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14-year-old Woodbury cook makes mark at finest restaurants

March 30, 2019

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Spencer Venancio was 8 when he began cooking four-course dinners for friends and family.

By 10, the Woodbury teen was poring over cooking websites, asking for cooking equipment for Christmas, perfecting complicated culinary techniques and preparing elaborate six-course dinners.

“He bought a sous vide when he was 12,” said his father, David Venancio, referring to the cooking method in which food is placed in a plastic pouch or a glass jar and cooked in a water bath.

“He bought it early — he was an early adopter — and then had to wait six months for it to arrive,” David Venancio said to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “When it finally arrived, it was like Christmas. ‘My sous vide! My sous vide!’ ”

Spencer, 14, is now interning at some of Minneapolis’ finest restaurants, teaching cooking classes and hosting 12-course pop-up tasting-menu dinners. The price to attend his latest event, held recently at Bardo in Northeast Minneapolis, was $105 a person.

“I’m a very competitive person, so I’ve always had the mentality of whatever I’m going to do, I’m going to be the best at it,” said Spencer, an eighth-grader at Oak-Land Middle School in Lake Elmo. “To me, the best was always fine-dining and tasting-menu restaurants. I’m going to be the best at this that I possibly can.”

His latest dinner’s first two courses were: a salt-roasted turnip taco with lamb tartare, buttermilk fluid gel, horseradish and lemon, and a Spanish mackerel crudo.

“We actually do it as: two snacks, crudo, snack, medium, medium, medium, large, large, large, dessert, dessert, dessert,” he said. “You get a lot of stuff, a lot of food.”

Spencer began working with Bardo chef/owner Remy Pettus as a stagiaire — an unpaid culinary intern — last fall. He also has “staged” — pronounced “staahjed” — at Travail, Spoon and Stable, Grand Cafe, Alma and the now-defunct Heyday in Minneapolis, in addition to Californios in San Francisco and Alinea in Chicago.

“I mostly reach out by email,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Your restaurant is super-inspiring, and I’d like to learn more about what you do.’ I don’t have a resume. I list the restaurants where I’ve worked, and I just tell them that I’d like to come and spend a day in their kitchen and learn as much as I can from them.”

Pettus, who opened Bardo in 2017, was impressed by Spencer’s “very thoughtful, composed and professional email.” He is the youngest person ever to stage at Bardo, he said.

“He’s very skilled, and he’s very dedicated,” Pettus said. “He asks a ton of questions. His uniqueness is in how dedicated he is. He’s just very hard-working and passionate.”

After staging at the restaurant on Sundays, Spencer approached Pettus with a proposal to host a pop-up dinner at Bardo — on a Tuesday night when the restaurant is normally closed. The dinner was Spencer’s third pop-up dinner at Bardo; he hosted one at Travail in August 2018.

“He puts a lot of time and thought into each individual plate,” Pettus said. “Each plating, he probably tries six or seven versions of it before he decides what he wants to do.”

In one Instagram post describing a black-tea ice cream quenelle he had made, Spencer joked that it “only took about 10,000 tries” to make the perfect egg-shaped serving.

Spencer is a natural at portion control, Pettus said.

“It doesn’t really come naturally to a lot of chefs,” Pettus said. “When you do 12 courses, it’s very difficult to figure how to get the right amount of food across the meal where you’re making everybody satisfied, but you’re not filling people up before the seventh or eighth course.”

Before his latest pop-up dinner, Spencer was coming in to Bardo for his Sunday shift and two or three days a week after school for “testing and trying out things,” Pettus said.

He also was perfecting techniques at his home kitchen in Woodbury.

On a recent weekday afternoon, he used a Misona UX10 knife, from Korin knife shop in Manhattan, to slice scallion tops.

“I’m going to cut them open, so they lay flat. I’m going to flatten them out, and just slice them thinly,” he said, cutting dangerously close to the flesh of his fingers.

Spencer, wearing a Tilit chef’s apron with a tea towel folded and tucked neatly in back, then took the thin slices of scallion and shocked them in a metal bowl full of ice water, causing them to curl.

“I first saw this at Travail,” he said.

He used plating tweezers to pick up a curlicue of scallion and place it on a dish. He then repeated the process twice more.

