A Word On Food

Saturdays at 8:34 AM

“Before the celebrity chef craze… before the start of Food Network, Norman Van Aken was starting a revolution. He was doing something unheard of at the time, taking local ethnic flavors, merging them together at restaurants where he worked.” --- The Smithsonian 

Among his many masteries as a chef, Norman Van Aken is best known for introducing "fusion" into the lexicon of modern cookery. He is also known as the “founding father of New World Cuisine” - a celebration of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, American and African flavors.  He is the only Floridian Chef inducted into the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage”. He was a 2016 MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductee along with previous winners Wolfgang Puck and Jacques Pépin.  

Van Aken is a James Beard semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America” and his namesake restaurant NORMAN’S, in Coral Gables, was nominated as a finalist for “Outstanding Restaurant in America.” The only one thus far in the entire state of Florida.  He founded NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando in 2003, also a semi-finalist for “Outstanding Restaurant in America”, only the second restaurant in the history of Florida to reach the semi-finalist stage (The first was NORMAN’s in Coral Gables). He has received numerous local and national accolades over the years, and has represented the United States with international recognitions that include being honored alongside Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme and Mark Miller as one of the “Founders of New American Cuisine” at Spain’s International Summit of Gastronomy ‘Madrid Fusión’ (2006) and represented the State of Florida at the USA Pavilion at EXPO Milano/World’s Fair (2015).  

Van Aken has shared his cooking and career, penning six cookbooks (Feast of Sunlight; The Exotic Fruit Book; Norman’s New World Cuisine; New World Kitchen; My Key West Kitchen; Norman Van Aken's Florida Kitchen) and a memoir (No Experience Necessary… The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken).  His cookbooks have been hailed by Anthony Bourdain, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Eric Ripert, and Wolfgang Puck; while his memoir captured the attention of the prestigious IACP/Julia Child Award and received a ‘finalist nomination’ along with Michael Pollan, Anne Willan and Luke Barr. His latest published book, Norman Van Aken's My Florida Kitchen, was selected to represent the USA in the local category of the Gourmand International World Cookbook Awards and has been awarded the Florida Book Award’s Gold Medal for Cooking. 

Another project is, ‘Time Out Market Miami’ Food Hall where he has two concepts. One is based on his beloved Key West and the other is his take on artisanal pizzas. The original Time Out Market is in Lisbon, Portugal with more markets to follow in New York, Chicago, Boston, London, Dubai and Montreal. The food hall is about 20,000 square feet and is already becoming a Miami standout for tourists and locals alike.

Chef Van Aken has appeared on various television shows from CNN’s “Parts Unknown” with Anthony Bourdain to “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”  He is often cited as a culinary expert in publications such as The New York Times and Saveur.  Additionally, Van Aken is the host of “A Word on Food” a radio show that airs weekly on NPR station 91.3 WLRN in Miami.

When he is not in the kitchen, he can be found spending time with his wife, Janet; son, Justin; daughter-in-law Lourdes; and his pride and joy, his granddaughter, Audrey Quinn Van Aken. 

A play of light mesmerized me as I lay in bed, savoring the last moments of an unmoored  consciousness. I allowed my mind to wander as I simply enjoyed the light show and worked on understanding where it was coming from and how it was working.

The process of cooking is nearly identical for me. The analyst in me came to realize that the fluttering sequences of light and shadow dancing on the unadorned wall placed me in the room that once was my son’s. The light of the early morning sun punctuated by the rhythm of the ceiling fan sought to keep me lulled and sleeping longer.

The very words themselves call up ancient things. I imagine it on the menu that day in the year 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede or something Shakespeare’s own mother would have served.

When I fantasize about the words being read in a perfect movie, I hear a voice like Sir Alec Guinness intoning them.

“Roast Beef.”

I learn words in many ways, but the best may be in eating. The words on the menus and in the cookbooks I have from around the world have helped me conquer at least ‘parts’ of foreign languages.

I have a good knowledge of French, Italian and even some Japanese, if you allow that food is the central most important aspect of understanding a people’s tongue. My vocabulary was broadened by at least seven new words in Little Havana just the other day at a place blandly named, “Viva Mexico.”

I was near a small sandwich stand in an open-air market.

It was like many you would see almost anywhere in the world. A radio was playing a vaguely familiar tune. Soft drink cans and cigarette packs lined the windows inside the stand where a lady was stuffing soft buns with meats. There was a paper napkin dispenser advertising Coca-Cola.

This sandwich stand happened to be in Florence, Italy.

