Chef Natalia Vallejo, a one-woman powerhouse, is a culinary artist bringing Puerto Rican cuisine to the forefront of the farm-to-table and sea-to-land movement. Though Vallejo began her culinary studies in Puerto Rico, she took off to Argentina at an early age to continue her training. Her fearless attitude paid off, she has since made an indelible mark in the world of cuisine—even enjoying the honor of being invited to cook at the James Beard House this past December.
Vallejo’s initial path to South America led her on a culinary journey across the world, working as a chef in Argentina, Spain, and finally Chile before returning to her island just prior to Hurricane Maria. Her return though, was full of intention: to elevate Puerto Rican cuisine in the eyes of the world and help to create a self-sustaining culinary ecosystem on the island. Vallejo has stayed true to that goal, having worked with numerous farms, fisherman, and local sources in Puerto Rico in all her culinary endeavors, from her time as the head chef of Finca before Hurricane Maria changed her circumstances, to hosting and catering events and parties across the island.
Today, Vallejo is the proud owner, founder, and chef of Cocina al Fondo in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Her restaurant—which offers Puerto Rican dishes dosed with a bit of flavor from cities around the world—explores the history of the island’s culture through its flavors, recipes, and ingredients.
Downtown: How did you first start loving the art of cooking?
Chef Natalia Vallejo: I grew up watching my father cook. I was always fascinated by his mannerisms and his inventions in the kitchen. We, without a doubt, ate very differently from others. My father was incredibly innovative in the kitchen. I remember he used to make fresh pasta and he would hang it to dry all over the house. He also always had a small herb garden and various fruits and citruses growing in our backyard over the years. Those gardens are what first helped develop my curiosity about where food came from.
Downtown: Tell us about your formative years cooking. Where did you begin?
NV: I began studying the culinary arts at the Hotelera in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I later decided to go to Buenos Aires to study the culinary arts professionally.
Downtown: What made you leave Puerto Rico for culinary school in Argentina?
NV: I felt an incredible necessity to see other cultures and cities.
Downtown: What was that experience like and what did you take from it?
NV: I went at a very young age, so for me, it was an experience that entailed reconnecting with myself and with my culture. A culture clash is always helpful in connecting you to your roots. Argentina did that for me. It was a time of discovery in many aspects, especially in the discovery that I had a grand passion for the kitchen and the culinary world.
Downtown: What drew you to Barcelona to pursue your career?
NV: After I finished my studies in Argentina, I returned to Puerto Rico to work. I spent various years working in the kitchens of Puerto Rico after which I decided to go to Barcelona on a search for new experiences. I wanted to learn more about Spanish cuisine.
Downtown: What did living and cooking in Barcelona teach you?
NV: It showed me to value the product, to respect it, and to learn about the distinct varieties and strains within each product, its inherent value, and the importance of supporting what is native to each region.
Downtown: Who were some of the chefs you cooked with, worked with, broke bread with, that formed a part of your cooking history?
NV: I have had many colleagues. The ones that have most impacted me in one form or another include Veronica Quiles, Alfredo Ayala, Martin Louzao, and Gonzalo Galbete.
Downtown: What made you decide to leave Spain for Chile?
NV: I wanted to continue to expand my search or quest if you will for knowledge and various experiences. And I wanted to continue connecting with other cultures. I felt a huge connection with the ancestry of South America.
Downtown: Tell us about your time cooking in Chile?
NV: I began working at an Italian restaurant in Chile where I made fresh pastas and various sauces for the pasta dishes. I remember the kitchen had a view of the bay in Valparaiso where I lived for three years. I liked the diversity of all the products from the sea. I loved going to the markets full of fisherman selling their catches. It was fascinating to buy mussels and be able to go from kiosk to kiosk to choose them by size. The pippin is the national fish, and I always cooked it on the grill. It was delicious. Chile has so much to offer, especially in regards to gastronomy and wine. I learned so much from the simplicity in their recipes coupled with their great products and ingredients.
Downtown: If you could choose one favorite dish from each country you have lived and worked as a chef, which would they be and why?
NV: In Argentina, the pumpkin and chicken casserole. The flavor of the roasted pumpkin had a great effect on me. In Spain, the sauces of refried beans with chili pepper, white garlic, and grilled fish left a big impression on me. Spain helped connect me to a manner of cooking products simply, allowing their natural flavors to be highlighted. From Chile, the corn cake and pomegranate seed dish. It brings back the memory of cooking for a large group of people and always using the ingredients on hand and in season.
Downtown: What drew you back to Puerto Rico to live and work as a chef?
NV: I felt an incredible desire to reconnect with my roots and contribute the results of my teachings and experiences in work and life to my own country from all these countries I had lived in. Puerto Rican cuisine has immense value and we must rescue and preserve our ancestral recipes and connect anew with the agriculture of our island. I want to inspire people to value what we have, to know it, understand it, and to know our history in order to continue raising awareness and prevent us from deteriorating as a country. Hurricane Maria made us close Finca, the restaurant I formerly headed, but nowadays I appreciate everything I have lived, all the learning that came with it, and the strength to reinvent myself that it left me with.
Downtown: You were the head chef at Finca prior to Hurricane Maria hitting. What did that teach you about how you wanted to run your own kitchen?
NV: After shutting Finca down because of the effects of the hurricane, I found myself in a very vulnerable situation, like many other Puerto Ricans. At the same time, the situation forced me to reinvent myself and look for other ways to move ahead. I started to work many private events, catering, you name it. Miraculously, I kept receiving calls for catering jobs, events, etc. I always wanted to be my own boss, and Maria pushed me into achieving that goal.
Downtown: What was life like after the hurricane and the subsequent closing of Finca?
