Pittsburgh Chef Rafael Vencio Launches AmBoy Urban Collective
The former Bar Botanico chef will explore his Filipino roots by growing crops important to his home country’s cuisine.
As it did for many in the hospitality industry, the shuttering of restaurants early in the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Rafael Vencio to self-assess. Vencio, at the time executive chef of Bar Botanico, was burned out.
“I knew I needed to rekindle my love of cooking. And I wanted to branch out from what I was doing,” he says. “This farm is my way of doing that.”
He’s calling it AmBoy Urban Collective. On his plot at Hilltop Urban Farm and two satellite locations in Wilkinsburg, Vencio plans to grow, among other crops, greens such as kangkong, alugbati and saluyot and gourds such as bitter melon and sayote that are commonly used in Filipino cuisine. He’s also growing mushrooms, noting that he feels a tinge of nostalgia for family trips to a mushroom farm in Tagaytay, where he ate mushroom burgers as a kid.
Vencio was born in Manila, grew up in Quezon City and emigrated permanently to the United States when he was 19. He made a name for himself in Pittsburgh as one of the initial class of chef/owners at Smallman Galley with Aubergine; prior to that, Vencio served as a sous chef at Legume and Grit & Grace and since has worked in kitchens such as Independent Brewing Company and Legume/Butterjoint.
Vencio says that having some downtime allowed him to reassess his priorities. He’d dipped his toes into offering Filipino dishes to Pittsburgh with his pop-up dinner series, Kanto Kitchen, but hadn’t fully realized his vision for how he wanted to express his culinary roots. He says that growing the ingredients he’s cooking will allow him to more fully articulate his perspective on Filipino food. “It’s experimental. It’ll be a learning process,” he says, noting that this will be his first full season farming.
Vencio says he looks to Who Cooks For You Farm for local inspiration, having known owners Chris Brittenburg and Aeros Lillstrom since his Legume days, and Kamayan Farm near Seattle, owned and operated by Ariana de Leña. Vencio plans to sell farm shares, produce, ready-to-fruit mushroom blocks and food packages such as picnic baskets and kamayan kits via his online store, Bodega, as well as offer pop-up dinners throughout the year.
“I’m trying to pour my professional background back into this work. I want to cook the food I want to cook using the food I grow. This farm is a way of reconnecting to my roots,” he says.