back to California in 2016. There she spent three years as executive creative chef of Puesto, a contemporary artisan Mexican concept with several restaurants in Southern California.
“We opened four restaurants in two years. It was a whirlwind,” Velazquez said. “I came up with new menu items for them and trained the team. It was my first real experience with a multi-unit restaurant, which was quite a learning curve.”
While working for Puesto, Velazquez competed on “Beat Bobby Flay,” a cooking show on the Food Network. Jill Adams, Qdoba’s senior vice president of marketing, happened to catch Velazquez’s episode and realized, “that’s what Qdoba needs.” Adams forwarded the video to Qdoba CEO Keith Guilbault, who sent Velazquez a message on LinkedIn. “The rest is history,” Velazquez said.
Having worked at Qdoba since June 2019, Velazquez is excited to be innovating and adding some new flavors and options to the fast-casual Mexican chain.
“We’re testing these products now to see how consumers feel. There’s definitely some items we’re going to be launching nationally next year that we’re taking a risk on, but we’re doing it because we feel strongly about the flavors that absolutely deliver,” Velazquez said. “If we have to do a little work on our end to educate consumers and convince them, I know once they try it, they’ll be won over.”
Having worked as a professional chef for less than 10 years, Velazquez said she’s proud of how far she’s come in a relatively short time.
“When I started this career so late, the first few years I felt this constant need to catch up, like I was behind or late for something,” Velazquez said. “I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Culinary Q&A with Katy Velazquez
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
I made braised white bean tostadas for dinner last night.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Oh man, Cheez-Its. I can’t even be anywhere around them, I do not buy them, I love them.
If you could have any chef cook you dinner, who would it be and what would you want them to prepare?
Holy cow, I will say one of my favorite dining experiences was with Gabriela Cámara. She has many restaurants in Mexico City, Cala in San Francisco and a new restaurant in Los Angeles. I met her with Rick Bayless, filmed an episode at her house, and I’ve been to her restaurants. I think she is not only the most incredible chef—her food is so delicious—but she’s so hospitable, her attitude is so welcoming, she wants everyone to feel like family. I would love to spend another evening with her. She could cook anything she wanted. If I had to pick, it would be ceviche. She’s famous for that.
If you could only eat or drink three things for the rest of your life, what would they be?
Eggs, a soft ripened cheese—really delicious and funky—and bread. To drink, orange wine. I could drink that all day every day, especially in the summer.
What is the craziest food request you’ve ever received?
I was once doing a tasting menu dinner. It was a seven-course pre-cooked meal with an optional wine pairing. Someone came in that night and said, ‘I’m not really eating food right now, can I just have some fruit?’ So literally, with no warning, we had to come up with a seven-course only-fruit menu with whatever we had in the restaurant. It was crazy.