Edna Velez always made the time, even if it meant cooking up hundreds of the little delicacies in her basement kitchen after returning from her day-job at Columbia University.
"A year ago," Edna said, "I was making hundreds of pasteles at my home in Bogota, New Jersey." She'd spent 22 years at Columbia, employed as an Executive Assistant/Departmental Administrator in the office of the Vice President for Public Affairs but, laid off during the recession, she began to see her hobby as perhaps having more potential than her office job.
After decades of commuting into Manhattan, she took a deep breath, made a leap of faith, gathered her diaspora Puerto Rican family together, and opened a restaurant. "I took every penny I had from my university severance package, even dipping into my 401K," she said.
But, if she built it, would they come?
Velez was born in New York City, the daughter of Edna Rivera and Ricart Gonzales of Lares, Puerto Rico, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s. Before settling down, the family did some to'ing and fro'ing between Lares and New York, and so Velez learned the fine art of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine in the kitchen of her mother-in-law, whom she calls Mami Pura. "I was 16 when I got married," said Velez, "so Pura Medina was my teacher. She was an excellent cook, and I and my husband were living with her in Lares at the time.
Welcome to Pasteles y Algo Mas!
"She and I would go to the market in town very, very early, La Plaza del Mercado, where the farmers came in from the countryside with all their vegetables--green bananas, plantains, cabasa, cilantro, garlic, parsley -- lots and lots! -- and their freshly butchered meats. There was fresh pork, chickens killed right there on the spot, goat, and rabbit.
"We rose early to be sure to get the very best, the freshest, of everything, and then, home around 10 or 10:30, we would clean the vegetables, wash the meats--which we would later marinate; the goat, in red wine -- and begin to prepare cabrito en fricaseand sofrito."
Said Velez, "At Columbia, I actually lost my job twice: first, in 2009, due to the recession; then, in June of 2011. That was when I decided... enough! We're going to cook pasteles full-time."
Edna, an auburn-haired firecracker with a mother's, a grandmother's--now, a great-grandmother's -- all-enveloping energy, then pointed at her daughter, Joanne Velez. "She's the one!" she said. "Joanne here said, 'Mom, if you're turning out pasteles for 150 people at Columbia already, let's get ourselves up out of this basement.'"
Edna and Joanne called on Uncle Ricart, Edna's older brother from Colorado, to build the restaurant from scratch. He told his sister that if she'd pay his air fare and feed him, he'd stay till the work was done. A year later, Ricart came back to take pictures of Pasteles Y Algo Mas's first birthday party.
They built it. And the people came. "And came and came and came," said Edna.