“An odd number looks more appealing to the eye,” he said. “I’ll use three little mounds of this, five little pieces of rhubarb, three little pieces of pickled onion. With herbs, I basically will add it until it looks good or until it would be overpowered.”

Spencer has never taken a cooking class, and he doesn’t watch cooking shows on TV. He said he has learned techniques online, through books and from chefs he has worked with at restaurants.

“I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could, because that’s just sort of the personality that I have,” he said. “I started by doing the dinner parties, and then I wanted to see what restaurant cooking was like. It was sort of a natural progression.”

Spencer’s parents, David Venancio and Katherine Forbes, used to work at restaurants in San Francisco. One of Spencer’s first food memories is making homemade pasta with his parents when he was about 5, he said.

David Venancio, who now works as a field sales representative for CenterPoint Energy, said his son’s obsession with cooking started with sea bass.

“He’d found some recipe, and he wanted to do sea bass with a couple of sides,” David Venancio said. “I remember after shopping for it — it was $120 or something — and the grandparents came over, and everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s fantastic,’ and of course the next day, he wanted to do it again, and I’m, like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ ”

For Spencer’s next gourmet meal, his father set a firm $40 budget.

“I think we went to Kowalski’s, and we went right to the sea bass, and he looked at the price of the sea bass, and he looked at his two 20s. He said, ‘How much sea bass do we need?’ I said, ‘Well, you invited Granny and Poppa over, so there’s six of us. I’d say a pretty good amount.’ ”

Spencer wouldn’t consider making or serving something less expensive.

“So we had sea bass, and that was it,” David Venancio said. “Nothing else.”

Spencer keeps his kitchen equipment in a rolling black Husky tool chest tucked under the marble-topped island in his family’s kitchen. The drawers are filled with knives, whetstones for sharpening, a scale, immersion blender and vacuum sealer and ingredients like sodium alginate, sodium biphosphate and sodium citrate.

He spends any extra money on plates, which are stored in the basement.

“I will only use one placeware set per dinner. It’s sort of a personal rule of mine. I don’t think anyone would say, ‘He’s using this plate too much,’ but I feel like it makes things immensely more interesting. I recently had to clean out the family room because that was not an OK place to store plates, apparently.”

A typewritten list of goals is taped to the wall of his bedroom. His goals for this summer include staging three to four times a week and going to New York to stage at Cosme, an upscale Mexican restaurant in the city’s Flatiron District.

“Next year: 1. Out-of-state pop up,” his list reads. “Next four years: 1. Finish high school a year early (or online). 2. Move to New York. 3. Work in a Michelin-starred restaurant.”

In 10 years, Spencer plans to own his own gourmet restaurant in San Francisco with seating for 18 to 25. He does not plan to attend college, a decision his parents support.

“We’re really, really into education, but I think education comes in many forms and can come in different places,” David Venancio said. “I look at the people I know my age who are successful and happy, and they knew the paths where they were going. At 14, he seems to know his path, so I think that’s a really great thing. How he gets to learning the stuff he needs to learn is a whole other conversation.”

Spencer said culinary school wouldn’t be worth the expense.

“This is one of those industries where you don’t get paid more if you go to school,” he said. “By the time I would have an opportunity to go, I will have worked in restaurants for about five years.”

Under the “10,000-hour theory,” which states that if you put 10,000 hours of practice into something, you can become an expert, Spencer should be an expert chef before he turns 20, David Venancio said.

“I mean, he studies this stuff all the time,” David Venancio said. “He’s been really lucky to have some really cool people teaching him so far, so we’ll see.”

One of those cool people is Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and Bellecour in Wayzata.

“Spencer is clearly very driven and focused on this, and I love that,” Kaysen said. “He reminds me of myself. When I was his age, I was cooking every weekend in a restaurant. I knew I would do this for the rest of my life, or at least I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

In his free time, Spencer likes to hang out with friends, go on bike rides and forage for wild mushrooms. He also plays the drums.

“But I get super-excited to go work in restaurants, so that’s really what I spend most of my time doing,” he said. “I don’t really have a reason not to. I love plating, for example. You can take something that is all separated and combine it to make a beautiful dish. That’s just really fun for me.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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