Norman Van Aken Reflects on the Potential of Today's Miami

By Norman Van Aken | Illustrated by Becki Kozel

By

Norman Van Aken
Illustrated by Becki Kozel
An illustration of Chef Norman Van Aken
An illustration of Chef Norman Van Aken

Maybe this is a perfect time after all. What in the world can I mean by that? Never before in our global history has chaos rained down like it has in the past year. We are struggling. We are damaged. We are down. Our once-seemingly invincible tourism industry is on life support but with no cavalry coming to the rescue. Yet as Winston Churchill defiantly put it, “If you are going through hell, keep going!” And so we must.  

I’m writing this letter to our restaurant community. Our collective lives touch many, many other threads on the cosmic web. The restaurant industry’s share of the food dollar has doubled between 1955 and now. Our industry normally represents a full 10 percent of the working populace of America—back when we could actually go to work. 

Miami has so often projected an image more about flash than substance, more about looks than character. This is not the Miami that those of us who live and work in the 305 know and believe in. We know better. Our soul is not Photoshopped. There was, not terribly long ago, a period of time that illustrated our potential, our beckoning truth. I was fortunate to be a part of that. It was life-changing for me. We sought to create cuisine that was specific to our city and region. We engaged with our farmers, our fishing men and women, and our diverse cultures that had not previously been part of the cross-culturality of true fusion cooking. 

And then so much of it lapsed. Who can even count the restaurants from the North that set up shop in Miami in the late ’90s and early 2000s, all financed by wealthy speculators who lived in far-off places? They didn’t take the time to learn Miami. They said, “Money was to be made, goddammit!” 

And in the process, a Faustian bargain occurred. Once again, Miami’s dynamic DNA was lost on these new menus. But as of late, quietly, slowly, steadily, led by a few dedicated, mindful, and intentional chefs, something’s shifting. There is a resurgence at hand. It is primarily on the mainland that I am seeing and tasting foods that reforge an identity that nearly faded altogether. And they are spiritually far from the glitzy hotel scenes of South Beach. Neighborhood spots came to life. Places that didn’t readily appear on the radars of journalists sent down here to discover what new, carefully engineered starlets “deserved” the attention of travelers who are more than willing to hit the hype pipe.

Although horrible by most every measure, the pandemic has burned us clean in some ways. We were thrown off the wheel that we knew all too well. But we also had a chance to reassess our purpose here. I’m feeling, to paraphrase what the old Irish poet Yeats referred to in his poem “The Second Coming,” a “rough beast” being reborn. And this time … this time … I dearly hope it will last. Maybe it is a perfect time. 

Share on: