Robberies, strawberries and black-market economics: How to bake a cake in Caracas

Simran Sethi

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Randall Sevilla introduces himself with an armful of sweets: petit fours perfumed with the vanilla-like scent of sarrapia (tonka beans); profiteroles layered with sticky slabs of guava in the style of the traditional torta María Luisa; and tarts thick with Venezuela’s world-renowned heirloom cocoa.

“I am one of many,” said the 28-year-old pastry chef, “who want to give the world a new perspective of Venezuela. To make you understand that you can believe in us not only as people who suffer, but as people who can deliver something good. In my case, it’s good flavors.”

I was unprepared for this: the sweet abundance and tenacity of spirit. Before meeting Sevilla last year (as part of a trip to better understand Venezuelan food and agriculture), I braced myself to bear witness to a humanitarian challenge of historic proportions. I tried to imagine what the crisis meant to people who had once known a very different life – not as a historical remembrance but a living memory, one close enough to feel and taste.

Until the early 1980s, Venezuela – home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves – was Latin America’s most prosperous and politically stable nation. Then the economy began to unravel, enabling the rise of Hugo Chávez and his wayward egalitarianism. Today, under the oppressive regime of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelans are fleeing in an exodus the United Nations describes as “staggering.”

Amid so much turmoil, Sevilla’s determination might seem unfathomable. But everyone I met stressed misery is not their only story. The regime has stripped away nearly everything, but not the Venezolano spirit. “Even though there is a crisis, this is a beautiful place,” Sevilla says. “That is what I want you to understand: None of it is easy. But we are still here.”

Sevilla has never set foot outside of Venezuela, yet he carries himself as one who has experienced the world. Dressed in impeccable chef’s whites or a suit with a pocket square, seamlessly dropping French phrases and references to American pop culture, his affect initially struck me as pretentious. But after multiple meals, coffees and WhatsApp chats, I realized the young chef is expressing a hunger for a world he cannot yet access. He uses French pastry techniques to re-create flavors that locals long for – smells and tastes that are part of a childhood he describes as “golden.” He updates these flavors to proclaim the sweet days will return.

“I want to be part of a movement to uplift Venezuela’s culinary legacy: the arepa, the pastries, the Amazonic fruits that we have, but the world doesn’t know. They are superfoods.” These foods are also emblems: the bright, juicy essence of what it means to be Venezuelan.

In 2015, as the crisis simmered, Sevilla and his twin brother, Antonio, founded El Dulce Casa De Pastelería (the Sweet House of Pastries) to supply desserts to upscale businesses and residents of Caracas. El Dulce is run out of a rented hotel kitchen in Altamira, a tree-lined neighborhood known for a towering obelisk Sevilla describes as the “beating heart” of the city. The 1940s monument, once a prime tourist destination, is now a flash point for protests in support of the opposition driven by critical shortages of medicine and food.

Sevilla recognises how unlikely El Dulce must seem to the outside world: “A guy making cakes? In a crisis that is so deep, how do guys like him exist?”

In short, because they have to.

Each week, Sevilla and his small staff bake and decorate up to 15 cakes, plus pastries, for weddings, birthdays and other gatherings. One cake serves 15 and costs between USD16 and USD20. To put this in perspective, in January, the nation’s minimum monthly salary was raised to about USD7 per month. Sevilla earns about USD300 per month. “I don’t have a lot of money. I cannot, for example, pay for a flight to the United States. . . . But I have the money to live in a middle way in Venezuela.”

On most days, Sevilla rises early and washes up. Running water is usually available, but a series of massive power cuts in March and July reminded residents that electricity was no longer guaranteed. During that time, El Dulce lost a significant amount of inventory and Sevilla was forced, in one instance, to make pastry cream by the light of a cellphone. But his bigger concern was the company’s clientele: “If they feel they can’t make a successful event,” he says, “they cancel their orders or don’t order at all. For us, that will be another crisis.”

Midweek, Sevilla and his staff begin their work: emulsifying ganaches, piping profiteroles, baking and decorating cakes. Sevilla feels upbeat working in his kitchen: a space largely under his control, relatively safe.

Finally, there are the deliveries – “showtime” – which, due to traffic, take another full day. When I ask Sevilla if he’s worried about gasoline, he sighs. “There is a lot of information that tells us there is going to be another crisis with petrol, but right now I cannot get worried. I have running water and electricity. Perhaps tomorrow, I won’t.”

That is what it takes to bake a cake in Caracas.