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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Chef Norman Van Aken To Host Star-Studded Dinner, Release Memoir [‘Just Make Beautiful Food.’]

Posted Aug 6, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Aug 6, 2013 at 02:47 PM

Norman's Dining Room

You can tell a lot about a chef by where he cooks.

At Norman’s in Orlando, under a cathedral-height, wood-beamed ceiling that rises to a point, a dramatic banquet table sits in the middle of a circular dining room bordered on each side by tall cases displaying the wine collection.

The effect is simple and elegant. Unlike other luxury restaurants that tuck large groups away in separate dining rooms, this one includes them in the dining experience.

Inclusive. Elegant. Understated. That is Chef Norman Van Aken.

Norman Van Aken

His Orlando restaurant celebrates its 10th anniversary Aug. 24 at The Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes. He’ll do so by inviting a few friends to cook with him. You might recognize the names: Emeril Lagasse. Charlie Trotter. Dean Fearing. Jeremiah Tower. He’s inviting younger chefs, too, including Greg Baker of The Refinery in Tampa.

The black-tie, multi-course affair runs $1,000 a ticket. If it seems steep — and it is — it’s a bargain when you consider that it comes with a cocktail reception, an overnight stay at the Ritz, signed copies of the chefs’ cookbooks and an after-dinner soiree with dancing, music, entertainment and libations. [For tickets and info, click here.]

Think of it as if you were having dinner with The Avengers.

This is shaping up to be the Year of the Norman, with one book out already (the well-regarded “My Key West Kitchen,” [link] written with son Justin) and a memoir, “No Experience Necessary,” [link] due out at the end of the year.


Norman Van Aken

The former examines the Key West he arrived at in 1971 with all of its pre-Jimmy Buffett eccentric personalities and tropical cuisine, and then compares it to the Key West that exists today for Justin, a native-born Conch.

The latter reads like Kerouac’s “On The Road” mixed with Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” It starts with the story of how he and two friends got into an Econoline van and drove from a party they were at in Champagne-Ubana, Ill., to see another friend in Key West. Thirty-six hours later, they arrived. Van Aken stayed.

“I fell in love with a town that was America, yet not,” he told me. “I was just a kid who ended up in this tropical place.”

He settled in and got a job at an all-night barbecue place called The Midget, named for a kitchen so small, Van Aken had to step outside to open the oven door.

It had a tree growing in the middle of the restaurant. It was ungodly hot. A man named Bicycle Sammy was the lead chef.

That first night, Van Aken told the owner all he knew how to cook was eggs.

“He said, ‘Son, don’t worry about that. You’re cooking the graveyard shift. The people who come in here are going to be so messed up, they won’t even notice the difference.’ ”

Many years later, after learning on the job and jumping from restaurant to restaurant between Illinois and Florida, an editor from Random House found him cooking at Louis Backyard in Key West and asked him to write what became “Feast of Sunlight.” The book became a classic of Florida cuisine, focusing on the fusion of haute French cooking with rustic Caribbean and Latin ingredients and flavors.

“People like Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme wrote cookbooks,” he says. “I was just a young man trying to figure things out.”

A speech he gave at a 1988 American cooking symposium in Santa Fe, combined with a subsequent book, “Norman’s New World Cuisine,” firmly attached that title to a movement that he forged with a group of other South Florida chefs.

As Justin puts it, New World Cuisine is “like jazz, in that it’s a culinary fusion of the cuisine of kings with the food that satisfies peoples to their bones in the kitchens of grandmothers and aunts.”

Van Aken’s style at the time was morphing from one that followed other chefs into something that became his own cooking voice.

“I realized there had been a long argument between erudite cooking and soulful mama cooking,” he says. “I decided that it was not going to be one or the other. It would be a marriage of the rustic and sensual with the technical and articulate and proficient.”

No one chef invented fusion cuisine, Van Aken says. Not him. Not Emeril. Not Wolfgang Puck. Cooks are affected by where they live and what they’re eating. They then make logical alliances, marriages and fusions of ingredients that reflect those influences.

“Most importantly of all, flavor is what happens, not groovy ideas or brainy postulations on what we should be doing,” he says.

“It’s like music or Monet. No one needs to explain it. No one needs to understand it or over think it. Just make beautiful food. That’s it. Just make beautiful food.”

Beautiful food begets beautiful experiences. And beautiful places. Just like Norman’s.


* * * * *

Van Aken and his son, Justin, recently joined me the “Kitchen Party” Google+ hangout I co-host with and friends Babette Pepaj of and Rene Lynch of the Los Angeles Times . During the show, we talk about his books, the dinner and about how he developed his cooking style:

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