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New World Chef

For Florida "fusion cuisine" pioneer Norman Van Aken, co-owner of Norman's in Coral Gables, the kitchen is his classroom
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

On West Flagler Street in Miami, not far from Calle Ocho, the long street that's the heartbeat of the city's vibrant Cuban life, sits an open-air food stand called the Palacio de los Jugos. It began about 20 years ago as a juice bar--hence its name, the Palace of Juices--but has expanded over the years to serve Cuban specialties and offer the finest and freshest produce from the Caribbean and Central and South America. It is here on a crisp, sunny Florida day, amid scores of Cuban-American families sitting on wooden picnic benches and cheerfully and noisily dining alfresco, that Norman Van Aken, chef and co-owner of Norman's in Coral Gables, Florida, has come in search of sapodillas, mamey sapotes, calabaza, tamarind, boniato, cherimoyas and plantains, some of the exotic fruits and vegetables that are a prime part of his acclaimed "New World" cuisine.  

"I've been coming here for five years," says Van Aken. "We can get just about everything from our suppliers, but I need to be in touch with what we use. I need to see what's in the market. What I find here is usually top-quality, especially the fruits." What's in the market this day is just about everything, an appetizing tropical rainbow of bright and variegated shades of red and green and yellow and brown. (A nearby stand sells another Latin American speciality that Van Aken relishes: fine cigars.)

"This is a sapodilla," Van Aken says. "When it ripens it has an unusual root-beer, maple-sugar kind of sweetness. Once, for a special dinner, I made a black-cow sundae and let the sapodilla be the flavor of the root beer." He picks up another fruit. "These are cherimoyas. They're native to Peru. Cherimoya means 'cold stone.' They're found high in the Andes, where I'm sure the stones are very cold. I might use them in a savory chicken salad, with a Chinese marinade, and add avocado. What I do is analyze the flavor of the fruit or vegetable and decide what it makes me want to do with it."  

Van Aken is short and dark-haired and tends toward the stocky --frequent workouts at a local gym help him fight off this tendency--and he has a round, almost baby face that makes him seem a decade or more younger than his 48 years. He is soft spoken, with a down-home, relaxed and friendly nature, an unfailingly natural smile and twinkling eyes. But in his voice is a precision that reveals the intensity, the expertise beneath the mellow surface.  

He got his first cooking job in 1971, when he was 20 years old, slinging breakfast hash in an Illinois diner that had a giant milk jug on its roof. Today, after two decades of ups and downs, of early successes and frustrating failures, he is a highly recognized and much honored pioneer of a type of cooking he helped create: the fusion of Old World haute techniques and the tropical, tangy and intensely flavored ingredients of Florida, Cuba, the Caribbean and Latin America. It is a fusion he calls New World cuisine.  

In 1996, Van Aken won the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence. A year later, he was the James Beard Foundation's choice as best chef in the Southeast. He recently won the Food Arts Silver Spoon award for lifetime achievement from Cigar Aficionado's sister publication. The New York Times has anointed Norman's "the best restaurant in South Florida," and the New York Daily News has called it "the best restaurant south of Paris." For the past three years Norman's has made the top three in Gourmet magazine's readers' choice of the best restaurants in South Florida, twice finishing first. Norman's made Playboy magazine's 1998 list of the top 25 restaurants in America, putting Van Aken in the company of such world-renowned chefs as Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter, a longtime friend.  

Van Aken has appeared on CNN, "Good Morning America" and "CBS This Morning," and is the official "Chef in the Sky" for all United Airlines Latin American and Caribbean flights. He is the best-known member of a group of Florida-based chefs--among them Alan Susser of Chez Allen's in North Miami Beach, Mark Militello of Mark's in Fort Lauderdale, and Douglas Rodriguez, recently of Patria in Manhattan--who put New World cuisine on the food map. He is the author of three critically praised cookbooks and is writing a fourth. His most recent, Norman's New World Cuisine, was one of three finalists for the 1997 Julia Child "best chef-authored cookbook" award.   Remarkably, Van Aken has made it to the top of his profession without spending a single day in cooking school. Through years of experience, reading, experimenting and learning, he has become a master chef.  

"If I was going to do this for a living, I wanted to be very good at it," says Van Aken, whom just about everyone calls Norman. "From the time I was eight years old I knew I wanted to be really good at something. I wanted to be involved with life. And I'm voraciously hungry in my spirit, so I think it's perfect for me to be a chef."  

Many of his formative years as a chef were spent in Key West, Florida, and he considers himself very much a Key West kind of guy--he says he still thinks of himself as a former hippie, a survivor of the late 1960s and early '70s, when he hitchhiked around the country, trying to find himself and to run away from the problems of home.   His restaurant mirrors his personality: a light, friendly and relaxing place. The decor of Norman's is appropriately multicultural--beamed ceilings, a tan, stucco, almost Mediterranean look to the walls and columns, Balinese wooden sculptures sharing wall space with an oil portrait of Van Aken. The restaurant, on a site where four previous restaurants failed, was put together on a small budget--less than $500,000. "The floor and the bar were made from the stone tabletops of the previous restaurant," Van Aken says.  

Toward the back of the room, a number of dishes are cooking on two wood-burning stoves. A recent $750,000 expansion has boosted the restaurant's capacity to 235 seats. Because he is a lover of cigars, Van Aken made certain that the new section includes a bar where patrons can smoke cigars and sip Cognacs and other spirits.   The diners are generally a happy, noisy crowd. A sense of joy and luxury pervades: diners are eager to see and be seen, and the food and atmosphere are equally savory. The patrons are a cross-section of southern Florida, Anglo and Latino, some in full Armani tie and jacket, others in casual shirt sleeves, the women in basic-black Prada or Donna Karan--or off-the-rack copies.  

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