Chef Nettie Colón on the flavors of Puerto Rico and her work at The Lynhall
“Minnesota is known for casseroles and for supposedly having a bland Scandinavian palate,” says Annette “Nettie” Colón, chef de cuisine at The Lynhall and a veteran of the Twin Cities dining scene. “And I don’t believe that to be true.”
Standing in the Minneapolis restaurant’s cavernous kitchen, Colón mentions the flavorful cuisines that the Somali, Hmong, and Latinx communities, among others, have brought to the state. One could also look to The Lynhall’s recently relaunched menu, which offers flavors from all over the world, with dishes from executive chef Kristin Tyborski, sous chef Kayla Ammerman, and pastry chef Katie Elsing.
Colón has offered local diners the flavors of Puerto Rico that she learned as a child from her grandmother while continuing to mix in others that she has traveled the world to experience. Food is a journey to her, one that constantly incorporates new flavors, techniques, and history.
“As a chef, you stop learning when you die. There’s so much more to learn, and it’s an evolving thing. Cooking is evolving in every which way,” she says. “For me, it’s all about the adventures.”
No matter where the adventure takes Colón, Minnesota is home. It’s where she and her partner, Ellen Cleary, have built a life together and where she’s felt the most grounded since leaving Puerto Rico as a child.
Colón was born in New York City, but when she was 4 years old, her parents moved the family to their birthplace, Puerto Rico. The island’s compact size allowed for a variety of experiences. For all 48 grandchildren on her mother’s side, time spent on their self-reliant grandmother’s farm in the remote central mountain town of Utuado offered an idyllic childhood.
Her grandmother, Maria Llanes de Gonzalez, raised pigs and chickens and grew mangoes, passion fruit, bananas, lemons, yuca, and coffee. The farm was where Colón first started learning about cooking, sometimes she would assist with preparing rice, beans, sofrito, chicken, and pork —from slaughtering the animal to saving cooking grease in a Café Bustelo tin. Most often, she made meals for the pigs.
“Anything that had been used to make the lunch or dinner went into this cauldron of polenta,” she says. “That then was put into a 5-gallon bucket to be hiked down to the pen.”
At Christmas, her grandmother would slaughter a pig and cook a feast with arroz con gandules, pasteles, guineos verdes en escabeche con mollejas, cuajitos, tostones, amarillos, and guanimes. Although she had little money, her grandmother always made sure that those who gathered, whether family members, neighbors or visitors, had something to eat. “She loved to cook, and I got the love of cooking through her,” Colón says.
After visiting the farm, the grandkids would return to their structured lives in cities. Looking back, the farm was such a happy and free place, Colón says, and so different from attending school and eating more Americanized food at home.
Then in 1980, her parents moved the family to Florida when she was 15. Despite missing her grandmother’s instruction, Colón continued to cook and eventually attended culinary school.
Over the following decade, her adventures with food really took off. During her first trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands, she had an epiphany: “By cooking, I could make a living and travel the world.” She moved to Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, then spent a decade with stints in the U.K., Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, along with a six-month stage in Boulder, Colorado. All the while she was learning.
“As I grew older, what became really interesting to me was the food culture in other countries that are similar—that are not about the molecular gastronomy or anything like that, but the importance of food and the people that cooked it and the history behind it,” she says. “So any travel that I’ve done has been about the culture and the history of food.”
In 2000, she accepted a position at W.A. Frost, but soon left to work at Lucia’s and stayed there until 2011. It felt like home and Colón appreciated how chef/owner Lucia Watson invested in those who worked for her. It also gave her an opportunity to continue to travel, to learn, and also to teach. She instructed groups in traditional Mayan cooking alongside an indigenous chef at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Tulum, Mexico, several weeks during the winter.
After leaving Lucia’s, Colón worked for Sun Street Breads and then the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota. She also founded Red Hen Gastrolab. Along with Cleary, her partner who serves as director of annual giving and advancement operations for the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, the two have hosted pop-up dinners and farm dinners in Wisconsin.
While Red Hen continues, Colón is very excited to be at The Lynhall, working in a fast-paced restaurant kitchen again. The entire team collaborates and has enormous respect for each other’s opinions and abilities. “After I left Lucia’s, I thought I would never find a place like Lucia’s, and to be here, it feels like I’ve come back home,” she says.
Colón still travels Puerto Rico—including a recent trip to learn a nearly forgotten technique, el buren, that involves cooking on banana leaves over a clay dish—and other locales. But she is always happy to bring the newfound knowledge and flavors back to the North Star State.
“Minnesota, for us that are not from here, is a place where you can breathe,” she says. “It has been a really beautiful, nice balance of all four seasons, all the produce I can get my hands on, and farms all around. It’s been good to me. I love it here.”
Recipe for Piri Piri Sofrito Sauce
Sofrito creates the flavor base in Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s perfect for adding spice, texture and a little bit of sweetness in chicken or bean soups, simple beans and rice, or a wide variety of meat dishes during the holidays or year-round.
Colón says sofrito is similar to French mirepoix but less boring and with more umami. The aromatic mixture originally comes from traditional Spanish cuisine, but in Puerto Rico, it takes on new life from house to house, person to person. “It has Spanish influence, Italian influence, and a little bit of island influence. It’s pretty much like a little bit of everything from everywhere,” she says.
Colón remembers making sofrito first with her grandmother and more recently with her father, who has become quite the cook since retiring, she says. However, this recipe adds flare all her own through the substitution of sherry vinegar for white vinegar and piquillo peppers for red bell peppers. Substituting roasted red peppers could also provide an interesting flavor, depending on the dish. The goal with sofrito is to make it—and then make it your own.
3 cloves garlic
3 piquillo peppers (or coarsely chopped bell peppers)
2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper flakes
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon smoked, sweet paprika
1 1/2 tablespoons Kosher salt
2 tablespoons white sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
1/4 cup Spanish sherry vinegar
Add garlic and piquillo peppers to a food processor and pulse 4–5 times. (Tip: Err on the side of processing the ingredients not enough rather than too much, since you can easily pulse them more at the end.)
Pour spices into the food processor and pulse 2–3 times.
Add sherry vinegar and lemon juice and pulse 2–3 times. (Tip: An easy way to juice lemons is to cut them in half, poke a fork into the flesh and then turn the fork while squeezing. Make sure to strain out any seeds before adding the juice to the recipe.)
Taste. Add more spices as desired, but do not puree the mixture. Some structure should remain in the peppers and spices to add both flavor and texture to your dishes. If more texture is needed, add only peppers and pulse several more times.
The sofrito mixture should keep in the refrigerator for up to three weeks, allowing ample time to use it in multiple dishes.