Born in New York City and raised in Puerto Rico, Nettie Colón spent her formative years learning traditional cooking methods with her grandmother Maria Llanes de Jesus. Nettie teaches creative cooking classes at the co-op that meld bold flavors and cultures in innovative, plant-based dishes. Read our Q&A below to learn more about Chef Nettie and her company, Red Hen Gastrolab.
What is Red Hen Gastrolab?
We’re a traveling pop-up, equipped to feed 50 people. Before the pandemic, we would serve a four-course meal at a farm, using a wood-burning oven and equipment that I carry with me. Now we do small gatherings of people in the backyard. It is not about what you cook, but what transforms a group of people to sit down and break bread together. Our mission is to help preserve the traditions of cooking that happen at the table, and more importantly, happen in the kitchen.
The story behind the name
When I was at my grandmother’s farm, we would play with the chickens. And there was always one chicken wandering around — the nosy chicken. You’d look up and there’s the chicken. You’d look over there and there’s the chicken, in very peculiar places. So to me, Red Hen was like that chicken, me being that person that makes you think, “Oh, you’re supposed to be in the kitchen!” but now I’m in your backyard or in your kitchen. And Gastrolab: “gastro” is all about food, and “lab” was the experiment that it doesn’t matter where you put food; food changes the dynamic of how people interact with each other.
How are your values reflected in your cooking?
I am my grandmother’s legacy. She didn’t know how to read or write; she took care of the farm and raised 10 kids, and you would never know. She taught me what matters is you’re grateful for what you have. She showed us 48 grandkids how to cook, pick coffee, butcher, harvest… and we looked at it like, wow, we have so much.
It was very impactful to see how people gathered around food, and to see that it wasn’t about what you did, how much money you had, where you came from — we were all equals when it came to food and its celebration. And everything was celebration; it didn’t matter if it was just a bowl of white rice with hot dogs on top and a fried egg; that was just as big a feast as a roasted pig with all kinds of accoutrements. That’s how I stay connected to her and connected to a culture and a place that I am so far away from. My values are their values, and I try to do right by that.
How has the pandemic impacted the way you view food and cooking?
We started cooking more at home and became inventive with what was in the fridge, like going back to my childhood in Puerto Rico. I became more appreciative of the food we were eating and viewed it more as I did when I was young, when we were grateful we had food to cook.
Food has always been about connecting with others. I’m still doing classes and private events, but it’s not the same. I love it because I’m still feeding people, but the intimacy of connecting over food with proximity, that has been really hard to go without.
How do you come up with the ideas for your classes at the co-op?
In Puerto Rico, we have African, Spanish, Portuguese and Taíno Indian influences. So for me, food has always been about, “Where does it come from? What are the cultures that impact it?” Food is not inherent to one area. I don’t have the money to be traveling all over the world, but I can travel through food. So I’ve always thought, why not have people travel through food with me and teach them that?
I like to teach vegetarian because I realized early on with my (vegetarian) wife that when you go to restaurants, it used to be that a lot of vegetarian entrees were an afterthought. That inspired me to do research and start incorporating flavorings I would typically put on meat or in a meat-centric dish in vegetarian dishes. So my classes are about bringing flavor and doing right by vegetarians, saying, yeah, you do deserve to have that delicious meal. That excites me.
What staples should every home chef keep in their pantry?
Sea salt, quality oil, peppercorns, good butter and a nice sherry vinegar, which I like to use to deglaze. If I have these, I can cook anything!