ONFor many in the hospitality industry, the closure of restaurants at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Rafael Vencio to self-assess. Vencio, head chef at Bar Botanico at the time, was burned out.
“I knew I had to revive my love of cooking. And I wanted to stand out from what I was doing, ”he says. “This farm is my way of doing that.”
He calls it AmBoy Urban Collective. On his property at Hilltop Urban Farm and at two satellite locations in Wilkinsburg, Vencio plans to grow greens such as kangkong, alugbati and saluyot, as well as pumpkins such as bitter melon and sayote, which are widely used in Filipino cuisine, among others. He also grows mushrooms and notes that he feels a touch of nostalgia for family trips to a mushroom farm in Laguna, where he ate mushroom burgers as a child.
Vencio was born in Manila, grew up in Quezon City and immigrated permanently to the USA at the age of 19. He made a name for himself in Pittsburgh as one of the first cooking / owner classes at Smallman Galley with Eggplant. Before that, Vencio was Sous Chef at Legume and Grit & Grace and has since worked in kitchens such as Independent Brewing Company and Legume / Butterjoint.
According to Vencio, after some downtime, he was able to reconsider his priorities. He had offered Pittsburgh Filipino dishes with his Kanto Kitchen pop-up dinner series, but had not fully realized his vision of how he wanted to express his culinary roots. He says growing the ingredients he cooks will allow him to better articulate his perspective on Filipino food. “It’s experimental. It’s going to be a learning curve, ”he says, noting that this will be his first farm of the season.
Vencio says he is reaching out to Who Cooks For You Farm for local inspiration. He has known owners Chris Brittenburg and Eros Lillstrom since his Legume and the Kamayan Farm near Seattle, owned and operated by Ariana de Leña. Vencio plans to sell farm shares, produce, fruit-ready mushroom blocks, and food packages such as picnic baskets and kamayan kits through its online shop Bodega, and to offer pop-up dinners year-round.
“I’m trying to bring my professional background back into this work. I want to cook the food I want to cook with the food I grow. This farm is a way to reconnect with my roots, ”he says.