Nettie Colon & the Persistent Pop-up
Pop-up dinners are wonderful for everything the name implies: the surprise venue, a restaurant in an unlikely place, or where one was not before, and where a bunch of strangers will gather, for one night only, to share an unusual experience — and a good meal. Or that’s what we hope for. No one really knows what will happen, but we’re all in it together, the diners and the chefs, and that’s the fun of it.
On a recent evening, we took our hopes and expectations out to a pop-up at Sun Street Breads. Chef Nettie Colón (above, center) and crew had taken over the bakery-cafe for the night. “Red Hen Dinner Club,” the Facebook invite said, “neither a dinner party nor a fancy restaurant, guests sit at a communal table and enjoy this lively and social dinner. …”
In that spirit, the cafe’s two- and four-tops had been pushed together to form one table that ran the length of the room. It was covered in white tablecloths and brown kraft paper, red Sicilian olive-oil tins filled with ficelles, jam jars for water, hand towels for napkins, and wood platters with some promising-looking spreads and pickles.
Lit by candles and twinkle lights, the room was both festive and simple — like a holiday supper with the family.
The event was sold out; the table was full. Colón settled the room with the clink of a spoon against a wine glass and then instructed us to break off a chunk of the ficelle, pass the loaf to our neighbor, and dig into the tray of snacks. The savory mushroom-olive pate was silky and satisfying on the crusty bread. But the table went wild (“Wow, wow, wow,” said the fellow next to me) for a surprisingly light and tangy cheese spread made with 2-year-old cheddar and whipped butter. It paired nicely with slivers of sweet-pickled cucumber, an homage to the North Shore and the source — Colón pointed her spoon at Karen Tofte midway down the table — of the recipe. Not so, hollered Tofte. It turned out the original recipe had come from Split Rock Lutheran Church in South Dakota.
That exchange set the tone for the night, and by the time the first course rolled out, the dining room was a roar of conversation. We knew the people sitting to the right of us, but they were so busy getting to know their neighbors that we hardly talked the whole meal.
That’s OK; we were happy to focus on our soup — another homage, said Colón, this time to London — a kind of scallop chowder drizzled with spinach oil and hazelnuts. The scallops were tender and creamy, and the whole thing was seasoned with so light a hand that we could taste all the ingredients: artichoke-sweet sunchokes, nutty cauliflower, grassy spinach, toasty hazelnuts.
Next came a pretty radicchio and arugula salad topped with Candy Roaster squash baked in chamomile and honey, queso fresco, and a drizzle of a sweet-tart cherry balsamic shrub dressing. It made a pleasing, balanced bite: the clean flavors of the bitter and peppery greens with all that sweet, tart, salty, and creamy stuff.
Between each course, Colón came out to tell us about the food, sometimes from the top of a chair. She was clearly in her element.
Red Hen Dinner Club is her third pop-up series. A couple of years ago, she and chef Rueben Lange hosted Midwest Bounty. Lange was fresh off working at Next in Chicago and Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, and he added a molecular gastronomy element to Colon’s more classical fair. Last summer, it was the Hoop House dinners, comfort food out on chef Catharine Noel’s River Falls hobby farm. Noel had built a professional kitchen next to her barns, including an outdoor pizza oven, and the Hoop House dinners brought together a dream team of ex-Lucia’s staff, including Colón, Noel, cook Mala Vujnovich, and pastry chef Annamarie Rigelman, as well as their wrangler-decorator Ellen Cleary. The Hoop House dinners sold out every month, and when fall rolled around, the team planned to take a break. “But I missed it, and the girls missed it,” Colón says, so now they’re back together (sans Noel) with the dinner club.
When we ask Colón what she loves about the pop-up format, she says: “I come from a culture of pop-ups. If you go to Puerto Rico, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, people open up these little restaurants in their carports. It’s not a pop-up for a night, but it’s a persistent pop-up. I just love that.”
