Norman Van Aken
Jim Poris / July 1999
Food Arts presents the July/August 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Norman Van Aken, the Florida-based chef who created an American-accented culinary idiom from the clash of cultural currents that have washed over the Caribbean basin since the days of Columbus. Working first in Key West and now in Miami—the epicenter of his self-defined Florida Triangle that encompasses Cuba, Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, the West Indies, Central America, and northern South America—Van Aken has served as one of the principle wet nurses for the amalgamation of disparate ingredients called fusion food.
"I'm seeking to create an interplay, a fusion, between regionalism and restaurant technical know-how," Van Aken says. "My fusion cooking is the result of coupling our native foodstuffs like conch, black beans, mangoes, coconuts, grouper, key limes, and snapper and the folk-cooking methods intrinsic to the preparation of these goods, with a self-taught type of classical cooking."
Van Aken cooks under the banner of "New World Cuisine," a peg he coined for his food in the late 1980s "to capture the amazing breadth of what South Floridians have surrounding them." The chef who once aspired to be a poet now expresses the froth of tropical flavors he brings forth at Norman's—his restaurant in Coral Gables—with distinctively cadenced menu descriptions: "a sushi-kushi," or "the rhum- and pepper-painted grouper on a mango/habañero mojo with a boniato/plantain mash en poblano."
"I was affected by Chinese recipes, the way they have a verbal playfulness about them. People here even read the menu aloud: 'Marge, listen to this one,' I hear them saying."
Very little in Van Aken's youth in Diamond Lake, Illinois, showed him which path led to culinary stardom. As a teenager, Van Aken, now 48, worked as a dishwasher and busboy in a local restaurant. He did a year at the University of Hawaii, where he picked up his fever for the tropics, then dabbled in a variety of odd jobs, from carny to roofer to short-order-cook.
By 1978, he was cooking at The Pier House for Key West's assortment of bohemians, slackers, and arty types. After a brief return to the Midwest, where he served as chef de cuisine at Gordon Sinclair's restaurant in Lake Forest, Illinois, he settled back in the Keys in the mid-'80s as chef at Louie's Backyard. There, the book-taught Van Aken decided to "throw away my training wheels of mentor cuisines and try to be true to South Florida."
His road to Norman's passed through two more restaurants—MIRA in Key West and a Mano in Miami. With a fistful of accolades, kudos, and testimonials to his name and three cookbooks to his credit—Feast of SUnlight (Ballantine Books, NY, 1988), The Great Exotic Fruit Book (Ten Speed Press, Berkely, CA, 1995), and Norman's New World Cuisine (Random House, NY, 1997)—Van Aken says he's living out his own American Dream.
"I'm proud to be able to help elevate a region. Now it's understood when someone says New World Cuisine."