CARACAS, Venezuela — 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,” says 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 recognizes how unlikely El Dulce must seem to the outside world: “A guy making cakes? For God’s sake, in a crisis that is so deep, how do guys like him exist?”
In short, because they have to.
Without family wealth or steady access to stable currency, living in Venezuela is nearly impossible. In the past year, the country has seen its currency devalued to almost nothing, while inflation has swelled to over 1 million percent (compared to 2 percent in the United States). “To be entrepreneurs and build a company is the only way.”
El Dulce caters to those with an expendable income, including the rich and dwindling middle class (about 4 million people, out of a nationwide population of 37 million). “They want treats, they want sweets, they want to create good memories — and they pay in dollars. It is why the company remains strong despite the crisis.”
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 $16 and $20 U.S. dollars. To put this in perspective, in January, the nation’s minimum monthly salary was raised to about $7 per month. Sevilla earns about $300 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.”
Once he is out the door, Sevilla and his brother spend a full day procuring ingredients. They shop mostly in the immediate area, buying flour, sugar and fruits in bulk from three or four stores. (Farmers are regularly targeted by hungry looters, so fruit sometimes has to be substituted.)
The ingredients cost between $200 to $300, a range that exemplifies the company’s greatest challenge: fluctuating prices. “Today, the dollar costs 8,000 bolívares. Perhaps tomorrow, it is another price. I need 200 strawberries that, this week, will cost maybe $20 to $30. But, because of inflation, I don’t actually know the price. I learn it at the shop.”
With a background in economics, Antonio manages the money, converting funds on the black market, in fraught transactions, through WhatsApp groups. El Dulce has to pay for goods in U.S. dollars or bolívares, depending on the shop, so the brothers must carry both currencies. The company uses the sous-chef’s car for deliveries, but also moves around by foot, a risky act. “Anyone walking on the streets is a potential threat and if you go to the police, they could rob you, too.” So, Sevilla stuffs money into his underwear and removes it “discreetly ” when it’s time to pay. “That’s the way we live now in Venezuela.” Despite these precautions, he has been held up nine times in the past 10 months.
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.
Sevilla often describes the situation as “bipolar,” a term that crystallizes when he expresses the challenge of making desserts for upscale gatherings during a time when most Venezuelans struggle to eat. “I am not watching this from a TV or as a photograph in a newspaper. I see dozens of people looking through the garbage for food every day. It is heartbreaking.”
El Dulce makes donations to nonprofits organizations working to alleviate hunger, when possible, but the responsibility for this suffering, he says, lies squarely with the government. “They are very aware of the situation and they simply don’t care. They are sons of the devil.”
Migration statistics from Venezuela parallel those of people fleeing the war in Syria and the genocide in Myanmar. Four million people have left, and the United Nations estimates that number will exceed 5 million by the end of the year. Would Sevilla and his brother consider leaving? If the political environment worsens, yes. But they don’t want to. They love their country; they know its potential. “To have a business in this kind of situation, with a lot of barriers and difficulties, and have succeeded, why should we? This country is a surprise, every day. But, right now, we are optimistic.”
As the crisis churns on, his hope feels revolutionary. “But what is the option?” he counters. “If we don’t [stay positive], we will be a very sad people. That is not fair. We have the right to live and achieve our dreams — even if it is difficult.”
El Dulce is known for picturesque wedding cakes that could have been torn from the pages of bridal magazines, tables chock-full of mouthwatering tarts that are the envy of Instagram. But what makes this work remarkable isn’t the beauty of these creations as much as the fact that they exist at all. That, even now, Venezuelans are fighting to preserve what they hold dear: their culture, their dignity, their flavors, their joy.
Sethi is the author of “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love” and the host/creator of “The Slow Melt” chocolate podcast.