Norman's, The Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes
THE CULINARY JOURNEY OF
LEGENDARY CHEF NORMAN VAN AKEN
Norman Van Aken is the award-winning author and legendary chef is known internationally as the founding father of the visionary American culinary movement known as New World Cuisine; a brilliant, healthful fusion of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors. New World Cuisine came into prominence in the mid-1980s, when Van Aken led a quartet of top South Florida chefs, coined by many in the media as the “Mango Gang,” placing South Florida’s New World Cuisine on the international culinary map and into the lexicon of virtually every upcoming chef, food writer, and restaurant critic.
Van Aken’s culinary journey began quixotically, in the bucolic town of Diamond Lake, Illinois, where he began to cook alongside his mother, grandmother and sisters canning homegrown vegetables and turning freshly picked late summer berries into fragrant preserves. He remembers vacations in Miami Beach with his family in the mid-1950s, igniting his love of the tropics. Van Aken found that the swaying palm trees, the sunshine, and the sound of the ocean appealed to his imagination. In 1970, after attending college in Hawaii, surfing, soaking up the sun and enjoying the local Pan-Asian food, Van Aken followed his insatiable appetite for adventure, hitchhiking across the country. To support his travels, he worked at a variety of jobs, from a carnival Ferris wheel operator to hot tar roofer, eventually returning to Illinois in 1971, landing his first gig as short order cook at Tom & Jerry’s Fireside, a diner in the nearly providentially named town of Libertyville. He traveled to the tropical paradise of his dreams, Key West, Florida, and from 1973-1981, worked his way up, cooking at a number of local kitchens, including The Pier House and Port of Call, absorbing the regional flavors and attracting attention for his recipes using the region’s exotic tropical ingredients. He married his childhood sweetheart Janet in 1976 and their son Justin was born in Key West in 1980. In 1981 they moved back to Illinois to be with their families. In 1982 Van Aken joined restaurateur Gordon Sinclair as executive chef at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest where he put some of his Florida Keys’ specialties, including conch chowder and spiny lobster on the menu, attracting major kudos. In 1984, Van Aken became opening chef at Sinclair’s American Grill in Jupiter, Florida. He quickly made his mark, gathering notoriety for his innovative riffs with tropical ingredients, garnering four star reviews from top local and national critics. He also attracted another intense, young chef, Charlie Trotter, who joined his team, working side by side with Van Aken, becoming a lifelong friend, eventually opening his own legendary restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s.
In 1985 he returned to his beloved Key West to take the helm of the kitchen at Louie’s Backyard, a beautiful oceanfront restaurant, and his creativity flowered. The fact that Key West was a writer’s haven, with exotic tropical produce, and a dynamic multi-cultural mix, inspired the ever-evolving chef. “That’s where I began to form what I came to describe as New World Cuisine,” Van Aken recalls. “I was struck by the American regional cuisines new-found revitalization in California, New Orleans, the Southwest and New England of that era and I felt it was time to do the same for our home. One afternoon on the deck of Louie’s Backyard, while facing the vast ocean and looking toward Cuba, the entire Caribbean and South America, I had a moment of extreme clarity, realizing that Key West was the natural place to present the kind of cuisine I dreamed of creating.”
In 1986, Van Aken embarked on a lifelong quest to fully understand the wide variety of ingredients, bold flavors, and diverse culinary influences of South Florida, the Americas and the Caribbean region. With a renewed sense of mission, he revisited all his old favorite haunts – Cuban cafés, Latino markets, and the Bahamian fish shacks of Key West. He frequented orchards and farms, searching out luscious local tropical produce, and focused on the pristine fish from Florida’s bountiful waters. He also traced the culinary influences around the Caribbean that came from further afield – Europe, Africa, and Asia – where ingredients such as saffron, ginger, scotch bonnet peppers, Habanero chilies, Mexican adobos, South American chocolates, Asian teas and Indian curries entered the region’s cornucopia.
In 1988, the now celebrated chef, penned his first book, “Feast of Sunlight,” which articulated the culinary experimentation taking place in Florida and throughout the US by kindred spirits such as Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Jeremiah Tower, Emeril Lagasse, and Alfred Portale. In 1989, Van Aken wrote a provocative essay on “fusion” cuisine, which became the script for his historical address to a respected food symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico and brought “Fusion Cooking” into the lexicon of cuisine that has since spread around the world.
Like a jazz musician, aware that these ingredients, like musical notes, had no boundaries, Van Aken experimented with dishes of traditional Latin, Caribbean and African-American roots, prepared using European cooking techniques, fused with his own innovative spirit. In 1989, Van Aken landed on the burgeoning South Beach scene and opened a Mano at the Betsy Ross Hotel. His imaginative New World fusion cuisine, featuring innovative dishes such as rum and pepper painted grouper with mango mojo and a boniato plantain mash en relleno, captivated diners, attracting knowledgeable gourmets and media, and soon gained the attention that elevated him to the forefront of the American gastronomic world.
In 1995 the Chef realized his long time dream to open up his own restaurant, bringing back many of the key staffers from the years in Florida and opened the doors to NORMAN’S Coral Gables, a 160-seat restaurant that made culinary history, garnered countless accolades and awards for the chef’s passionate cuisine. In 1999 the restaurant expanded next door to encompass a total of 235 seats. Van Aken added a tapas section to the menu in 2001 after a gastronomic pilgrimage to Spain. Still going strong after more than a decade of wowing Floridian diners and garnering widespread critical acclaim, NORMAN’S classic “New World” first plates include “Down Island” French toast with seared Curacao scented foie gras, and the chef’s legendary creamy cracked conch chowder. Signature main plates include pan cooked fillet of Key West yellowtail on a belly of garlicky mashed potatoes, and Mongolian barbequed veal chop with ginger-soy scented Chinese eggplant, along with the chef’s new innovations such as striped bass a la plancha, accompanied by a lobster mash or an intriguing and flavorful molasses marinated and grilled duck breast offered with foie gras stuffed boniato cake, and a sunny side up egg with house-made sausage and chutney.
Coming full circle, Van Aken is currently creating all of the food and beverage for “Beachside” resort in Key West, scheduled to open in late 2007. Van Aken’s list of distinctions and honors is lengthy. In addition to being deemed “Best Restaurant in Miami” by The New York Times and one of “America’s Top Tables” by Gourmet magazine for four consecutive years, he is a recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Southeast honors and is the only Floridian inducted into the prestigious “James Beard list of ‘Who’s Who” in the culinary world. Most recently, he was honored as one of the “Founders of the New American Cuisine,” alongside Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, and Mark Miller at Spain’s International Summit of Gastronomy Madrid Fusion event. The Miami New Times’ annual “Best of” issue named Van Aken the “Best Chef” in its first issue and voted NORMAN’S “Best Restaurant in Coral Gables” ten years in a row before deciding to retire the title. The next year, the popular alternative newspaper couldn’t resist and voted Van Aken “Best Chef” once again and in 2007 he was called “the indisputable kingpin of Florida cuisine” by Ocean Drive magazine.
The always articulate Van Aken has published four books: Feast of Sunlight 1988, The Exotic Fruit Book 1995, Norman’s New World Cuisine 1997, and New World Kitchen 2003. He also has many television appearances to his credit including segments on CNN, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Food Network, Discovery Channel and numerous other electronic media outlets.
NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, at 4012 Central Parkway, is open for dinner; Monday through Thursday, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. The Salon, showcasing specialty cocktails and dishes from Van Aken’s repertoire, is open Sunday from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and Monday through Saturday from 4:00 p.m. until closing. Phone: 407-393-4333 or online at www.normans.com.