The plan was to open a restaurant or a bar. It would be Italian, it would have some of the same food that his grandmother served at her little place in Queens — good in the way native New Yorkers could appreciate. John Venuti always attacked his goals with the singular focus of a bullet, letting his fortunes build upon themselves one step at a time.
Venuti knew food. He liked the pain and challenge of kitchen work, watching his grandmother run her cozy Elsie's Truck Stop ("not like a truck stop of today's definition," he says) and put jars of pickled eggplant on the tables, an appetizer that customers couldn't get enough of. "She was Sunday dinner, 100-percent Italian," Venuti recalls — "the gravy, scungilli …" and the flavors of the old country. "My whole family worked there, my aunts, my father."
The restaurant was not to be. But the place that began as a cooked-from-home business flourished, along with his interest in food.
At 16, Venuti took a job at Long Island restaurant Chicago Pizza Pub, which was big and busy selling deep-dish pies and the usual Italian entrees. "Restaurant work is rough no matter what age you are," he says, "and I can remember leaving at 3 in the morning, soaking wet from being sprayed by dishwater. That's a rite of passage in the world of restaurants, working your way up the line to cooking. I don't think people recognize that you get busy, crushed, as everybody's just sitting at their tables."
Venuti met his wife, Christina, there. She was a waitress and good at it.
"You never forget the days you were waiting tables," he says, aware now that customer service would follow him the rest of his career. By age 19, Venuti had enrolled in the country's most prestigious food-industry school, The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y. "It's an important piece of my foundation," he says. And a little rare for a guy who would become one of Richmond's most well-known detectives.
Venuti, 52, who professes to being "insanely private" rarely has revealed his culinary background. Two and a half years after graduating from the Culinary Institute, he left New York for Richmond, where he joined the city's police academy.
"I just had an itch to be a cop," he says. "I thought it would be cool to try for a while, and never thought I would still be in the game. I always figured if it didn't work I could go back to cooking in a snap. But I wanted to be a narc — making cases, seizing guns, drugs and cash."
In a stroke of fortuitous timing, his first assignment combined both worlds: In taking on a role as an undercover narcotics agent, he became, naturally, a cook. He worked at Benjamin's — in the space where the Pig & Pearl operates — and around Fielden's and Tony's Supper Club along Broad Street.
"My cover was my cooking skills," he says. "I certainly could cook. I wasn't a known face in Richmond, and I was obviously from New York, had the accent, the Italian face."
The gig was a 10-month, deep undercover assignment in which he was looking for drug dealers working in or around the restaurant industry — not simple possession among workers. He declines to reveal details about operations. But as an unintended pat on the back for the mysterious stranger, his skill on the kitchen line pulled in more customers."It's kind of like living another life," he says. "I had a fake name, fake identification. The biggest thing for me was always being paranoid that someone was going to recognize me. You just hope that's not going to happen, being confronted by someone."
Although all of those places are closed now, they continued to operate after his assignment ended. "Out of the blue, about two months ago, I got an email from one of the people I arrested for a drug violation," he says. "They wrote to thank me, and it was ironic." If not for being arrested, "one of two directions they were going, they would have wound up dead."
Restaurants then, and now, can have a way of attracting a criminal element.
"One part of it is obviously alcohol," Venuti says. "A lot of time you have illicit drug use connected to that," and a fast-moving, cash-heavy population that might step over the line. The undercover role in restaurants isn't something he misses.
During his 25-year career with the Richmond Police Department, Venuti became a homicide detective, a quietly badass rock star with his own television show who developed a reputation as a single-minded, highly responsive leader with compassion for victims and their families. His six-year-old series on A&E, "Crime 360," still offers a detective tutorial on YouTube that shows Venuti and his team in action, solving particularly grisly murders.
He oversaw investigations of 450 murders from 2003-2010. "Those were the busy years," he recalls, and instead of sleep, "you pick up the unnatural rhythm" of pagers going off the moment dinner is finished. Those also were the years where clearance rates improved, killers were apprehended, and the murder rate in Richmond dropped substantially.
After Michael Rao became president of Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009, his first hire was Venuti. Although he's since been promoted to assistant vice president for campus safety, his sworn officer status keeps him in action. As chief of police for the sprawling urban campus, he's put the long-ago culinary training mostly behind him.
"At the same time I realize that being a chef is a lot like police work — you leave the academy and hit the street, and you do the police work" — which isn't the same as learning about it, he says — "and you figure out ways to do things."
"In a kitchen it's all about coordination and relying on other people to do their jobs," he says. "It's damage control as well as identifying priorities. Timing is critical. You've got to have a good team. Everyone has to understand the mission and the priorities. Everything is important. Attention to detail is a must. Sitting in the seat I'm in, when I look at things often I see things that other people don't see. Being the head of the agency, that's what I'm supposed to do."
- Scott Elmquist
- After a long career with the Richmond Police Department, Venuti became the first hire of VCU President Michael Rao in 2009.
Craig Claiborne, a preeminent food writer for the New York Times, says of the Culinary Institute of America: "Almost every profession has an outstanding training ground. The military has West Point, music has Juilliard, and the culinary arts has the Institute." The vaunted campus promises students "knowledge and specific skills necessary to live successful lives and to grow in positions of influence and leadership in their chosen profession."
"You walk up and it's intimidating. It takes cooking to the next level — all of the instructors are acclaimed, high-level people," Venuti says. "One of my instructors invented mayo and sold the patent to Hellman's. It was definitely demanding and challenging. You progress through the full spectrum of food service — spirits, garde manger, Asian, Italian …. If you love cooking, it's not even like being in school. All you do is cook and eat."
