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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.  

Under the supervison of Rob Boone, Norman's chef de cuisine, as many as 18 chefs a night prepare the delicacies for 10,000 customers a year. Two hundred guests will dine on a busy off-season night and 350 at the height of the winter season, with projections of $5 million in business yearly now that the expansion is complete. Norman spends part of his evening strolling from table to table, greeting newcomers, kissing the cheeks of the regulars, shaking hands, ever the gracious host, smiling and discussing the menu, the weather, the family.  

His restaurant manager/sommelier and his assistant do the same, studiously attentive, always informative, answering questions, offering help with the wine list, wishing a happy birthday or anniversary, just chatting about the events of the day.

Behind it all is the food. For all great chefs the ingredients must be the finest, the freshest the region can offer. "It's all about the region," Van Aken says. "The multicultural southern tip of Florida--the nexus of North America and the Caribbean, touching Cuba, the Florida Keys, the Yucatan, the West Indies, the Bahamas and South America. The cuisines of the Old World merge with the foods of the New World." It's also about fusion--a term Van Aken is credited with being the first to use in connection with food--"the fusion that's at the heart of New World cuisine. It's what I know and what I love." The multiculturalism includes a taste of Africa and Asia, Africa as a "logical and historical extension of the diaspora to the Caribbean," Japanese as "a food esthetic I admire," and Vietnamese as a kind of cooking "I just fell in love with."  

His methodology, he says, is based on the "north, east, south and west of flavors--sweet, sour, salt and bitter. The complexity of the flavors travels in different directions."  

The complexity is reflected in the menu. Here's a sample of recent dishes:   Pan-cooked Piedmontese beef strip steak with a Maytag Blue Cheese flan, cipolline onions, black trumpet mushrooms, shaved organic hazelnuts and red wine-port reduction. ("The beef is grown on a small farm in Ohio and we get it through Buckhead Beef in Atlanta," Van Aken says.) Pan-roasted Gulf escolar ("It's from the Gulf of Mexico, and it's richer than tuna.") with braised escarole, crispy cockscomb, pommes frittes and a sherry-shallot jus. Calypso spice-rubbed mofongo-stuffed and roasted dolphin on Yuca fries with black bean essence, mojo de cana and a carambola salsa. ("The classic mofongo is made with sweet plantains and pork. It's very rich. We make a substitution," he says with a laugh. "We use foie gras instead of pork.") He also uses liver in his signature dish, down-island French toast with Curacao-scented and seared foie gras, griddled brioche, savory passion-fruit caramel, turmeric and gingery candied lime zest.  

How did Van Aken learn to create those imaginative dishes? His immediate answer is deceptively simple. "Something in me intuitively knew what to do, in terms of cooking, in terms of flavors, in terms of adding the right ingredients. I seemed to know what would work. It's difficult to describe. A lot happens simultaneously, a lot of data that sits in your mind from everything you've read and everything you've tasted, all the markets you've been to, what you've smelled, what you've cooked. Many people believe that what happens is you think of something for the first time that day. But there's so much more. I've got a very good memory.  

"It's a matter of going to a market and seeing what's there--the market experience is really important to me. I keep charts in the kitchen for me and my chefs to see what's in season every month. I know that early in November, for the first time sea scallops will be coming in. It's a matter of working with the seasons. A lot has to do with a balance between acidity and meatiness--whether it's meat, fish or chicken, or even vegetables that have a sort of meaty quality--and with manufacturing textures, crunchiness and softness. It's a question of how are you going to create this fulcrum, this balancing beam, this teeter-totter--but it's not only linear, it becomes multidimensional, with curlicues, circles, Ferris wheels of flavors and opportunities."  

For Van Aken, that basic intuition was developed through decades of experience. His mother was in the restaurant business--rising from waitress to hostess to cashier to assistant manager and eventually to manager. "And my great-great-great grandmother was the baker for the queen of England when the queen had her summer residency in Scotland," he says. "So the culture of a restaurant was something in the fabric of my life. There was an air of concern for food. We would make our own tomato preserves and things like that. We had a neighbor we called Grandpa Ray who had a huge garden, and we would wander it with him."  

