The father of fusion cuisine, Norman Van Aken continues to learn and teach about Florida’s multicultural culinary influences
By Sara Perez Webber
In 1971, Norman Van Aken answered a want ad for a short-order cook in Libertyville, Ill. Although his mother worked as a restaurant waitress and hostess, Van Aken had no kitchen training. The job paid just $3.50 per hour, but at least he knew he was qualified. “No experience necessary,” read the ad—three words so fateful that they became the title of Van Aken’s memoir 43 years later.
Van Aken ended up in Florida, where he established his culinary reputation in Key West, Miami (his home base) and Orlando, where he’s currently chef and founder of NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. He’s known for New World Cuisine—a blending of his adopted home state’s multicultural influences, including Latin, Caribbean, African, Asian and American. As the chef lauded for introducing the concept of “fusion” to the culinary world, Van Aken has been recognized with such honors as being one of the “Founders of the New American Cuisine,” alongside Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme and Mark Miller, at Spain’s International Summit of Gastronomy in 2006; and as a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America.” NORMAN’S has been nominated as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Restaurant in America,” and Van Aken is the only Floridian inducted to the prestigious James Beard list of “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.”
Soon Van Aken will be honored again, as the inaugural TORCH Award recipient at the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Show in Orlando, taking place Oct. 6-8. The award honors “leaders and dynamic individuals who have propelled our industry forward,” according to Ferdinand Metz, CMC, president emeritus of the Culinary Institute of America, who chairs the foodservice forums at Urban Expositions’ food shows in Orlando, Los Angeles and New York.
To find out what’s next for Van Aken, Catering Magazine recently caught up with the chef, who’s researching his sixth cookbook with his wife Janet—My Florida Kitchen, a follow-up to his 2012 cookbook written with his son Justin, My Key West Kitchen. He’s also getting ready to open “In the Kitchen with Norman Van Aken at the Vagabond,” a cooking school at a Miami boutique hotel. There’s “no experience necessary” to enroll in a class—just a desire to learn how to cook, a trait that’s led Van Aken on a remarkable journey.
CM: Congratulations on receiving the TORCH Award at the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Show. As the only Floridian on the James Beard list of “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America,” what exciting culinary trends do you see in the state today?
VAN AKEN: Well, like many people in the South in particular right now, we’re investigating our roots more than ever, and it’s interesting because I’m writing a new cookbook on the entirety of Florida. It’s been 20 or 25 years since someone’s done that, on any kind of a broad level anyway, and people sometimes wonder if Florida’s in the South or of the South. Our reaction is to showcase the diversity of the South through a Florida lens. I’m not looking so much for what is a trend, because I feel like that is reactive. Maybe “torch” is a good metaphor here, because my job is to sort of shine a light into the darkness and see where we are going.
CM: Since Florida is a big state and so diverse, are you seeing a lot of variations in cooking throughout the state?
VAN AKEN: Yes. As one of the largest states, it’s to be expected that Florida is chock-a-block with the American diversity that you see in places like California, Texas and New York, and so we have many Floridas to represent.
CM: Since New World Cuisine blends influences from many cultures, is it always evolving in a state like Florida, where there is continuous immigration from various countries?
VAN AKEN: Absolutely. In addition to cooking and writing, one of my other hats is to do a radio show for NPR called “A Word on Food,” and if you’re not familiar with that, what I essentially do is find a great food word that people don’t know that much about. So I’m continually able to investigate and write about that culinary diversity that’s showcased in New World Cuisine. One of the other words that I’ve coined is “fusion,” so when people talk about the blending of cultures, I feel that fusion is a more correct term, because when you blend something, it becomes monochromatic in a way. When you fuse something, you allow the differences to remain. I was doing a dinner party the other night, and one of my young chefs came along with me, and he went to make a sauce for fish—a cool version of a Romesco sauce, which is like a pesto but is made with almonds. Well, he went to a farm stand and bought some boiled peanuts, which is one of the ultimate Florida ingredients, and he made the Romesco with those as opposed to the almonds. And I said, “What beautiful Florida fusion you’ve made here,” and he said, “Thank you, Chef.” And I said, “Remind me what country you’re from originally?” And he said, “Colombia.” So we’ve got a Colombian using a Florida staple—boiled peanuts—to make a sauce that’s famous in Spain but originated with the Romans. That is fusion.