Colón was born in New York City, but her folks moved the family to the coastal city of Dorado, Puerto Rico when she was four years old. The chef is storyteller, and the thing she recalls about Puerto Rico is that she and her cousins spent a lot of time with her widowed maternal grandmother in Utuado, a town in the mountainous center of the island. She’s one of 48 cousins. “We’d get sent in packs of 12 to go spend time with grandma and help her out,” she says. “After two weeks, our parents would come to get us, and it would be like, oh my, Lord of the Flies.”
It sounds like a locavore’s ideal childhood. Grandma had banana and coffee trees growing on her property, and she kept chickens, ducks, and pigs. The children helped her pick and process the coffee — “the little ones would have wars with the beans” — laying the beans out on sacks to dry in the sun, roasting them in an open fire pit, and then hand grinding them. “Where she lived, there were all these little hobby farms, if you will, tucked away in the mountains,” Colón says. “A woman up the road grew tobacco, and grandma smoked, so they’d trade coffee beans for tobacco.”
The kids also cooked the pig’s daily meal, a mixture of polenta and food scraps they’d pour into a bucket, carry down to the creek, and dump into the moss-covered limestone pit that housed the pig. If it was Christmas, they’d also help with the pig’s butchering, an event that involved everyone from the neighborhood coming over with their knives and machetes. “One of them is stabbing the pig,” Colón says, “and the other is holding the bucket for the blood because you’ve got to hand it off to the women in the kitchen, who make the blood sausage, and it’s got to be warm.”
“It was like the pig was being celebrated,” she explains. “We sat down to this food, and it was a happy, joyous kind of gathering. There was this contentment to feeding yourself and whoever came through the gates. You always had to cook more, because you just didn’t know who was going to show up. It was always: ‘You’re hungry? Come sit down’. And it was very moving to me that my grandma was at the center of it.”
Seeing how much Colón and her sister liked their grandma’s place, Colón’s father turned their yard in Dorado into an urban farm, with two goats, two dogs, two cats, two cows, and about thirty hens. The girls made their first pocket money gathering the hens’ eggs and pulling them to corner stores in a Radio Flyer wagon.
All of these adventures came to an end when the family moved to Florida. Colón was 15 when they arrived. “I felt plucked, and I spent the first year trying to do everything I could to get myself sent back to grandma,” she says. “But they caught on.”
After high school, Colón went to Key West, where eventually, after some youthful casting about, she started cooking. She learned to line cook in the tiny kitchen of a guesthouse, and then moved on to a big hotel kitchen, where she began to see the business side of things. “Oh, this is line cooking,” she says. “You’re a machine, people are yelling at you, and you’re getting burned. It was a good springboard for me to say, this is the mechanics of it, and this is what I love about food, the celebration, now how do I combine them?”
She found the answer at Lorraine’s Cafe in Provincetown, Massachusetts — “Someone said, ‘You should come to Cape Cod for the summer’” — where chef-owner Lorraine Najar became her first mentor. Najar had recreated the all-for-one, one-for-all food culture of Colón’s childhood. She sometimes even bartered her food for woodwork and paintings. “Places like that are a labor of love,” Colón says. “We didn’t care who knew about us; we were just proud that we were putting out really good food.”
Najar also planted the pop-up seed. Lorraine’s featured New American food with a Mexican twist, but Najar, a third-generation cook, would occasionally have a pop-up Mexican dinner featuring her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. “I had never had, nor have I had since, pork carnitas that good,” Colón says. “The whole town would go to those nights.”
Colón stayed in Provincetown for 12 years, but traveled a lot during that time, gaining new experiences: There was a winter in Boulder, Colorado, learning Southwestern cuisine. Three months in Turks and Caicos picking up West Indies food — “I was fresh off a heartache, and this little Creole woman taught me how to do conch sandwiches” — and a month at an Italian restaurant in Montreal mastering ossobuco and other braises.
And then someone told her she should check out Minneapolis. “The first place I ate was Lucia’s,” she says. “I met the maître d’, and it turned out he knew Provincetown. He gave me a T-shirt.”