The prime fabric of his early life, however, was the troubled marriage between his parents, who separated when he was 10 and divorced when he was 16. (He has two sisters.) "It was--how would you put it--a very bumpy childhood," he says. "Much of my early life until my father died [when Van Aken was 17] was about them and their breakups with each other. Actually, I think that cooking helped me overcome a lot of it. I really think I needed to be in an artistic sort of business. Artists try to remake the world. I try to make it a creative place I can have fun with and control--a peaceful, positive place. A little raucousness is good, but ultimately I wanted to be able to make peace with people."  

After graduating from high school, Van Aken tried his hand at college--first at Northern Illinois University, then in Hawaii--but he soon decided college was not for him. "I loved learning and reading, but somehow or other school didn't fit with my nature," he says. "So I started to work lots of different jobs, whatever came along. I worked construction, factories, I painted houses, sold flowers on the street in Honolulu. I hitchhiked around a lot. I was reading, writing--mostly songs and short stories, lyrics for the bands of the guys I was hanging around with. It was a very early-'70s kind of thing."  

In 1971, a friend suggested they go to Key West. He stayed a month, then returned to Illinois, where he got a job cooking in the Libertyville diner, the one with the milk jug on top. "I had been a bus boy and a dishwasher," he says. "My mom was managing restaurants, and she pulled me into them."

At the diner, he met a waitress named Janet, who would become his wife and recipe tester. They've been together for more than 25 years, married since 1976, and have a son, Justin, 19, a college student in South Florida.   But Van Aken was soon drawn back to the Keys. "Key West really fit my soul," he says. "It was the place for me--a renegade place, but a gentle renegade. It was raffish, comfortable. I was a student of the Beats, reading all about them, and Key West fit right in."  

It was in Key West that, over more than a decade, Van Aken began "to accept and then fall in love with the idea of being a chef. For a long time, though, I was a cook, not a chef." He recalls the moment of change. "I had been cooking from 1971 to '79, and I applied for a job at the Pier House. They said I should come in and see the chef, so I walked in and she was in the middle of tasting a dessert to be served that night. She took a taste and looked at the pastry chef and didn't say anything--she just threw it right in the garbage, plate and all. And then she said, 'You can't be serious. We'll never serve anything like that in this restaurant.' And I mean, I had worked in places back in Illinois where you had to get a guy off a barstool just to come over and do the dishes. So I applied for the job and got it. The restaurant was hiring the first graduates from the Culinary Institute of America, and suddenly I was around people who cared about food.  

"I was a sous-chef, and one of the chefs I was working for used a term--veal velouté--and I said, 'How do you know that term?' And he said, 'Because I went to school.' He's leaning on a mixer, and he says, 'Why don't you go to school?' And I said, 'It costs $13,000. You know I don't have that kind of money.' So he said, 'Why don't you read?' And I was stung. I said, 'What do you mean? I read.' And he said, 'Why don't you read cookbooks?' I looked at him, and on the way home I stopped off at a bookstore and picked up James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. I still have it. And that's when I started to read."  

As he read, he would prepare recipes. "I started on my little wooden table in my little rented house in Key West," he says. "I would read book after book after book. When I wasn't at work cooking I was at home reading. I had my one French knife. I'd wrap it in a towel, ride my bicycle to work, work my butt off, come home, buy magazines. I would cook on Sunday or whatever my day off would be."  

Among the most influential books for him, he says, were Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook and books by Roger Vergé of Le Moulin de Mougins on the French Riviera and Alain Senderens of Lucas-Carton in Paris. "I especially liked Senderens and Vergé because they were willing to cross-culturalize their food a bit more than some of the more rigid chefs. And there was a book called The Great Chefs of France, chefs of 12 Michelin three-star restaurants. I read it again and again. I stared at every picture. I underlined it and dreamed of creating a model like this model, but with an American spirit. These books were the road I took.  

"I'd be reading how to make this foamy sabayon [an egg-and-wine mixture] that the Troisgros brothers were creating for their fish in Roanne, France, and I would have my French knife on top of the book and I would be making the sauce with some yellowtail in Key West and not having anybody to talk to about how to make it. There was no famous chef. There was no school. If it didn't work I had to do it over again. But instinctively I pretty much knew what to do. I understood a lot of things about acidity and how it helped relieve the richness of some of the food. I also tried to differentiate my cuisine a little bit by studying whatever Spanish, Caribbean or Portuguese things I could find."  

