During the October wildfires, chef Anita Cartagena, like chefs throughout the valley, pitched in to do what she could to provide food for first responders as well as those who’d become homeless overnight.
But the owner of Protea restaurant in Yountville said her thoughts were also with friends and family in her native Puerto Rico, which had also suffered immense devastation when it was hit by Hurricane Maria in September.
Cartagena was 10 when her family left Puerto Rico to move to Cleveland, Ohio; she retained both the joyful memories and traditions of her island. “I never felt poor until we moved to United States,” she said of her early impressions. A career as a model and then actress brought her to Chicago; but it was a trip to Yountville that set her on her path to becoming a chef.
“I always loved to cook,” she said. “I loved watching people cook. My grandmother and mother were wonderful cooks, and my father made the best fish soup ever.”
She recreated their specialties in her own cooking until, on a date, a man took her to a Thai restaurant in Chicago. “It opened up the whole world,” she said. The same man, who went on to become her life and business partner, is also the one who brought her to Yountville and took her to The French Laundry in 2008.
“Yountville changed my life,” she said. “Nine years later, I still cry when I think of that meal. I thought, this is what I want. I decided, I am going to come back and live here and open a restaurant.”
Back in Chicago, she enrolled in culinary school, at the same time that she became the mother of a new daughter. Then she made the move to Yountville, where she began working at Ciccio restaurant, with chef Polly Lapettito.
She opened Protea in April 2016. “But I wanted to do it my way — to bring a little spice to Yountville.”
“My way” means Cartagena’s menu changes daily. “I come to work and think about what I’d like to cook,” she explained. “I’d get bored if I cooked the same thing every day.”
She describes the Protea menu as “global with Latin influence.” She said cheerfully, “People say, ‘You’re not a Puerto Rican restaurant. No. I do cook dishes I learned from my mother and grandmother, but I like to add my own touches, even if I do turn everything on its head.”
On a recent day, Protea’s menu included a chuletas bowl, a thin-cut, bone-in pork chop, marinated and seared and served over bomba rice and beans, topped with greens and sweet plantains; and it also had cheese-loaded waffle fries, tacos, leek soup and a ramen stir-fry, made with sirloin, bok choy, mushrooms, broccoli and a Szechuan style spicy chili sauce.
The two-story restaurant has seating downstairs as well as upstairs on an outdoor deck. Cartagena and her staff cook in an open kitchen in the cozy restaurant that has racks of shining pans, and blue and white tiles.
“I want people to feel like they are in my kitchen,” she added. “It is casual — but the standards are high. I love being able to make people happy. But I like to throw curve balls. I like to paint outside the lines, to step outside what you think is normal.”
Asked for a recipe, Cartagena laughs heartily and explains, “They change as I cook.” One dish that shows up frequently on the Protea menu is empanadas, stuffed bread or pastry that is fried or baked. “They are really universal,” Cartagena said, noting that they are popular in Spain, and throughout the Americas.
In Puerto Rico, they are called pastelillos, and the traditional stuffing is picadillo, a spiced mixture of ground beef, tomato, onions and potatoes. The seasonings include sofrito, a mixture of garlic, onions and peppers that is the base of many Puerto Rican dishes, sazon, a blend of herbs and spices, and adobo, a mix of salt, onion, garlic and cumin. “If you can’t find adobo, garlic and onion powder work fine,” Cartagena said. “Sazon comes in little packets, but if these aren’t available, try a smoked paprika.”
Cartagena said she follows her mother’s lead and orders masa, the maize dough used for the empanadas, from Goya. “But I’ve changed mine around from my mother,”she added. Her own creative touches show up in the fillings: she has made a mac ‘n’ cheese filling as well as a British-inspired shepherd’s pie filling, although on some days, she might even return to picadillo. So far, she said, she has not been bored.
When her family moved to Ohio, she said, they brought their traditions with them, right down to the Puerto Rican version of posadas, in which Joseph and Mary search for shelter, leading up to Christmas Eve. “I played the Virgin Mary,” she recalled. “I was so proud.”
For the holidays, she said her immediate family in Cleveland will be cooking Puerto Rican specialties that evoke her childhood. “What I remember is all the people around, the music and of course, the food.” A typical Christmas Eve menu, she said, would also be empanadas, red kidney beans and rice with pigeon peas, and green and sweet plantains. “The main protein is likely to be pork, roasted or chicharones, (a dish of fried pork rind or belly). And desserts, of course, cakes and cookies. And there is always pineapple.”
Will there be a Christmas feast for her relatives in Puerto Rico? “I don’t know,” she said. “I have talked to them; they don’t want to leave their country. So I hope so.”
Protea, at 6488 Washington St., Yountville, is now serving breakfast on weekends, from 7-11 a.m. It is closed on Wednesdays, and open the rest of the week from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The daily menu is posted online at www.proteayv.com.