Interview with Chef Norman Van Aken of Norman's - Coral Gables, Florida
Jocelyn Morse: You're known as the father of New World Cuisine. What is the philosophy behind it?
Norman Van Aken: If you knew of my childhood spent in the small town of Diamond Lake, Illinois, you might hardly imagine that I would become a chef known in many distant places. At first I cooked in the diners and later so-called fancy places. We served simple American chow in the diners and European-influenced food in the more expensive venues. When some friends said they were going to drive to Key West, I hopped in the back of their van and joined them. From the very first day I loved the eccentric "end of the rainbow" town. I quickly adapted and began to cook and eat in their diners and cafés. During the late '70s and through the early and mid '80s, I began to weld a style of cuisine that embraced the people and the food cultures of where I'd come to live instead of where I grew up. People began to notice my work and somewhere in the process I went from being a line cook to being one of Florida's premier chefs. The cuisine needed a name. Around the fall of 1986 I began to term it "New World Cuisine." Although it is not a New World, I termed it thus in commemoration of that epic landfall that Columbus made in 1492. Floribbean, New Florida, Nuevo Cubano have all been posited as names for what we cook. But these hyphenated, affected terms fail to capture the amazing breadth of what South Floridians have surrounding them every day of their lives. New World opens it up.
JM: Is this cuisine limitless to different regional cooking techniques and ingredients?
NVA: Since I live and cook in Florida I purposefully choose food products and techniques that are of this region (predominately), and bespeak of the cultures and their histories of the people who have come to live here, all in all, imbued with a "Norman" touch.
JM: Is New World Cuisine a child of fusion cuisine?
NVA: Yes, I think that fusion is the mother of all of the different types of hyphenated cuisines. Like me, other chefs across the globe are finding that there is a combined power in what I named "fusion cooking." In my cooking, I create an interplay, a fusion, between regionalism and technical know-how. My cooking is the result of coupling our native regional foodstuffs like conch, black beans, plantains, mangoes, coconuts, grouper, key limes, snapper, shrimp and the folk cooking methods intrinsic their preparation, with my self-taught classical techniques. "New World Cuisine" is the term I came up with to describe the fusion occurring in Florida and the immediately surrounding areas.
JM: Fusion, to some, is a dirty word...Why has this term changed since it came to be in the eighties?
NVA: "Fusion" is not a dirty word but a term that has become dirtied! To me, fusion cuisine will always exist; it won't go in and out of fashion. These days we travel so much and experience other cultures' cuisines in our home cities that it is virtually impossible to cook without letting in outside influences. Chefs are not going to all of a sudden start to cook traditionally. My definition of fusion refers to fusion between haute cuisine or aristocratic styled "restaurant" cuisine with the more down-to-earth, rustic home cooking. Later it came to mean the "fusion" between various cultures and countries. Fusion cuisine can and does take place in almost every continent. I have been truly inspired by Jean-François Revel's book, Culture and Cuisine…A Journey Through the History of Food. He states, "there is gastronomy when there is a permanent quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and when there is a public both competent enough and rich enough to arbitrate this quarrel." I think we're there now.
JM: What are your favorite food combinations these days?
NVA: Peanut Butter and Jelly still works for me! Especially on a Ritz cracker... I am only kidding, a little. Plantains and pork is another great one. It is in the contrast of combinations that I am most consistently drawn to. I love lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. I love passion fruit, honey and sesame oil. I love roasted beef and lamb with caramelized onions and root vegetables. My dessert interests are chocolate and Mandarin orange as well as curry-pineapple pound cake.
JM: What are staples in your walk-in when it comes to herbs and fresh produce?
NVA: Garlic, chiles, plantains (black ones only in the walk-in), ginger, lemongrass, truffles, wild mushrooms and anything citrus, etc.
JM: Have things changed recently in the farm situation in Florida? Are there are a lot more locally grown fruit and vegetables…
NVA: Florida is finally coming along. The link between the farmers and the chefs is getting stronger everyday. Farmer's Markets are one of my favorite things in the world! Just south of Miami we have Homestead and the Redlands areas. It is very fertile land for all types of produce.
JM: For environmental reasons, do you not serve certain fish/meats? Is there anything you won't cook?
NVA: We have not served swordfish in our restaurant for the last four years due to the near annihilation of them. I can't think of any meat we WON'T serve, but we DON'T serve a lot. We work with small producers of meat like Millbrook Farms Venison, Summerfield Farms Veal and Jamison Farms Lamb, to name a few.
JM: Which are your preferred local purveyors/farmers and what do they do best?
NVA: We use Whitewater Farms clams, Teena's Pride Produce, and many more that I prefer to keep quiet about. They do best what I like to think we do best.
JM: Do you get the time to travel to other countries to learn more cuisines? Where would you go next?
NVA: I do get to travel for my work. I will be in Hawaii in a few months. I lived there when I was in college and afterwards I bumming around some more. I love it there!
The chefs are very together in their commitment to their cuisine and to the farmers and fishermen. I look forward to many more trips to Latin America and the Far East too.
JM: Since most of your time is spent at NORMAN'S, how have you made this "home" more home-like with the major renovations done in April 1999?
NVA: I have my office filled with my cookbooks and do a great deal of my writing for my own books and columns there. The new kitchen is built very much like a home kitchen in the sense of its countertops and wall finishes. (It's a very NICE home kitchen!)
JM: Your open kitchen and the granite, center island seem to be the ideal work situation. How has it affected you and your team and the restaurant atmosphere?
NVA: The newest dining room completes our "home" in the sense that the other two rooms provide what could seem like a "living room" and a "den" in a great big house. The new room is the big open "kitchen" where guests can watch the cooks in action. We get the pleasure of speaking and performing directly for the guests in this atmosphere and it makes a big difference.
JM: What is it like to expedite through headphones? Do all of the cooks wear them? Is there a talking rule during service?
NVA: It is a bit of a challenge to work with the headphones but it is crucial that our guests receive the food at their tables all at once and since some dishes are prepared in one area and some in another we needed to make them work. Typically 3 chefs will be wearing them. There are periods of time when the only talking comes from the expediting chef of each area.
JM: Is there a dress code for cooks in the open kitchen? Sneakers allowed? Shorts in the summer?
NVA: The chefs wear close-toed shoes, pants, chef jackets, aprons and chef toques.
I left my cooking shorts back in my Key West days!
JM: What are your favorite tools?
NVA: My favorite tools are my ideas.
JM: Can we look forward to a new book some time soon?
NVA: Yes, I am writing my fourth book now. It's called New World Cuisine: Latin America and will be out in 2001 with HarperCollins. More cooking along the New World Cuisine trail!
JM: We, and our loyal users, love your "Words on Food." When did you start writing? When and where do you usually get the time to do it?
NVA: I started writing when I was around 17. I have always loved to read. I write everywhere. Sometimes people just know to leave me alone when the writing muse taps me on the head. It's a very special time that I can't count on to last so I try to react when "it" is ready. Sometimes it can just be one sentence. Then I can write the rest of the story. I love it when I get that first sentence.