June 26, 2021

A Chef’s Son: An Interview With Oscar Venegas of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

by Joe Bonadio

If there’s one thing the last fifteen frustrating months has demonstrated, it’s just how valuable chefs and kitchen workers really are. Put aside the fact they feed probably three-quarters of us, and never stopped doing so throughout the pandemic. They’re now also an endangered species. I’m hearing the same story from everyone right now: San Francisco restaurants are scrambling to hire back-of-house employees as they staff up for the return to regular business. I’ve said it a thousand times–the restaurant business is all about the people.

Having opened over thirty restaurants in the last dozen years, Tony Gemignani knows this all too well. Here on the blog, I’ve interviewed many of those talented people over the years, from Laura Meyer to Matt Molina, Audrey Kelly and many more. This week we turn to Oscar Venegas, longtime kitchen manager at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. On a recent blustery day, Oscar took time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about his job, his experiences at Tony’s and the road ahead. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So I understand you’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time. How did you get started?

Oscar Venegas: I’ve been in the business since I was 18, and I’m 30 now. I started out as a dishwasher at Pyramid Breweries. I’m originally from Sacramento, and Pyramid was from Portland, but they had a Sacramento location. Two years into my time there, they shut down.

But that’s actually how I ended up finding Tony’s. When they gave me my final check, I walked across the street, and Pizza Rock [Tony’s sister restaurant] was open. The chef interviewed me right on the spot. He asked me if I had pizza experience….and I said no.

And he said “Cool. You’re going to be the wood-fire guy.”

I’m not sure if most people understand this, but wood-fire is one of the hardest stations in any pizza restaurant. Because it’s Neapolitan style.

JB: So the fact that you didn’t have pizza experience meant he could train you specifically for Neapolitan?

OV: Yes.

JB: You didn’t have a choice.

OV: Exactly! This is what you’re going to do.

And I was like, awesome. Pizza is a station by itself, but that was my weakest station to work. I had been bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, polishing my skills on sauté, on the grill….everything but pizza.

So finally I said, I’m only as good as my weakest station. And I decided to get my hands on it, and see what I could do.

Tony and Oscar

Tony and Oscar take a break from work at the new Toscano Brothers Bakery/Dago Bagel in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: It’s just like the coaches say: if you want to improve your overall fitness, focus on your weakest area.

OV: Yes. So I jumped in and took the job, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I remember my first day at Pizza Rock, it was a Friday night. I was working with one other guy, and I was just supposed to be an extra pair of hands.

And I was ripping pizzas, smashing them, burning them. I was pretty much dragging down the station. (Laughs). I remember thinking: I can’t have this feeling of failure ever again.

I had to figure out how to work this new type of dough. I had experience making pizza at other restaurants, making dough and tossing. But all the dough I had worked with was higher protein flour, which meant you could manhandle it. Much more than the Neapolitan flour, which is low protein and very delicate. Going from high protein flour to low protein flour? It’s night and day. I thought my hands were just….I was working with something completely brand-new.

But after two weeks, I finally learned how to put it on the peel.* That was a step up. It was a great day!

JB: (Laughs.) So it was a steep learning curve, even though you had lots of culinary experience?

OV: Yeah. I get that from a lot of people who have worked at other pizza restaurants, who are coming here looking to learn. To see if they have experience, right off the bat I’ll have them work wood-fire. To stretch out one of those doughs. And just from watching how they do it, I can see their level of experience. Easily.

JB: So how long were you in the kitchen at Pizza Rock?

OV: Seven years. I started out at wood-fire, and I was promoted quickly. I moved up to lead line cook, and was the soux chef there for about two years.

Then I was offered a chef job at River City Brewery, and I left for about two years. They were turning chefs constantly, and I went there to help them out. And my father was already working there, so I decided to try that out for a while.

Oscar and his family

Oscar Venegas (far left) with his father Raul Venegas and sisters Mayra (left) and Karen. | Photo: Courtesy Oscar Venegas

JB: Your father is a chef?

OV: Yes, now he is. He had already been working for them for years, so when I stepped aside, he took over. I taught him how to do the ordering and everything. He’s still there, and he’s happy.

It’s funny, he’s been working in downtown Sacramento for such a long time that sometimes when I’d put in an application, they’s see the last name and hire me automatically, thinking I was him. Then when I realized I wasn’t, they’d put it together that he was my dad.

Then I’d start cooking, and they’d ask who taught me how to cook, and I’d tell them he did. And they’d always say, You work exactly like him. I’d say, of course: he taught me everything. He actually was the first person to hire me as a dishwasher.

But eventually I figured out you need to have chemistry with the owners, or it just doesn’t sit well. When I saw I really wasn’t comfortable there, I decided to come back to Pizza Rock. It was always such a friendly environment there, more like a family.

JB: That seems to be a commonality of a lot of Tony’s restaurants.

OV: Yeah. it’s weird. I still get friends that call me from back in the Pizza Rock days.

So I stayed there for one more year before I got the opportunity to come here. But it wasn’t my first: before I went to River City I had a chance to work here. It was when Laura was transferring to corporate chef. But I did some research, and when I saw that Tony’s had been nominated for a Michelin star, I was a little intimidated. I got cold feet, and I decided to turn it down.

JB: So when did you finally make the move?

OV: It was about a year later, it’s three years ago now. Another chef by the name of Billy, who I had worked for at Pizza Rock for three years, came to work here. He needed a soux chef, and because I already worked with him I thought it would be an easier transition.

But Billy ended up quitting only two weeks later––and I took over as kitchen manager. I couldn’t say no to Tony. I was excited, I was already here, so I might as well see what I can do.

Sweet Grandma pizza

A customer shows his appreciation for the golden crust on Tony’s Sweet Grandma pizza. | Photo: Michael U., Yelp

JB: And you’ve held that position ever since?

OV: Yes, kitchen manager.

JB: So what do you see as the next step for you?

OV: Well, I’ve always thought as a manager or kitchen manager, the next step would be to own your own restaurant. When I started working here, Tony opened my eyes to a whole different world, a level I never knew existed. All of the tournaments, the sponsorships, Pizza Expo.

JB: I know what you mean. I’ve been to Pizza Expo with Tony.

OV: Yeah, it was amazing. I went there before Covid, and he showed me everything. And that’s when I met the World Pizza Champions.

JB: I think we were there the same year.

OV: I believe so! Honestly, I was so overwhelmed with everything.

JB: I felt exactly the same way. I’d never seen anything quite like that. And speaking of World Pizza Champions, I’m surprised that you don’t compete.

OV: The only reason I haven’t competed is I didn’t know about it before. At Pizza Expo, that’s when I was introduced to acrobatics, dough tossing, all the tournaments they have for different styles of pizza.

After seeing that, I started thinking to myself, maybe next year I can compete. Then Covid hit.

JB: So, is that still the plan?

OV: Oh, yeah. Now that Pizza Expo’s coming up, I’m going to go back and do some studying, figure out which style of pizza I want to compete in. And go to work.

*For the uninitiated, the “peel” is the metal paddle used to slide a pizza into the oven.

The Seven Ovens Blog appears regularly in this space, telling the real stories behind Tony Gemignani’s pizza school and award-winning collection of restaurants. Make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here soon.