A Word On Food

Saturdays at 8:34 AM

Chef Norman Van Aken
Credit www.normanvanaken.com

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 book is a memoir. It is titled, “No Experience Necessary,” (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 91.3.

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

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Culinary Couples

Apr 29, 2014
A picture of artisan containers
Norman Van Aken

You and Me Darlin’. Like Ham and Eggs. Like Cream and Sugar. You know what I mean Love?

Like Bogey and Bacall some things are meant to be unified a Oneness out of Two. It is the way of the world. When I think of the great food marriages I swirl in a dance of dualities. Salt and Pepper. Peanut Butter and Jelly. Chocolate and Vanilla. What causes some things to match so perfectly that we rarely think of them alone? That their still stunning singularity is magnified by more than a power of two when twined?

I remember looking at a can of soy sauce one day in the store room of Louie’s Backyard’s kitchen… and printed upon it were these words, “Established in 1250”, … as in the year 1250. “My Lord”, I muttered … to no one else … “that’s an old company.”

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.

A Word On Food: Turkey

Jan 11, 2014

The first time we rolled down Highway 1 in the Florida Keys was 1971. Sometimes you would not see an oncoming car for 10 to 15 minutes. The darkness on those narrow bridges we crossed was nearly overwhelming.

But above us the constellations came through. The starlight was an explosion of skyward imagery that guided us forth. Now we drive across these islands on the same highway and struggle to find a gap where you hope to find the darkness once again and the attendant miracle of the stars. Returning here, I am reminded of the words of ancient Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice for its not the same river and hes not the same man.

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.”

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