Introducing Venice Morales-Vallega
Happy Filipino Heritage Month! To start, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Happy Filipino Heritage month! Yeah, my name is Venice and I was born on an island in the Philippines called Panay, specifically in Capiz, the seafood capital of the Philippines actually, and I grew up on a fish farm for part of my childhood. I immigrated here when I was 10, so I spent a good chunk of my childhood there and I still remember life back home quite well, and I go back home often, I actually just went back for a visit last month for a whole month. It’s really nice to go back home and get in touch with my roots.
Thank you so much for sharing! So, how did you get into coffee then?
That’s a funny story, at least to me… I think it was my first or second year of university and my family was like, “you should get a job” and I was like, “yeah… yeah I should” and my dad actually helped me get my first coffee job. Beside his old office was this new shop opening, and it was a cafe combined with Morala Trading which was the importer for Kees van der Westen machines in Canada. I got a little barista job there, and it wasn’t super specialty but it was close enough to get the training for semi-automatic machines and get the behind the scenes for what other machines are out there. They also sold random green beans so it was a little bit of this and a little bit of that and all over the place but it was fun! I was 17 or 18 and I just realized I was really enjoying it… I’m still shy but I was extremely shy back then, so speaking to customers and doing normal cafe things really got me out of my shell, so I figured I’d keep doing this until whenever… and here I am! I’ve never left, I’ve kind of just stayed in coffee and I’ve just climbed my way up in a way. I was at that cafe for about a year and a half, and I just moved around. I went to another cafe for a short minute that was more focused on pastries because in my head I thought that was specialty. They had a good setup and I truly learned how to dial in in a way and taught myself with YouTube videos because back then there was no real training. That’s also where I started to really like latte art because in that setting, in a bakery, a lot of people order lattes. And in the high end pastry shops they really sold us on the finer details and the finish of all of the goods. If you’re going to have a very beautiful cake you need to have a very beautiful drink!
So speaking of latte art, which is the perfect segue here, you’re heading to Milan this Saturday… Tell us why you’re going to Milan!
I’m going to Milan because I’m representing Canada in the World Latte Art Championships! It’s been quite a while since I’ve been the champion, 2.5 years now…
You’re our longest running Latte Art champion!
I don’t know how I feel about that… (Venice then proceeded to do “rock star” hands with both hands) I’m sure my fellow champions feel that as well. I feel like past me was a lot more motivated than I am now, it has been a journey.
Oh absolutely, these past 2 years have just been… a lot to say the least. I can't even imagine what the anticipation for this has been like for you. In regards to preparing for your set… I know you were hoping to incorporate your Filipino heritage in your set, could you tell us a little more about that?
Yeah! I was in the Philippines a month ago and I met up with a friend of mine there who is also a Filipino Latte Art Champion. He had just released his own line of milk pitchers, so I met up with him and tested them out and decided I wanted to use those pitchers for my set. Even though I’m representing Canada, I can’t just hide the fact that a lot of what inspires me is from my experiences back home, and I thought it was only fitting to incorporate that through the vessels that I’m using. Also, as I was getting sponsors for the event, I reached out to Eight Ounce and was helped by this lovely Filipino woman, Dianne… shoutout to Dianne, you’re the best! And it just came full circle for me that another Filipino person is helping me reach my goals and it really meant a lot to me. It means alot that Eight Ounce gave me the time and space to get here, I literally wouldn’t be here without your support guys, but it was the cherry on top that my kababayan (which means fellow Filipino people) are getting me through this.
I don’t know if you can speak on Canada, but in Toronto and this area, is there a community of Filipino Canadians in coffee?
In specialty there’s not a large Filipino community, but the ones that are, we are very close, and I’m almost protective of them but I feel like Asia as a whole, there’s a bigger community and we all tend to stick together and support one another. Pretty much my core team of folks helping me out are Asian and it really means a lot to me. I feel like there’s an understanding there that you might not have with someone who doesn't have that background, especially immigrants, because a lot of Asian parents don’t want their kids in alternative careers, but we’re making it happen and doing great things!
Heck yeah you are! So, in regards to preparing for the World Latte Art Championship, what has that process looked like for you?
It’s been a little difficult because now I don’t work behind a bar, so I’ve had to double my workload and do all my training outside of my actual work hours. I don’t know if other baristas feel this way, but I feel like over the last two years, I feel like a lot of us have shifted in our careers–so it has just been hard, with not working behind the bar anymore. So when the shop closes, I try to train for about 3-4 hours, as many days as I can. So for about five days a week to train outside of my day job is difficult. Competing independently is difficult as well, because most of the time I’m by myself just practicing and grabbing my own milk, then running across the city to grab more beans, but luckily with the help of Suneal at the Roaster’s Pack, it’s been a great help - shoutout to Suneal! I have a trolley cart just to load milk and carry it here every two days, so it’s been a lot of physical preparation as well as mental preparation. Reading your script over and over in your head… so it has been hard, but it has been fulfilling! Once you get to the world stage, it’s quite a big accomplishment.
It’s a HUGE accomplishment, you should be very proud of yourself!
Yeah, once you get there, it’s going to be a hard couple of months to train, but if I think about it, the whole country is watching, so I just strap my boots on and push through! But it has been really exciting that competitions are back and in full swing! I’m really excited to see some familiar faces and new faces as well!
Along the same lines as preparing physically and mentally… Do you have a mentor in coffee or someone that you’ve looked up throughout the years?
Actually, yeah, the cafe that I worked at after the specialty pastry shop, is where I worked my first “real specialty” shop and they got me started on how to really dive into coffee, and I met some really great people along the way, and that’s where I met Cris Tellez. I was so scared when he first came in because he was working for Phil and Sebastian and so I was like, “oh my gosh, he’s an actual latte artist, I can’t just make a squiggly wonky swan, I’m scared.” I practiced really hard because he would come in randomly, so I started asking him for tips. This one time–and this is something I still think about and look for when I train people–he told me that your stance is important, make sure you’re comfortable when you’re pouring and align yourself. I thought it was a really great tip! I felt so inspired being around him, and I learned more about what he had done in the industry and it encouraged me to start competing. So my latte art journey sparked from there. Back then Strange Love had these awards, and he had his name on there with a wreath around it, and I was like, “I want my name to be up there!” I wanted to be recognized for doing something in the industry.
And look at you now! It’s so special that you can now do that for the next generation of coffee people coming up.
That’s the goal! Now I work with Aeropress and it’s also a competition but we’re making sure to do the work to make sure we’re being as inclusive as we can, and help more competitors along the way, and build that competitor experience. Sometimes we get too caught up in earning that title that we forget to enjoy the journey and to actually experience the experience, learn from each other and enjoy meeting new people. That’s what I’m looking to do, to learn more about other people’s art, and bring what I learn back here, not to just better myself but to share with the Canadian coffee community.
Thank you for sharing all of that with me. I know you said you were feeling nervous about Worlds, but I hope you’re able to take a step back and enjoy this journey for yourself! Is there anything else you would like the people to know?
Yeah! I’m hoping to eat a lot of gelato as well. I also just wanted to add that Katherine [Gao] has been with me just to watch me pour and it has been a great help! Their advice is so great. Stacey [Lynden] is coming with me as my coach to Milan and I am so so grateful that I don’t have to do this by myself. She has also been there for the Strong Women of Coffee program which helped me get a better sense of the competition itself and it helped me feel ready for this. Thank you Stacey! The local coffee community has been making sure I’ve been eating and checking in on me, they’ve just been so great. I just love this community so much, and I’m hoping to give back even more in the future.