Becoming a celebrated chef is one thing; being known as the “Father of New World Cuisine” is quite another. Norman Van Aken’s paternal moniker refers, of course, to his personal interpretation of the many culinary influences that converge in the Southern Florida region. But his early years as a cook were humble, belying the success he was destined for.
Van Aken began cooking in Key West in the early 70s, and for the next decade worked his way up through a number of local kitchens. He teamed up with restaurateur Gordon Sinclair back in his home state of Illinois in the early 80s, and soon returned to Florida to open Sinclair’s American Grill in the southern part of the state. In 1985, he returned to Key West and the kitchen of Louie’s Backyard. At Louie’s his style began to take shape and gain recognition, enough to attract the young Charlie Trotter to his kitchen. In 1989, he opened Mano in South Beach, penned his first book, and brought the term “fusion cuisine” into the modern culinary lexicon with a historic address at that year’s food symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Van Aken left Mano and in 1995 opened the doors to Norman’s in Coral Gables, Florida. The restaurant was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as “The Best Restaurant in America” in its first year of eligibility; in addition, it was deemed “Best Restaurant in Florida” by The New York Times and one of “America’s Top Tables” by Gourmet magazine for four consecutive years. Van Aken has opened a second outpost in The Ritz-Carlton Orlando. His newest project is Norman’s 180 slated to open this fall in The Colonnade Hotel, Coral Gables. He will be joined by his son, Justin, also a chef and an instrumental part of the future of the Norman Van Aken Companies.
Over his career, Van Aken has received many awards: The James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast; he has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who” list; he was the first chef to become a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Board of Trustees; he was also named to their National Advisory Board. He has received an honorary doctorate from Johnson and Wales University, and in 2006 he was honored as one of the “Founders of the New American Cuisine,” alongside Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, and Mark Miller, at Madrid Fusion. Chef Van Aken is a member of the StarChefs.com Advisory Board and recipient of the StarChefs.com 2008 South Florida Rising Stars Mentor Award. Additionally, he has published another three cookbooks, two on New World Cuisine and one on exotic fruit.
Of his style of cuisine, Van Aken says he creates interplay of his classic culinary know-how and regionalism. His larder, in the most tropical area of the US, includes conch, black beans, plantains, mangoes, coconuts, grouper, key limes, and more. He approaches this bounty with a blend of folk cooking methods and modern techniques.