A Word On Food

Saturdays at 8:34 AM

“Before the celebrity chef craze… before the start of Food Network, Norman Van Aken was starting a revolution. He was doing something unheard of at the time, taking local ethnic flavors, merging them together at restaurants where he worked.” --- The Smithsonian

Among his many masteries as a chef, Norman Van Aken is best known for introducing "fusion" into the lexicon of modern cookery and considered to be the founding father of New World Cuisine - a celebration of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors.  He is the only Floridian inducted into the prestigious James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage” and was s a 2016 MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductee along with Jacques Pépin and Wolfgang Puck.

Van Aken is a James Beard semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America” and his namesake restaurant NORMAN’S, was nominated as a finalist for “Best Restaurant in America.”  He has represented the United States proud with international recognitions that include being honored alongside Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme and Mark Miller as one of the “Founders of New American Cuisine” at Spain’s International Summit of Gastronomy ‘Madrid Fusión’ (2006) and represented the State of Florida at the USA Pavilion at EXPO Milano as part of the World’s Fair (2015).

Van Aken has shared his cooking and career, penning more than five cookbooks (Feast of Sunlight; The Exotic Fruit Book; Norman’s New World Cuisine; New World Kitchen; My Key West Kitchen) and a memoir (No Experience Necessary… The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken).   His cookbooks have been hailed by Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck; while his memoir captured the attention of the prestigious IACP/Julia Child Award and received a ‘finalist nomination’ along with Michael Pollan, Anne Willan and Luke Barr.

Chef Van Aken opened “1921 by Norman Van Aken” a restaurant in Mount Dora, Florida in September, 2016. The restaurant has 160 seats with indoor and outdoor dining open for lunch and dinner featuring “Modern Florida Cuisine”. It is in alliance with the extraordinary Modernism Museum directly across the street. The restaurant’s design includes many elements from the Museum’s collection of art. Additionally he is partnered with Candace Walsh to open “In the Kitchen with Norman Van Aken”, a cooking school in Miami in June of 2017. The two are joined by restaurateur Susan Buckley and debuting a new restaurant and roof-deck lounge adjacent to the school due this summer. The restaurant is named “Three”. Chef Norman is the Chef and founder of NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando which opened in 2003 and has many local and national accolades.

Chef Van Aken has appeared on various television shows from CNN’s “Parts Unknown” with Bourdain to “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”  He is often cited as a culinary expert in publications such as The New York Times and Saveur.  Additionally, Van Aken is the hosts of “A Word on Food” a radio show that airs twice a week on NPR, in addition to being a staff writer for one of the leading culinary websites, The Daily Meal. There he is featured on his column, “Kitchen Conversations” which have featured chefs, authors, wine-makers, cocktail gurus and restaurant luminaries.

His next book, “Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen” will be out in Fall of 2017 and published by University of Florida Press.

When he is not in the kitchen working up new recipes he can be found spending time with his wife, Janet; son, Justin; daughter-in-law Lourdes; and his pride and joy, his granddaughter, Audrey Quinn Van Aken.

Norman Van Aken

Have you seen that now classic commercial where a bunch of cowboys get all freaked out about a salsa that is produced in New York City?!

Well, I found it similarly amusing to be in an elegant restaurant in New York City! recently where they were offering me a menu which included caviar service, foie gras and a Fried Green Tomato Salad. I had to have that salad! It was pretty good but it couldn't match many I've had in some mighty funky places in the South and… at the $14 price tag, I could have had a Catfish Dinner with hush puppies, cole slaw and a pitcher of cold beer!

Norman Van Aken

Feeling carnal? Do you need to gnaw? Got a bone to chew on?

Here in the water wonderland of South Florida many of us are stampeding to steak houses like, well, like cattle.

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Most everyone knows, but I will say it for the un-baptized…chorizo is a kind of sausage. The first time I remember seeing chorizo was back in my hometown of Diamond Lake, Illinois in 1965 or so. It was around that time that many Mexican families began to immigrate to the area. They worked very hard founding a close knit neighborhood, which eventually became part of the broader patchwork quilt that epitomizes so much of North America now.

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Without a doubt this is history’s most unconquerable of all Caesars!

Go anywhere in the U.S. and, from truck stops to swank spots, this is the one salad you are most likely to encounter.

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Back in the late 1990‘s at the original NORMAN’S restaurant in Coral Gables we had a young man who became our Lunch Chef named Eliecer Garcia. Like many young chefs he was very interested in cuisines from all over and when we talked about what to put on our lunch menu his ideas ranged from France to Hong Kong. I loved that but sometimes I’d say, “Eliecer. I want you to show me flavors your Cuban Grandmother would make and then we can twist them a little. Okay? Why don’t you show me how she would cook with … oh… boniato for instance? And then we’ll go from there.” 

Norman Van Aken

We flew up to join the family to celebrate my Mother-in-Law’s 90th (!) Birthday Celebration. When our family gets together we, like many families, get straight to the heart of the matter. What are we cooking?! What are we eating?!

We love to pack a little carry on of food before getting on a plane. It’s a fine way to pass the time and avoid the bland, predictable and unhealthy!

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I was sitting on the verandah of a hotel overlooking Waikiki beach waiting for a lunch menu. The mighty Pacific Ocean purred like a Lamborghini in the distance. I'd spent hours walking in Chinatown from early morning looking for beautiful and unique dishes I love to use for the thematic ‘Tasting Menus’ at our restaurant. But I had little luck and a keen hunger was rising up in me.

There was a real man in Key West who used to sell his homemade banana bread out of his bicycle nightly at the famous sunset celebration on Mallory Docks. I never saw him leave there with any bread leftover. Down in the Caribbean Banana Bread is considered a “man’s bread”. Perhaps the reasons are related to anatomy or maybe it’s the hefty dose of rhum included in the recipe.

Norman Van Aken

We were invited to El Paso, Texas to cook at a gathering of ‘Oldways Preservation’, a non-profit organization based in Boston, Massachussetts. ‘Oldways’ is one of the premier educational forums for focusing on healthy, culturally diverse and historically respectful eating. They put on conferences around the world and invite scientists, farmers, professors, chefs and food/wine media to promote positive lifestyles.

It may surprise some of you but I used to be quite shy when it came to going into restaurants and trying dishes and ingredients I had not known growing up, (as I had) in a small town in Northern Illinois. Now I am known for being “all in” when it comes to that… but we all have our ‘earlier selves’...don’t we?

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