He would talk to the locals a lot. "I'd go to the little cafés in Key West. I'd sit on a stool by the counter, not knowing much Spanish, asking, 'What's this, why is it called this?' I asked the people sitting next to me--the post office guy, the cop, the waitress--and eventually I began to integrate these things into what I was doing."  

He would go from restaurant to restaurant--he worked at Pier House, Port of Call, Chez Nancy--reading and learning and doing. "Every ring became tighter and faster and stronger," he says. "I began to find this life force, I really began to know what I wanted to do. In Key West, it was like the boats are right here, the fish is right here. I'm cooking for people who are writing novels and doing all kinds of creative things, people like Tennessee Williams and Leonard Bernstein. And I began to get smatterings of recognition, just enough to feed my spirit and my mind."  

A year after their son's birth in 1980, Norman and Janet decided to return to Illinois, where Norman eventually got a job as executive chef for the restaurateur Gordon Sinclair at Sinclair's in Lake Forest. But even back home, he remained true to his newfound roots. "I'm in Illinois, and I'm cooking what I know--things like Bahamian conch chowder. The critics wrote about this guy with a passion for Hemingway-like flavors, the Key West connection. I was doing black beans and conch. That was my first national press, and I thought that if they like that, they like what I like--and I was very glad they liked it."  

At Sinclair's, Van Aken met someone who would become a lifelong friend. "There was a guy working in the dining room as a busboy, and he asked for a job in the kitchen," he recalls. "He was this skinny little northern Illinois guy, wearing a white shirt that was a little too big for him, and my sous-chef said, 'Come on, let's give him a chance.' So we did."The skinny guy's name was Charlie Trotter, now owner of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and, like Van Aken, one of the top chefs in the country.  

Van Aken's next job was also for Sinclair, at the Jupiter (Florida) Hilton. But the lure of Key West remained strong, and in 1985 he and his family moved back. Van Aken was hired as chef at the renowned, and reopened, Louie's Backyard, which had been closed for seven years but had once been the haunt of Truman Capote, Jimmy Buffett and Peter Fonda. Norman's reputation continued to grow--and it was at Louie's that he had his haute cuisine epiphany.  

"I began to look at the regional food movement, with Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters in California, and in the American Southwest, and at first I sort of sprang out of my seat and thought, I need to move to California, to the wine country, and be part of it," he says. "But then I realized that I like it here, and my son, Justin, is going to school here, and we live here and have friends here. So I began to think that maybe I should try to do with Florida what those other chefs did with California and Santa Fe and try to create a regionalism and an appreciation for regionalism here."  

Then he wrote an article about something he called "fusion." "I'm the first chef ever to have used that term, that's been established," he says. "I was asked to go to Santa Fe and give a speech, and at the time I was reading a book by the French historian Jean-François Ravel called On Culture and Cuisine and I was having this internal argument. I knew how to cook some French dishes and some Italian dishes, some Bahamian dishes and some Cajun dishes. But I thought, this is bullshit. I'm cooking everybody else's stuff. I've got to find my own voice. So I decided I was going to try to make sense of Florida, to find a way to make people come and experience Florida--combining Cuban, Bahamian, a little bit of the South."  

In 1987, Louie's Backyard and Van Aken's cooking were featured in an article in Bon Appetit magazine. Subsequently, an executive at Ballantine Books who had eaten at the restaurant but whom Van Aken had never met called and asked him to write a cookbook. The book, Feast of Sunlight, was another step on the chef's road to the New World.   Finally, in 1987, Van Aken decided he would open his own restaurant. He called it Mira. It had 38 seats, it was a critical success--and it closed after 18 months. "Business was a whole different thing from art," he says. "I didn't have any money. We thought we would open a super-elegant restaurant. It was a good idea but it was the wrong place to do it. There was no year-round residential population to support it. That was a real tough time, a real tough spot. I didn't think that something like that could happen. But I've been through enough knocks in my life to know it's not always going to be one towering moment after another."  


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