Spencer Venancio setting up for a pop-up at Travail Kitchen in 2018
Photo by Rebecca Studios
Spencer Venancio is 14, and already has hands of a chef—oven-door burns and all. After hosting dinner parties at home and starting a family coffee cart business, he began reaching out to top local eateries for more kitchen experience. And they were intrigued. Over the past year, Woodbury-based Venancio has worked unpaid stage—pronounced “stahge”—shifts at celebrated Twin Cities restaurants such as Spoon and Stable, Alma, and the now-departed Heyday, as well as two Michelin-rated establishments, Californios in San Francisco and Alinea in Chicago. He has also put on pop-up dinner events at Travail Kitchen and Bardo. (His next event at Bardo in March is already sold out.) Here, Venancio talks about starting young and staying hungry.
How did you start working shifts at places like Spoon and Stable?
I picked a restaurant and sent an email. I said, “Your restaurant is super inspiring. I’d like to learn more about what you do. I’m only 13 or 14, but I hope that it’s not a big roadblock. I just want to come and spend a day in your kitchen to learn and hopefully get my foot in the door.” The worst thing they could do is say no. They said yes, and I started working. I don’t have a résumé per se, but the more I can say I’ve worked at this restaurant and that restaurant, it builds this trust.
Which online tools have been essential for getting the word out?
My website has been there mostly for information and to sell tickets to pop-ups. My Instagram has been a super important tool. When I was tagged in a picture with Alinea’s Grant Achatz, I saw an 800-person follower spike. It helps build trust for staging.
How do you describe your food?
I go with “modern American” because that literally means nothing. It’s taking away the box, versus putting it in a box. My dinners have been spaced apart—one in summer, the next in fall—so I don’t include lots of the same dishes or ingredients because they’re no longer in season. I try to change things as much as possible, so, one, I don’t get bored, two, people don’t get bored, three, I’m supporting local farmers and purveyors.
Who have been your mentors along the way?
I’ve worked the most at Spoon and Stable but not enough to call anyone my mentor. But they’ve all been important in my culinary education. All of the chefs at Spoon and Stable: chef Gavin [Kaysen], chef Chris [Nye], chef Tyler [Prieve], and chef Kyle [Bultinck]. At Heyday, Jim Christiansen was super helpful and taught me a lot. The people at Travail—Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, James Winberg—they’ve all been super devoted. Val Cantu at Californios in San Francisco. Obviously, chef Grant Achatz in Chicago. All the chefs have tried a good amount to teach as much as they can.
How does cooking fit into your life?
Anytime I have school off—be it the summer or winter break, or a day off from school—I will always try to work in a restaurant. I’ll do research and development for a specific dish I have in my brain. I need to be doing something, otherwise it’s wasted time. That’s the best way to spend my time versus playing video games. You can be good at anything if you put your head down and try to learn and research. There might be a certain element of being naturally good at something, but someone who’s good at something also has to try.
How can others get their foot in the door at restaurants?
Just ask. A lot of times, they will say yes. It’s free help. The worst thing you can do is make a mistake—which they’ll expect. Anyone who’s interested in anything should just do it as much as they can, as early as they can. By the time you’re able to get a job or do your own thing, you’ll be miles ahead of everyone else, because you didn’t wait until it was “socially acceptable” to start working.
Are you planning to go to college?
You look at statistics for why people go to college: one, be a more well-rounded, educated person; two, get a specific job that requires a degree; three, to get paid better in a job. You don’t get paid better in the kitchen if you go to college, and you don’t need a degree. In kitchens, you can just learn on the job. By the time I have the opportunity to go to college I will have been working in restaurants for five years. My parents are big on education, but they don’t think it has to be traditional schooling.
What’s the ultimate goal? Opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant?
For sure. That has been my goal for the past three years. The details about what I want will change, but I’m working to start a customer base young, and then when it’s time to open a restaurant, you don’t have 10, you have 100 people who will come to your events. And [laughs] I’ve got time on my hands. I’ve got a long time, but a restaurant is the long-term plan.
Spoon and Stable Chef Gavin Kaysen, on working with Spencer:
“It’s a great story. He’s a really great kid. In terms of people wanting to stage or work here for an educational reason, it happens pretty often. But his instance is unique for a couple reasons. For one, his age. The first thing we did when he reached out to us was take a meeting with him and his family just to make sure everyone was okay with it.
“What makes his story even more unique is that he actually spent the time to write a well-thought-out email to the restaurant. People often try to apply to your restaurant through social media channels. There’s something to be said for sending a well-written letter. That alone is what really grabs people’s attention.
“You’re putting it out there to the universe, saying, ‘I want to get to know how you do what you do, and I’m willing to put everything on the line to learn that.’ That’s something that we’ve always seen in Spencer. He clearly has the drive, he has the passion, and he’s learning his palates. Those will evolve and change and get stronger. It’s inspiring to see a bit of that old soul in somebody so young. In the days of social media and so much screen time, going back and seeing what that old soul can actually carry is a really powerful lesson for all of us.
“You see a young man who’s humble and driven at 14 years old, and you can’t help but reevaluate where you are, and think, ‘I wasn’t there when I was 14, but he is. So what lessons can I teach him that I wish I would’ve learned at that age?’ When I was 15-16 years old, I knew I was going to do this for the rest of my life. It was never a question of, ‘Is this what I’m going to do?’ More a question of, ‘How far can I take this?’ And I think that’s where he is.
“But, I always remind him, there’s no reason you have to do this so early—there’s no age limit. Thomas Keller opened up French Laundry when he was 40 years old. So put a little perspective. Anyone who has given that much thought to where they want to be in life, it’s our generation’s duty to set him up for success with that.”
Photo of Kaysen by Libby Anderson