Ones to Watch 2021 // José Miguel Venta
Often the first to arrive at work and last to leave, Sidney Street Cafe sous chef José Miguel Venta is no stranger to hard work. “I’m still trying to find that balance of being in the industry while also being a good father and husband and friend,” he said. Despite this balancing act and the mounting pressure of creating dishes that will be under much scrutiny, he continues to hone his craft and hopes to open his own spot one day. “I want to do something that benefits other people, not just my bank account,” he said.
Although it may be a few years before he’s able to realize his dream of becoming his own boss, he’d eventually like to hire staff not easily employable elsewhere, like those with mental health issues, developmental disabilities or with a felony record. In the meantime, he’s aiming to turn out crowd-pleasing dishes at Sidney Street while ensuring morale stays high. “If I’m part of a demoralizing work environment, then I’ve failed,” he said.
Venta moved from Puerto Rico in 2007 to attend Saint Louis University, where he studied social work, receiving his master’s in 2015. As an undergrad, he took his first job in a professional kitchen at one of the campus restaurants. While he found professional cooking better suited to his skill set – “the way my brain is wired, cooking fits,” he said – his studies left him with a strong urge to work with folks with unique challenges.
Though Puerto Rican flavors find their way into Venta’s cooking, he is more interested in executing those flavors using French or American culinary techniques than in reproducing authentic Puerto Rican dishes. “We really like his flavor profiles and how he seasons things,” said chef de cuisine Bob Zugmaier. “When he first started, he was quick to give us feedback on dishes. Now, if we want to come up with something new, his input is highly valued."
Since joining the Sidney Street team about four years ago, “he’s pretty much been the glue,” Zugmaier said. “He’s one of the guys I’m always leaning on to make sure stuff gets done right and efficiently. ... When he does eventually open a restaurant, I imagine it’ll be a very successful venture due to his work ethic and his talents.”
Venta’s not one to sing his own praises – humility is part of what makes him who he is. “In my mind, I think, ‘I just like doing my job and putting out good food.’ At some point, the food will speak for itself. If I succeed in this industry, it’s because my food tastes good.”
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