Norman Van Aken

Host, A Word On Food

Norman Van Aken has been described as legendary, visionary and a trailblazer. He is known as “the founding father of New World Cuisine,” a celebration of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors. He is also known internationally for introducing the concept of “Fusion” to the culinary world.

His new memoir, “No Experience Necessary” is published by Taylor Trade Publishing. The book has been praised by the likes of Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Monique Truong, Alan Richman (GQ Magazine), Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and the late, great Charlie Trotter.

He is the only Floridian inducted into the prestigious James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage.” His restaurant “NORMAN’S was nominated as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Restaurant in America.” He has been a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America.”

In 2006, 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 Fusión’ event.

Norman Van Aken has published five cookbooks: Feast of Sunlight 1988, The Exotic Fruit Book 1995, Norman’s New World Cuisine 1997, New World Kitchen 2003 and My Key West Kitchen 2012 (with Justin Van Aken).

His radio show, “A Word on Food,” appears twice a week on NPR station WLRN.

He is the chef and founder of “NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando.” 

Ways To Connect

When I was 19, 20 and 21 years of age … I seemed to be on a yo-yo between my boyhood home in Illinois and the place I was seeking. I wanted sunlight. I wanted music. I wanted good books.

I didn’t know I wanted … Fried Chicken too!

We drive about 60 miles round-trip to get our tortillas these days. I don’t wish to think … as an accountant might… how much gas that costs per tortilla … but these tortillas are worth it … partly to the see the face of the 70-something woman who sells them to me from her little bodega. She sells lengua and such too. Her shop is named “Moreno’s” and I urge you to make the trek. It is down in the bosom of our South Florida’s growing region … which encircles the appropriately named village of ….  ‘Homestead’.

The way my mother taught me to make cinnamon toast was to start with raisin bread and toast it to perfection.

She might have timed it by how long it took her to jump into her waitress work uniform before slathering it with rich and creamy Wisconsin sweet butter. Then she sprinkled a combination of sugar and cinnamon out of our plastic, yellow  ‘baseball player’ figurine bottle that was covered with wax paper tucked under a red metal lid tha t doubled as the faux baseball boy’s ‘cap’. She usually slathered enough butter on the toast so that the cinnamon and sugar mix slide over the top of it like grains of sand dancing in the ebb of an ocean wave.

The majority of times I have enjoyed oxtails has been in the classic Cuban dish named, “Rabo Encendido.” The translation is literally “Lit Tail.”

This is supposedly due to the spice level in the dish, but unless I make it myself or have it in the home of another chile-loving person, the spice is mild, while the flavor is great. I love the tomato-ey rich stew that I have eaten since venturing into places like “El Siboney” in Key West years ago. I had it there again recently. 

I walked into our restaurant kitchen and I inhaled an aroma I’d known before I knew it’s name. It was blood. It spiraled me back in time to a grocery store where my mother shopped when I was young. She carried me in there before the age of three and slung me from hip to hip while she selected our food and put it in the cart. By the time I was five, I knew the owners names, Mr. and Mrs. Petersen.

Though small, the store was pretty amazing for the time. They had a full butcher case that Mr. Petersen personally manned. He had a box of sawdust that he used to toss like chicken feed onto the wooden floors to sop up the blood that fell off his knives. A vibrant produce section lined one whole wall of the store. It relied on the area’s farms and orchards. Though the fish choices were few, they were fresh Great Lakes fish. There was even a baked goods cabinet by the check out area. Mrs. Petersen added in her own home-baked Greek specialties that lent a sense of exotica to the rural store in our town.

Many North Americans would look at the word "mojo" in its printed form and pronounce it “mo-joe." In Spanish of course, it's pronounced "mo-ho" because the letter “j” is pronounced as an "h," as in jalapeño.

The word mojo comes from the word “mojar,” which means, "to wetten” so the usage of mojo can actually be pretty broad in that there are many ways to ‘wetten’ food. Years ago, I took a rather radical departure from the traditions of mojo and made tropical fruit mojos! If mojo meant a thing that would get something wet, I wanted to demonstrate that food that I’d added spices to, especially fish, would be happy swimming in a puree of mango and another dimensional ingredient or so.

A play of light mesmerized me as I lay in bed, savoring the last moments of an unmoored  consciousness. I allowed my mind to wander as I simply enjoyed the light show and worked on understanding where it was coming from and how it was working.

The process of cooking is nearly identical for me. The analyst in me came to realize that the fluttering sequences of light and shadow dancing on the unadorned wall placed me in the room that once was my son’s. The light of the early morning sun punctuated by the rhythm of the ceiling fan sought to keep me lulled and sleeping longer.

The very words themselves call up ancient things. I imagine it on the menu that day in the year 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede or something Shakespeare’s own mother would have served.

When I fantasize about the words being read in a perfect movie, I hear a voice like Sir Alec Guinness intoning them.

“Roast Beef.”

I learn words in many ways, but the best may be in eating. The words on the menus and in the cookbooks I have from around the world have helped me conquer at least ‘parts’ of foreign languages.

I have a good knowledge of French, Italian and even some Japanese, if you allow that food is the central most important aspect of understanding a people’s tongue. My vocabulary was broadened by at least seven new words in Little Havana just the other day at a place blandly named, “Viva Mexico.”

I was near a small sandwich stand in an open-air market.

It was like many you would see almost anywhere in the world. A radio was playing a vaguely familiar tune. Soft drink cans and cigarette packs lined the windows inside the stand where a lady was stuffing soft buns with meats. There was a paper napkin dispenser advertising Coca-Cola.

This sandwich stand happened to be in Florence, Italy.

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