What if, instead of following existing conventions, we created our own? And what if, instead of waiting until some day when the time is right, we just go for it now? Meet Spencer Venancio, a young Woodbury resident who’s not waiting for adulthood—or even high school—to pursue his culinary dreams.
Spencer Venancio is just 14 years old, but his focus and drive are well beyond his years. His first big culinary success was a four-course meal that he hosted for his family around the age of 8 or 9. That comparatively simple dinner ignited Spencer’s passion for the art of cooking, and he’s been creating ever since. (The Oak-Land Middle Schooler will be in eighth grade this fall.)
Over the last few years, Spencer has been continuously improving his cooking skills, challenging his creativity and honing his presentations with pop-up dinners for family and friends. He’s fascinated by the process of cooking, and the discovery of molecular gastronomy forged his interests in high-end cuisine.
Molecular gastronomy is all about pushing the limits of what we know and using ingredients in different ways to create unique flavors and culinary experiences. It’s an art form with endless possibilities, and Spencer began studying chefs and restaurants noted for this style of cuisine in effort to learn more about it.
Because the experimental foods and preparations that he enjoys most aren’t necessarily the kinds of things that his family wants to eat on a regular basis, he spoke with his parents last year about working with restaurants. Spencer says it felt like a natural progression to learn to cook professionally, and knowing their son’s determination, his parents were supportive.
Spencer’s ambitions are landing him several stage (pronounced “stahzje”) opportunities as an unpaid culinary intern in fine restaurants. In the restaurant industry, this kind of experience is priceless—especially when it happens in notable establishments like Spoon and Stable, Travail and Bardo, among others here in the Twin Cities, Alinea in Chicago and the Michelin-starred restaurant Californios in San Francisco.
How does he land such amazing opportunities? He asks! While personal and professional connections may have played a role in some of his opportunities, Spencer personally emails high-end restaurants of interest.
His emails, like his cooking, are well planned and executed. Prior to contacting a restaurant, Spencer researches it at length to learn as much as he can about the restaurant itself, its chefs, staff and style. He then crafts a detailed introduction outlining his experiences to date, and proposes mutually beneficial working/learning opportunities—a business plan of sorts—in the form of stages and/or pop-up dinners.
And restaurants are saying, “Yes.”
In addition to numerous stages in fine restaurants around town, Spencer has hosted four high-end tasting dinners to date: One at Travail, and three at Bardo. Because every kitchen and restaurant is different, house experience and good old fashioned collaborative effort come into play when planning the dinners. Spencer tests his dishes many times before an event to ensure that they’re up to his standards. The restaurant owners, chefs and staff that he’s working with make recommendations as needed to ensure that the dishes and service are executed cohesively for the events.
The result of these experiences is a “real time” education that Spencer feels is just as valuable as attending conventional culinary school. But rather than attending one culinary school someday, he’s essentially attending many now. And rather than learning from one set of instructors, he’s learning from what will likely be dozens of accomplished chefs who admire and want to foster his commitment to the craft. Mentoring chefs are able to teach—first hand—the things they probably wish they could have learned earlier and more easily in their own journeys. The working relationships forged are mutually inspiring—a win/win scenario.
In his spare time, Spencer enjoys bicycling and foraging for wild mushrooms and other edibles. “I’d rather be learning new things versus hanging out at the beach,” says Spencer, who spends as much time as possible researching foods and techniques and learning firsthand in restaurant kitchens. He also finds inspiration on cooking websites, through social media connections, and in books such as Relae: A Book of Ideas by Danish Chef Christian F. Puglisi.
Spencer’s short-term plans include continuing to stage at Twin Cities restaurants three or four nights per week. Coordinating a pop-up outside of Minnesota within the next year is also high on his list. “I’d like to do some restaurant-related travel to New York, and eventually Paris, Rome and Copenhagen—definitely Copenhagen—over the next couple of years,” Spencer says. He says staging at a(nother) Michelin-starred restaurant is something he’d like to do before he finishes high school.
Is a restaurant of his own among his goals? “Absolutely,” says Spencer. While quick to acknowledge that a lot could change between now and then, Spencer’s current ten-year plan includes building a highly sought-after brand and creating culinary experiences for guests in a 20- to 30-seat space in San Francisco.
What does a Spencer Venancio pop-up dinner menu look like? Well, it changes—completely—each time.
“I would describe my culinary style as ‘modern American’ which can be defined in just about any way that fits in the moment,” says Spencer. And that’s the way he likes it. He prefers constant change versus re-creating the same dishes or using the same ingredients over and over. He’s inspired by seasonal produce and ingredients offered by local farms and purveyors.
Spencer’s pop-up tasting dinners are usually priced at around $100 per person for 12–13 courses.
By way of example, here’s the menu from one of Spencer’s previous pop-up dinners. Wine pairings were offered by the restaurant as a separate option.
SPENCER VENANCIO DINNER
BARDO, Northeast Minneapolis | January 15, 2019
Black Trumpet Mushroom Tart
Hazelnuts. Marjoram. Crème fraiche.
Chimichurri. Lime. Cilantro.
Shiso. Blood orange.
Sunchoke Pot de Crème
Buttermilk. Charred onion. Chive. Dill. Lemon.
Satsuma. Seville. Celery root. Celery. Sorrel.
Carrot. Potato. Tarragon.
White truffle. Apple. Chervil.
Fennel. Turnips. Fresh cheese. Whey. Oregano. Tarragon.
Puffed wheat. Calamansi. Black pepper.
Lemon Verbena Panna Cotta
Oregano sesame. Lime. Lemon. Nasturtium.
Lavender. Passion fruit.