Colón moved here in April of 2000, and by June she was working as the chef de cuisine at Lucia’s, which she describes as calm. The restaurant catered to people who appreciated good food, but it also had the low-key ambiance of a neighborhood bistro. The work was challenging. She was writing a new menu every week. But the place was a lot of fun — like cooking in her own kitchen, but with other people. “It felt comfortable there, like you could do no wrong,” she says. “Lucia would come in and say, ‘We’re just going to do our thing tonight and see how it goes. Do you have any questions? If not, then cool.’ It was heaven.”
Lucia also supported the chef’s culinary adventures. Colón would spend one or two weeks in the Yucatán every winter, cooking Mayan cuisine for a bunch of kayakers at a biosphere reserve in the jungle.
So when she left the restaurant in 2010, it was one of the harder decisions of her career. She was heading into her fifties. It felt like time to let the younger chefs experience all the opportunities that Lucia could offer, and there were other things she wanted to do. “I left Lucia’s loving it and on good terms,” she says, “but I always said I would never compromise the love I have for my craft. For me, it’s not just cooking for a living, it’s cooking to feed this connection to my grandmother, my culture, and my family.”
From there, Colón went to Turtle Bread for a brief time and met Solveig Tofte, who brought her on as the chef for Sun Street Breads’ evenings. When the bakery-cafe stopped serving dinners, she moved to the Campus Club at the University of Minnesota. The Campus Club caters special events and serves lunch, dinner, and cocktails to members. Colón enjoys the variety and freedom: The menu changes weekly, the chef’s special every day, and if they want to make haggis, they make haggis. “Although, I’ll never do that again,” she says. “It was for a Robert Burns scotch tasting, and people loved it, but it was pretty nasty having to receive the kidneys — they still smelled like piss.”
And then there’s the Red Hen Gastrolab, her catering company and hub for the pop-ups — also a great source of culinary freedom. “It’s been really liberating for all of us,” she says. “For one day, we just belong to the craft we do, we don’t have to answer to anyone. It’s a hard feeling to explain. You’re excited about it, you put in all this work preparing for it, and then the day you do it, it doesn’t feel like work. That’s the inspiring part.”
Colón and crew are planning one or two more Dinner Clubs in Minneapolis this spring — the next one is set for April 2 — and then the Hoop House dinners will start up again. Interested diners can visit Red Hen’s website or Facebook page to sign up. Tickets are $45.
As someone at the Sun Street dinner said, “Hell of a deal.”
And it was: After a good palate cleansing, a ball of lemon sorbet in green tea, we moved on to the main course, which seemed to combine many of Colón’s influences. It was a nice-sized Merkén-chili-braised pork shank, lush and crisp and full of pepper and cumin. It came topped with some mysterious persimmon, a sort of mildly sweet Chinese pickle with ginger and star anise. And it was sitting on a pile of butter beans, Brussels sprouts, and carrots, also very lightly preserved but with more of an Italian pickle flavor, which sounds incongruous, but was exactly the zippy note the dish needed. Somehow it all formed a cohesive and delicious whole.
At this point, we wondered aloud if we could manage dessert. Rigelman brought out a knob of French pastry, cream-filled and redolent with dates, scotch, cardamom, and black pepper. It tasted buttery and wonderful with a swipe of cardamom ice cream and scotch-caramel sauce, and we didn’t leave a bit of it on the plate.
As we looked around at our fellow diners, their faces flushed and contented in the candlelight, something Colón had said in the interview came back to us. There was a quotation she’d been thinking about lately, something like, if you want to make a friend, go to their house and eat with them; people who give you their food give you their heart. “You know, every pop-up is an experiment,” she said. “You’re putting yourself out there for people to judge your food, what you think a pop-up should be, and it’s very vulnerable and humbling. But then the people come in, and you see their smiling faces. They’re sitting next to each other talking, some of them even exchange numbers. It’s very reassuring. Okay, now I can breathe.”