By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Let’s not allow the huffing and puffing of the current celebrity chef trend drown out the bellwether contributions of Florida’s Norman Van Aken. I refer you to Smithsonian magazine:
“Before the celebrity chef craze … before the start of Food Network, Norman Van Aken was starting a revolution. He was doing something unheard of at the time, taking local ethnic flavors, merging them together at restaurants where he worked.”
Known as “the founding father of New World Cuisine,” the chef introduced “fusion” into the culinary lexicon as well as the kitchens of Norman’s in Coral Gables and over a dozen other Florida dining establishments going back to the ’90s. His blending of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, American and African flavors trail-blazed a new way of cooking in this country.
Currently, Van Aken helms Norman’s, which was in the process of moving to a new Orlando location when the pandemic hit, as well as two temporarily closed concepts at Time Out Market Miami Food Hall — My Caribbean Kitchen and Piece Pie artisanal pizzas. He also hosts A Word on Food weekly on WLRN radio.
“I wanted my food to tell a story,” the chef has said. Quite a story it is, beginning with the world of foreign flavors he first experienced working with immigrants during early forays as a journeyman, a short-order cook and even a carney in the Midwest. But his first taste of Cuban food in Key West over four decades ago stopped him in his tracks.
“The Midget Bar and Grill in Key West in 1973 was my second job cooking,” Van Aken says. “I worked the graveyard shift. There were no walls on the building. A giant banyan tree shot through a space that the corrugated tin roof didn’t cover. Various musicians just coming up played under that tree — Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett.
“I moved around Key West spots, working in about 10 more over the years. Then in 1990 we moved to the mainland after four years at Louie’s Backyard, where I wrote my first cookbook.”
Key West eventually became Van Aken’s launching pad, inspiring his trajectory from self-taught chef to an acclaimed innovator of American cuisine. That innovation has been recognized repeatedly by the prestigious James Beard Foundation: He’s the only Floridian chef inducted into its “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage,” and was a semifinalist for “Best Chef in America.” Both Norman’s in Coral Gables and Orlando have been a finalist and semifinalist, respectively, for “Outstanding Restaurants in America.” Another semifinal award was bestowed on his cookbook, New World Kitchen, one of six Van Aken has written. His latest, Norman Van Aken’s My Florida Kitchen, won the Florida Book Award’s Gold Medal for Cooking.
During the pandemic, Van Aken, 69, has been combing through his menus, letters and the like to help launch the Norman Van Aken Collection at UM’s Otto G. Richter Library. He is the first culinarian invited there, joining the company of such famous Floridians as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Charles Deering. The chef also found time to serve up some tasty replies to our recurring menu of Quote Unquote questions.
Aside from the weather, what do you enjoy most about South Florida?
The mix of cultures. It is what made me as a chef, learning and riffing with the mix. It never gets old and you can never learn it all. Beautiful.
Aside from the weather, what do you dislike most about South Florida?
Hurricane mania and all that it brings on.
Are you a beach person or a pool person?
I like to swim at a beach and play on a pool table in a bar with a great jukebox.
When in your life are you or have you been the happiest?
From an all-out consistency standpoint, it is when I’m cooking for those I love.
What do you do when you’re stuck in a traffic jam on I-95?
I don’t do I-95 unless there is no other route. But when that happens, I listen to my music and stay away from the idiots.
What music are you listening to now?
I listen to music most of my waking hours. At this moment, Mavis Staples.
Are you a fan, and if so, of what?
I switch genres depending on what I’m doing. I listen to blues, R&B, soul, jazz, alt country and more. I’ve played in bands and love live music.
If you had to choose: Beatles or Stones?
Drunk or Sober?
What are your social media handles?
Apple or Android?
Mac Daddy (Apple).
Who is your real-life hero or heroine?
My mother was my real-life hero. She lived through so much, yet she kept her sunny side up through thick and thin.
What car are you driving now?
Audi. My father was a car dealer. He loved Cadillacs. One day I’m getting an old one of those and it will be a ragtop.
If you had to choose: Rocky or Raging Bull?
Loved the first Rocky. But in that contest, Jake LaMotta … by a knockout.
What do you like most about yourself?
I like that I can teach people how to cook and sometimes how to keep on going.
What places in South Florida do you recommend to guests visiting from out-of-town?
Books & Books. Mac’s Club Deuce [Miami Beach]. The Redland area. Little Havana. And if you can, get down to Key West and grab a stool at the Green Parrot Bar.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To just walk and take in the sights and not have to be somewhere and be OK with that.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being married for this long [44 years to Janet]. But that took both of us … a lot of love and the faith that it was meant to be.
PHOTO: Chef Norman Van Aken/courtesy