Venuti graduated in 1982, and returned to the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan to continue a career that would soon be eclipsed by another. He took the training and parlayed it into a dimension far from gastronomy.
Lunch for Venuti these days might consist of a handful of pretzels or nothing but coffee. His cooking skills are displayed only during a campus chili cook-off to start VCU basketball season each year, and although he "ghost cooks" his entry by entering under other names, his beef-and-beans secret recipe always seems to win. Coach Shaka Smart must like it, because he's the judge and knows a thing about winners. (Smart whips up his own challenge April 17, when he and University of Richmond men's basketball coach Chris Mooney compete in a chili cook-off to benefit Positive Vibe Café.)
Despite his culinary training, Venuti's no food snob, but he recalls when Richmond was lacking in some of the basics of his youth. When he and his wife arrived in 1984, "there was no such thing as a bagel, a hard roll, an egg sandwich," he says. There were no Italian pork stores either — specialty butcheries for fresh or dry sausage and other cuts of pig.
"Richmond has come a long way in 30 years," he says. "There used to be, in Henrico, an old abandoned restaurant at Cox and Broad. We used to drive by it and say we should buy that place. If we had, it's now Short Pump." As in, lost cha-ching.
And there were the remnants of another era on his beat, Venuti recalls: "I had the Grace Street assignment every night until 2 in the morning — Hababa's, Melissa's [a bar on the corner of Harrison and Grace streets] and Newgate Prison. It was a beer joint with wooden picnic tables, paper cups. Everybody would spill out onto Grace Street drunk and ready to fight. It was sketchy back then."
In one of those perfect turnabouts, the bar that was Newgate is now his office, at least until it moves east later this year, and crime on that block has dropped off considerably. But the campus remains a challenging turf to protect. "The complexity of policing here is very high," he says. "It's a complicated environment, it's urban, and everyone belongs here. With businesses, bars, clubs, this area draws people from across the metropolitan area, including people from other colleges and institutions. Sometimes we're dealing with students, citizens, high-dollar residential neighbors, it's a mix."
- Scott Elmquist
- While walking around campus recently, Venuti stops by Shafer Court Dining Center, where he chats with dining services manager Raymond Reilly.
He prefers not to analyze food, possibly because he's busy analyzing virtually every other aspect of life — crime stats, noise complaints, incidents using force, number of presentations his officers do each year. "Oh God, we measure everything," he says. "Crime's going to happen everywhere but I don't think we ever give up. It's our job to make as safe an environment as possible. If I can get our message out to 50,000 people it will have much more impact."
With 92 sworn police officers, VCU has one of the larger campus police forces in the country. Under Venuti's watch, officers are expected to be more visible on bikes and foot as well as in cruisers. Customer service is paramount, and prevention is an ongoing educational mission. "The hardest thing about the job is, people have the benefit of second-guessing or evaluating all of the decisions without having the extreme pleasure of standing knee deep in a situation," he says. Crime is more complicated than television shows portray. His instincts and calm, analytical demeanor show why he's admired by police colleagues, who consider him a regular guy even as he's risen through the ranks.
Though he's a chef by training, dining out these days isn't so easy. "When you're walking around in a police uniform you don't just walk into a restaurant," Venuti says. "You never know who's working in that environment, who you may have had contact with. Cops like to eat, but we have a very small circle of places that we eat." He cites Edo's Squid as an example. "We follow the same trends, we do our research." As for being ready for action, he says: "I don't need to sit so I can see the door, but I've been told I'm not the typical police personality. I'm an anomaly."
Asked to critique the Richmond dining scene, Venuti is circumspect.
"In Richmond the thing that stands out is service — either it's really good or really bad," he says. "Consistency. You go someplace and it's really good, and then you go back and it's not. Richmond has issues with consistency and good service. At VCU we push out a high level of customer service — when you leave, I want you to be smiling. You might not like the outcome, but service makes the difference." The same goes with any eatery worth its salt.
The parallel between professions is apt, he says: "There are so many factors to success. I'm good at putting together a good group, laying out the message and priorities, holding everyone accountable, leading when I need to lead, sitting back when I need to. A part of my personality is that I am 100 percent relentless. When I set out to accomplish something it's all out, with maximum effort and determination."
His colleagues agree. "John's mentality is — How do we get it done?" says Charles Klink, VCU's associate vice provost of student affairs. "At the core it comes from a place in him that's very deep. He realizes that the most important component of policing is relationship building and communication." But Klink is still waiting to taste the chief's chili.
- Scott Elmquist
- Venuti and his son Vincent, an employee of VCU’s dining hall services, talk with students during lunch last week.
Venuti isn't likely to open a restaurant. He isn't cooking for public consumption. He won't become a restaurant critic, though the idea has crossed his mind when he's had a disappointing meal. He's all in for the job he has, the one that requires him — like a chef — to work long hours and late nights, with volatile characters, dicey situations, physical and mental exhaustion, and the potential for chaos at any moment.
The way things worked out for the once-aspiring chef definitely wasn't planned.
"But I realized I had spent my whole career being exactly where I was supposed to be," he says. So now kitchen duty happens only at Thanksgiving, when he and his wife pull out all the stops for a 30-person, sit-down dinner.
"In the world of cooking," Venuti says, only partially talking about cooking, "it's hard to accept mediocrity. You should strive for perfection every single time you create something." S