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At Chef Camp 2018, Nettie Colón is taking cooking underground. Literally.

Scenes from Chef Camp 2017, where Colón taught three classes, each on cuisine from different parts of the world that employ open-fire cooking.

Scenes from Chef Camp 2017, where Colón taught three classes, each on cuisine from different parts of the world that employ open-fire cooking. Chef Camp

The cooking technique is called “pachamanca.”

It’s a tradition of the Incas in Peru, who would bury food in an “earth oven” to cook it. Heated stones are placed in the bottom of a brick-lined hole and topped with potatoes, pepper- or herb-marinated lamb, pork, or chicken, banana leaves or myrtle branches, and corn. Once the oven is full, it’s sealed so the food can cook over several hours—kind of like an ancient crockpot.

“It’s a communal banquet, so everybody gets to partake [in] putting something in there,” says chef Annette “Nettie” Colón. “You take it out and it’s a feast.”

This year, as the official camp chef of Chef Camp—a three-day culinary experience on Sturgeon Lake that’s “like summer camp for adults who love food”—Colón will give flannel-clad foodies a chance to try it.

This will be Colón’s second stint at Chef Camp, which this year runs from August 31 to September 2. Last year, she taught three classes, each on cuisine from different parts of the world that employ open-fire cooking: Argentina, Sardinia, and the Yucatán.

This culturally rich style is Colón’s trademark. Though she was born in New York, her family moved back to Puerto Rico when she was four years old. Her maternal grandmother, a widow, kept chicken, pigs, and pigeons in addition to growing coffee beans and fruit on her land. Colón was one of 48 grandchildren who would visit their grandmother by the dozen during the summer. It was during those visits that Colón learned how to harvest coffee beans, cook polenta, and collect chicken eggs. Neighboring widows also grew tobacco or produced dairy products, and it was commonplace to barter goods with one another.

Nettie Colón, cooking up a storm at camp last year

Nettie Colón, cooking up a storm at camp last year

“I saw this sense of community,” Colón says. “My grandmother didn’t have much by any means, but she was rich in giving food. No one ever went hungry.”

Colón was devastated when, at 15, her family relocated to Florida. She missed her grandmother terribly, and perhaps that’s what drove her to culinary school at University of Central Florida Rosen College of Hospitality Management. The biggest perk of cooking for a living, she found, was the mobility. As a chef she traveled to—and sampled the flavors from—the West Indies, Wales, Sardinia, Tulum, Italy, Cape Cod, and Boulder.

“I made it a point that wherever I would travel I would learn that cuisine and use it to incorporate it as part of my style of cooking of my roots growing up Puerto Rican,” she says.

Colón finally settled down—sort of—in Minneapolis in March of 2000. After working at Table of Contents and W.A. Frost, she made the move to Lucia’s, where she stayed for almost 11 years and became chef de cuisine. She wrote lunch, dinner, and bar menus, all of which changed weekly. “That, to me, was heaven,” she says. “I was not bored at all.” But in 2011, she left Lucia’s to focus on her personal chef pop-up service Red Hen Gastrolab.

Now, Colón eagerly awaits returning to Chef Camp, where last year’s attendees foraged for mushrooms, learned how to make sausage, and mixed cocktails. “I had never been to camp before as a kid. It’s not something we do in Puerto Rico,” she says. “As an adult—wow. It was so awesome. It is a magical thing to experience in the outdoors. And you definitely do not go hungry because you are eating all the time.”

Chef Camp isn’t just about chowing down, however; it’s also about camaraderie and building community. “We’re in such different times right now,” she says. “If we happen to be more fortunate than others, then we should build longer tables and not taller fences.”

And Colón hopes campers connect to the origins of the food she cooks, even if they never see those destinations firsthand.

“I want them to know this food just didn’t appear from the ground. I want them to know the history of it,” she says. “Everything we do is about a story and food tells a story of where we are and where we’ve been or where we’re going. Every time I cook, I definitely make sure my food tells a story.”