On Spencer Venancio’s Instagram, you’ll find pictures of dishes like the bright-green scallop crudo with pea and kiwi aguachile he prepared for a recent pop-up at Popol Vuh. Or the turmeric butter-poached lobster that appeared during his pop-up at Travail, posted along with photos of foie gras torchon and duck roulade from the same 13-course tasting menu.
It’s pretty high-concept stuff to be coming out of the kitchen of a 15-year-old.
Food was always important in Venancio’s family, especially during the holidays, which brought everyone together over a big meal. “Food goes beyond eating for sustenance,” he says.
That’s when he realized he liked cooking, and, well, “When I find something I even remotely like, I want to be the best at it.” He pored over cookbooks and YouTube videos, teaching himself the techniques and hosting prototypical pop-ups right out of his Woodbury home.
But Venancio’s aspirations were too big for the family dining room. The solution? Easy: Go work in restaurants. The plan? Email his favorites—places like Spoon and Stable and Alma—asking if he could come cook with them.
The response? “Sure!”
Soon he was staging (restaurant speak for a sort of unpaid internship) in local kitchens every other week. Those lessons eventually became weekly, and by the time last summer rolled around, he was working full-time. “It was always: What is the next step in me learning what I need to learn?” Venancio says. In addition to his time in the Twin Cities, he’s staged in the kitchen at Chicago’s legendary Alinea and San Francisco’s Californio (the first Mexican restaurant to receive two Michelin stars).
The story is the same with his pop-ups, which started seasonally and became more consistent. He’s about to announce a three-part monthly series to be held this fall.
Working with groundbreaking chefs like Alinea’s Grant Achatz—also a winner of James Beard Awards and earner of Michelin stars—has been a humbling way for Venancio to hone his skills, stepping away from the creative side and cooking for other people instead of himself.
“That was the biggest thing I had to learn: I am there to execute their vision,” he says. It can be stressful, sure, but it’s also exciting. “There’s a lot riding on you—not in the way that I’m super important, but everyone in that restaurant has to be executing everything to a very high standard.”
And that’s just fine by Venancio, whose competitive nature means he always wants to be learning about new ingredients and perfecting new techniques. Even his hobbies are food-related; he spends his free time foraging and traveling. “I always think that the best thing to cook is the new thing,” he says. “I get bored very, very easily.”