Cooking With Fire
From his wild child past to his transcendental philosophy about food, Chef Norman Van Aken remains every bit as colorful as his matchless Florida cuisine.
Van Aken on the life of a chef: “We came to the kitchen to leave the world, to not care if we were working holidays or weekends or 14 hours a day. We just want to make our place.’’
Celebrity chefs flock to Orlando. But while award-winning chefs such as Todd English, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck lend their names to area eateries, you’ll rarely see their faces in the restaurants, let alone in the kitchen.Unlike many superstars who leave their days in the kitchen to focus on television, Norman Van Aken, called the father of New World cuisine, still spends as much time as he can in front of a blazing stove. And, at this moment, Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando is his only permanent culinary home.
When Van Aken is not in residence at his restaurant, his spirit guides the hand of Executive Chef Andres Mendoza through combinations of Latin, Caribbean and Asian influences that are the hallmark of Van Aken’s groundbreaking cuisine. A citrusy shrimp ceviche will be enhanced by Peruvian touches of jicama and avocado; added accents of honey, sriracha and grilled Japanese eggplant intensify “Mongolian” veal chops. Van Aken finds equal inspiration from vegetables grown in Ocoee, and Key West yellowtail snapper straight off the boat.
“The mission remains,” he says, “to be a person who excavates the great lasting Florida flavors. There was a newspaper article recently about the emerging Florida cuisine. And I was thinking, you mean re-emerging. Re-emerging and re-emerging.”
A trademark Van Aken creation : Mongolian veal chops.
CHOPS: COURTESY OF NORMAN’S
Selected by The St. Petersburg Times as “one of the 25 people who mattered the most in Florida’s history,” Illinois native Van Aken was cast as “The Florida Guy” early in his career. “Not long after I met my wife, Janet, we ended up in Key West,” he says. “When she gave birth to our son, we went back home to Illinois, and I was reviewed by the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times. They both said, ‘This young man is cooking some sort of Hemingwayesque food.’ I was like, I am? It made me think oh, there’s an identity thing that goes into being a chef.”
Van Aken returned south and became an early champion of Florida ingredients and techniques. “I was putting black beans and plantains on the menu at this high-end restaurant. The food I was tasting in simple settings was as powerful as anything I’ve looked at in great books by French and Italian chefs. Our cuisine had nothing to be apologetic about.” He opened his first establishment in 1995 in Coral Gables, the success of which led in 2004 to Norman’s in Orlando, the only independently owned restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton chain.
The author of five books, Van Aken’s latest effort, No Experience Necessary, is as much road movie as biography, chronicling a path from factory worker and carnival roustabout to one of America’s most honored chefs. Along the way, he forms a lasting brotherhood with fellow rising chefs Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter, engages in a legendary number of overindulgences, and puts Floridian fusion food on the international culinary map.
At 63, Van Aken is the only Floridian to be inducted into the James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage,” and the first American to receive the Grand Prix Gastronomic Culture Prize. He has won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast and the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence. Condé Nast Traveler called Norman’s “one of the Top Ten Restaurants in the United States.”
His entry into the culinary life came almost by accident, answering a want ad that stated, “No experience necessary.” Now, 42 years on, his perspective is thoughtful and very experienced indeed.
Van Aken with Emeril Lagasse.
COURTESY OF NORMAN VAN AKEN
“The thing about being the cook—and I say cook interchangeably with chef because I cook, I love to cook—what we love about it is that it requires no audience. We came to the kitchen to leave the world, to not care if we were working holidays or weekends or 14 hours a day. We just want to make our place, and that is hard for anybody to understand who doesn’t have that calling.”
Established as he is, Van Aken still holds on to his self-taught, outsider nature. “I look at chefs who have the kerchief and the thermometer and a pen and a clipboard, and I still roll my eyes—you’re not getting hot and sweaty and greasy; you don’t want to.”
He leans in and his eyes widen. “You’re not like us. Like those of us who will bleed for cuisine, who will not stop.”
He stops and puts his hand up. “We’re not suffering. We want the clock to slow down, so we can get more done. Because when you’re done, you’re absolutely spent, you can now forgive yourself for being…”
He takes a long, introspective pause. “Less than perfect.” Another pause, as though the thought had snuck up on him. “Because now you’ve gotten pretty damn close to it. Then you can rest.”
In his biography, Van Aken depicts his early years as a whirlwind of South Florida hedonism, late nights of abundant alcohol peppered with a feverish, almost obsessive passion for the kitchen, the kind of full-on life now caricatured by cursing, abusive chefs on “reality” TV shows.
“I came up with it and through it and lived it,” Van Aken says of his former rock and roll lifestyle. “It isn’t necessary to create great cuisine… but a kind of mania still needs to exist, a passion. That’s why Charlie and Emeril and I were kindred spirits, because we saw it undeniably in each other, the same kind of craziness.” What he observes now is a product of the chef-as-celebrity, a culture aimed at fame rather than culinary excellence.
“People need to become disabused of the sense that they’re going to get out of cooking school and suddenly have a publicist and an empire,” he says. “There is no quick path, no YouTube video that’s going to transcend the burns and scars and nights of feeling like the chef hates you; those things are going to have to be endured.”
Meanwhile, the established masters, the inspiration for this new wave of food upstarts, remain vibrant and creative and competitive. “People like Emeril are not going to give up and move off the covers of the magazines,” Van Aken says, laughing.
While Van Aken has appeared on many television shows with the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Ming Tsai and Emeril, he has resisted the siren call of his own series.
“I’ve never been comfortable being a salesperson,” he says. “I was asked to do Top Chef Masters, but I’d been around enough to know that they could make me into a cartoon—the Hemingwayesque one, wearing a turtleneck sweater, arm wrestling people. I admire [Bourdain’s] Mind of a Chef, and Mario Batali, when he teaches food—he’s a great teacher. But there’s a whole lot of crap, just like there are a whole lot of crappy restaurants.”
Talking about teaching brings his mind back to the kitchen.
“You listen to the food, watch the food transform in front of you; there’s a million signals to why something works. Did you notice this? Did you smell that? And if you do, you’re moving to the moment where the food is teaching you.” He considers how that could be portrayed on the small screen. “If I can tell that story and have it matter, I’d be happy to do television. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
He’s wearing a traditional white chef’s jacket, but the spark in his eye hints he’d still be up for an all-night shift, fueled by adrenaline and a fire in the belly.
“I was talking to a chef,” Van Aken says, “who said, ‘I would die for cuisine.’ I don’t think I would die for it. But I would kill for it.”
Early days: Van Aken (right) with Charlie Trotter
COURTESY OF NORMAN VAN AKEN
Around 250 fortunate diners who reserved early will join Van Aken and a host of local chefs on December 13 at a tribute dinner for Charlie Trotter, who began his career as a busboy for Van Aken in Illinois, in 1982. Trotter opened his namesake Chicago restaurant in 1987, winning nine James Beard awards and the designation “Best Restaurant in the Country” by Wine Spectator. In November 2013, Trotter was found dead in his Chicago home, the victim of a stroke at 54. The $200-per-person dinner benefits The Trotter Project, a nutritional education nonprofit formed in Trotter’s name. Scott Hunnel, Tim Keating, Brandon McGlamery, James and Julie Petrakis, Hari Pulapaka, John Rivers, and Greg Ritchie will fill the Norman’s kitchen. “If they didn’t live here,” Van Aken says of the local lineup, “they’d be famous wherever they were.” —J.H.