CM: Is there something you can think of that you’ve found especially surprising, as you’ve traveled through the state doing the research for your new book?
VAN AKEN: I’ve been such a fan and a student of Florida history for so many years that I’m not so much surprised at the diversity of Florida and what it’s come to mean. To me, the biggest surprise continues to be the perception of people outside of Florida who think that Florida is very finite in its soul and character. They think of Key lime pie and conch fritters, and then maybe Key lime pie again. It’s like the way people pigeonhole Texas, and think Texas is all steak and barbecue. So one of our jobs is to advance their understanding of how broad and how much spectrum there is in Florida.
CM: What inspired you to open your upcoming cooking school in Miami?
VAN AKEN: I’m self-taught. That’s a statement that really makes no sense, because no one is self-taught, but self-taught in the sense that I did not go to cooking school. So I adore education, and I’m enamored with the sense that people can become educated. And some people feel that being educated means going to a college and getting a degree. We’re not about that. We’re about creating a school for people who either don’t have the time or the interest in a degree, but they’re passionate about becoming more skilled in the kitchen. Everything will be taught, from the most basic skill set. We will also be teaching children. We say you can be 7 or 97, and we’ll have classes for you.
I’ll be teaching classes, so will Candace [Walsh, Van Aken’s business partner in the school]. She’s excited about teaching children. And my son Justin; he’s 35, and he’ll be teaching at the school, so we’ll have a good range of teaching ages. And we’ll have guest chefs coming in from around the country and around the world, who come into town for one reason or another. We’ll also have a steady retinue of teachers that maybe are experts in a regional cuisine. I’ve talked to people from South America, from Thailand, from Indonesia, who would be willing to come maybe once a month and teach a class. If our students are excited by that, and they do well, we’ll have them back.
CM: In one of the great stories in No Experience Necessary, you describe a stressful night when you, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse prepared a dinner for Julia Child and 350 guests, and the maître d’ tried to stop the serving of the first course after signaling for it to be plated. You wrote that serving a large sit-down dinner is a “military exercise that is run with no room for mistakes or sudden gusts of whimsy.” What advice do you have for caterers for staying cool under pressure?
VAN AKEN: I’m amazed by caterers and the challenges that they have. My heart goes out to them in many ways, because it seems as if they need to deal with the individual requests and phobias and fears and desires on a massive scale, and they’re often doing it in makeshift kitchens. So, I’m inspired by them for being able to do that world. It’s not my world, but I would say that if you were a caterer and I were to offer you a bit of advice, it would be to accept that you are a certain style of caterer, and don’t try to be everything to everyone, or you will probably end up gnashing your teeth and feeling quite frustrated. I sometimes do events with a local caterer when the client wants to have a well-known chef as part of their wedding or their corporate event, so I’ve been a guest chef to the catering company, and I see how rough it is. You’ve got to set up your kitchen a lot of times in a tent. It’s not for the delicate nervous system.
CM: Having worked your way up through the culinary ranks from short-order cook, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the kitchen?
VAN AKEN: I would say that, for me, because of the educational route that I’ve taken, it’s that you can learn from many different people how to accomplish something. Because of my love of food from all over the world, a lot of the people who come to our kitchens come from far-away places. The best way I ever learned to work with jicama was from a guy who was washing pots for me in 1982. So you can’t confine yourself to speaking just to your chef or your sous chef. Everybody can bring something to the advancement of understanding of cuisine, because people come from all over. I didn’t learn that lesson on my own; I was taught that lesson by my mother, who was my biggest hero in the business.