NV: I think every day I gained more awareness and interest in working the land. The agricultural community in Puerto Rico continues to grow every day. We are more united and empowered as a result of our colonial situation. Maria swept the island and we saw ourselves in such a vulnerable situation—the U.S. government controlled absolutely everything and it caused chaos and tragedy. I think in that moment, many of us reaffirmed the importance of sowing the earth, self-managing, and uniting to break the dependence on imported foods and goods. Puerto Rico’s land is very fertile and there are many hands willing to work it. As a chef, I recognize the importance of supporting the farmers and forming part of that change/movement. There is no other way of being a country or caring for your motherland than to unite with the land and those who work it day by day. If you read about the history of Puerto Rico, you can see when and how the US cut off the farmer and imposed a plan of dependence on their goods and services. This took away our strength and the notion that we had all we needed to be well. Every land on this earth is alive and it is important to reconnect with it. Our land is waiting for us—there is a global call for all to connect with that root where everything broke.
Downtown: What about the island you grew up on drew you to understand the earth more—and the art of producing food that celebrates the earth?
NV: Just visualizing the island and all it has to share with the world—gastronomically speaking—helped me understand the earth more. If the world would stop seeing us as a colony of the US, they would realize Puerto Rico is much more beyond that idea. Our island is more than beautiful beaches, mofongo, luxury hotels, reggaeton, and casinos. We have a lot of history, a lot of culture, and a lot of talent. For me personally, Puerto Rico is a mountain, it is full of our ancestors still pining to be heard. The mountains of Puerto Rico are also full of wonderful projects by young people who have wanted to show their gratitude and connection to the earth. Our gastronomy has not yet been valued or exalted. This is what I would like to help achieve in Puerto Rico in collaboration with the farmers who are helping to rescue the lost wealth and harvests of Taino ingredients, recpies, etc. I would like us to see ourselves again so we can share who we really are—without anyone or any country come to label our culture or gastronomy. We are so much more than mofongo and fritters.
Downtown: Tell us about what was and is so invigorating about the farming and culinary community in Puerto Rico right now?
NV: I feel fortunate in regards to everything I have lived as a chef. Having my own restaurant now allows me to reach more people and relay the message on the importance of Puerto Rican cuisine with great pride and courage. I work with my memory in regards to those that visit me. I transport them to their childhood and connect them to their ancestors through food. That is my greatest gift. To open the door to powerful questions. Is our cuisine alive? Do we recognize it? Does it connect us to our ancestors?
Downtown: Tell us about the James Beard House invitation! What was the event?
NV: I was recently invited to the James Beard House in NY to interpret and create a Puerto Rican Christmas dinner along with three other Puerto Rican chefs. I was honored, and it was an incredible experience to be able to carry this message of cuisine through the meal. Puerto Rico is ready and is open to those who would like to truly know and understand the island.
Downtown: Why was this invitation so special to you as a chef, a woman, and a Puerto Rican?
NV: It was important because at the time I still did not have a fixed restaurant. I worked and put together many culinary events, but I did not have a place to call my own after the hurricane. I felt that by being invited, my underlying message of promoting Puerto Rican cuisine was reaching and resonating with a lot of people. I felt that I was invited precisely for my efforts to elevate Puerto Rican cuisine in the eyes of the world—that filled me with much happiness and pride.
Downtown: What inspired the menu for that even?
NV: It was a collective work with the three other invited chefs. Everyone contributed their piece. Creating a menu between four people is very challenging but we were able to persevere!
Downtown: You just opened up your own restaurant in Santurce. Tell us about it!
NV: I was looking for a location in the San Juan vicinity. In that time period I received a call from Naima Rodriguez tell me about how she had contracted this giant space with room for a restaurant in the back. Her idea was to create a cultural, gallery-like space with another business in the back. I went to see it and my intuition told me it was a great opportunity. All the chips started falling into place. My friend Natalia Martinez decorated the space, instilling a wonderful ambiance into it while I set up. I turned it over and over in my mind until I had the concept and name in place. We are in the back of the Publica space, so I called it Cocina al Fondo. Each business in this space is working cohesively within their own identity. These types of collaborations make me very happy because I feel that joining efforts can lead to beautiful results.
Downtown: What is on your menu?
NV: It is a Puerto Rican-based menu with influences from other cultures in which I have had the opportunity to live in and visit. I work a lot within the memory of those flavors that transport one back to their childhood. I also like to work with vegetables in unexpected and fun ways.
Downtown: What dish will never leave the menu?
NV: A chicken soup filled with balls of mofongo, chayote, and avocado.
Downtown: How does it feel to have returned to your beautiful island and contributed so much to this return of hope and belief in the power of the island and what it has to offer?
NV: I am extremely happy to have found a space and a healthy way in which to live on this island. It is not easy. I am very aware that it is not the reality of many. There are many things happening on the island that makes people want to leave. I can understand why some leave and I respect it enormously. It is even admirable and courageous. It is for this reason and others that I am grateful every morning to be able to be here and contribute even the smallest grain of hope and help through what I do. And I do not want to waste that opportunity.
Downtown: If you could cook and share a meal with any chef living or passed, who would it be and why?
NV: It would be with Gonzalo Galbete, my chef and mentor in Barcelona. He opened my eyes and helped me rescue my love for cooking. When I first saw him lead a kitchen he broke all the schemes and ideas I had in mind. He was 20 years old and had worked in several kitchens in Puerto Rico and Argentina by the time he arrived in Barcelona. At that moment I understood how toxic it can be to work in a kitchen and the importance of generating a friendly work environment filled with respect. It’s something he does not know he taught me, but he made me see many things that I still hold tight and defend today.
Downtown: What is next for you?
NV: My plan is to continue growing, learning, and developing. I have many ideas and projects in mind. I want to stay in Puerto Rico.