Long before any Hispanic boy bands tormented or tantalized the radio air waves, the soup/stew Menudo was a siren song sung to me for the first time back in my younger days in a little grocería named ‘La Bodega’ in Diamond Lake, Illinois. 

Maybe it was the alleged attributes of Menudo being able to cure a hangover that first led me to its pleasures. It must've been something strong to convince me Menudo is not made with things I normally consumed in my boyhood.

No hangover is required at all anymore for me to long for some of that homemade, restorative soup. And I had a hunch I’d find some of that in Homestead where one can find the best concentration of Mexican food to be found in either the counties of Miami-Dade or Monroe.

A dramatic rainstorm was rolling through the lower Florida Keys as we tried to decide what to make for breakfast the day after our granddaughter Audrey’s first birthday.

My daughter-in-law Lourdes wisely poured some freshly squeezed orange juice and put some of her homemade banana bread in the toaster to stave off the equally volatile storms of unquenched thirsts or insatiable appetites propelled and honestly worsened by our practice of morning café con leches.

What do you do with a word like aïoli the first time you see it in print?  If you don’t grow up versed in languages containing umlauts, It’s confusing for sure. Maybe I resisted learning much more until I started cooking and I discovered how good a word with an umlaut could taste! The first time I made an aïoli I was in Key West, not sunny Provence from whence she likely shone first. But the sun connected us through the gypsy medium of garlic!

I graduated from high school in a small Midwestern town at 17. My older sister, Jane, had moved to Honolulu to go to a junior college out there. How she managed this relocation to the faraway islands, considering our socioeconomic circumstances and our conception of what our arc of life could be, was beyond me.

She had moxie! She invited me to come visit during my summer vacation. Of course I did!

(S)wine Snobs

Nov 2, 2013

When the woman at the butcher counter asked Jimmy the Cutter, “do you have a nice butt?” Jimmy didn’t hesitate and said, “My wife kind of digs it.”

The lady pushed her walker aside to get a better look at the pork in Jimmy’s case, pretending not to hear him. Her faded alligator purse fell open to reveal a half empty carton of Lucky Strikes and a copy of Reader’s Digest. He looked at me and rolled his eyes toward the crease of his paper deli hat.

Salt Of The Earth

Oct 26, 2013

I held my grandchild Audrey in the saltwater of the Atlantic in the Florida Keys ‘Bahia Honda State Park.’

She kicked her ‘just-turned-one’-year-old legs in the shallow sea, churning the water and splashing her granddad joyously. I was a little concerned that the sting of the salty water might invade her incredibly blue eyes. She did not share my concern.

It was only a keening hunger she developed from this new exercise that drove her back to her mother and the cold watermelon to be savored under the stone pavilion our family was huddled under for this birthday celebration.

Souse In The House!

Oct 12, 2013

I’ve been making Souse.

Right? Got that? Know what I’m talkin’ bout

You might be confused. You might stay that way. Let me unravel a bit.

Here's souse as defined by the Wikipedia geniuses:

A Mexican boy of 20 or so in long baggy shorts with a baseball hat is cooking my eggs while his mother rapidly peels potatoes with a curved blade flicking the peels away from her into a bowl, while she giggles at the conversation she’s having with him.

The rising spring sun played tag with a retreating winter wind on the stony streets of a South Philadelphia morning. Our cab driver was taking us from the genteel hum of a Four Seasons Hotel to the airport for our return to Miami. He seemed to be taking a shortcut not many would know. We were meandering through the narrow streets of a residential section. I spoke up over the squawk of his radio, “Hey, my friend. What part of town is this?!” The cabbie, a smiling Haitian man said, “Yes. This is the Italian Market area.”

Controversies over the birthplace of certain dishes are part of the spice of life and landscape of any cuisine. A spirited discussion revolves around the origin of ceviches. This seafood favorite, made of raw fish and/or barely blanched shellfish marinated in citrus juices and laced with various adornments, many maintain, was bestowed upon the world at large via ancient Peru.

Or not.

We were in Atlanta for the annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival not long ago. The folks who started this up have hit the sweet spot on all manner of Southern cooking and drinking with this fest.

My son Justin and I were busy as bees over the 3 days and nights with various events---a dinner at the “Optimist’s Club,” a “nose-to-tail” demo on whole fish grilling at The Loews Hotel and finally a farewell party Sunday evening called “A Chorus of Greens” hosted by Atlanta star chefs, Annie Quatrano and Linton Hopkins. We did attend a few classes as well. One was on making Country Hams.

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