At D’Artagnan we proudly work with chefs across the country, providing them with quality ingredients to express their creativity in the kitchen. Some we have decades-long relationships with, and others are new to the family. The chef we interviewed for this blog post falls in the former camp. Chef Norman Van Aken is a highly decorated veteran of many kitchens who has been described as “legendary, visionary and a trailblazer” as well as “the culinary Titan of Florida.” Read on for more about Chef Norman.
Without so much as a culinary school degree (aside from an Honorary Doctorate from Johnson & Wales in 2017), Chef Norman has earned his title of “the founding father of New World Cuisine,” a celebration of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors. Internationally he is recognized for introducing the concept of “fusion” into the lexicon of modern cookery.
Chef Norman has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation multiple times: he is a semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America,” is the only Floridian chef inducted into the prestigious “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage” list, and his namesake restaurant NORMAN’S in Orlando has been a semi-finalist for “Outstanding Restaurant in America,” the only one thus far in the entire state of Florida.
The late chef Charlie Trotter called Van Aken the “Walt Whitman of American cuisine” and this vintage article describes the brotherly relationship they shared.
Chef Norman is attached to several restaurants: NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton, Orlando, Ad Lib and Three, both in Miami, plus two concepts at Time Out Market Miami Food Hall (‘K’West’ and ‘Beach Pie’).
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.
Van Aken has published a number of cookbooks and one memoir, going all the way back to Feast of Sunlight in 1988, one of the earliest example of the chef cookbook. His radio show, “A Word on Food,” airs on NPR. He has appeared on CNN’s “Parts Unknown” with Anthony Bourdain and on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
We gave Chef Norman our own version of the Proust Questionnaire …
What was the first kitchen job you held?
I started cooking in a diner at 21 years of age in Libertyville, IL.
Has any crazy stuff happened during your time in the kitchen? What takes the gold medal?
I have written an entire memoir on this titled, No Experience Necessary, the Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. Having the ‘actor-pugilist’ referee a fist fight I had with the owner of the hotel I worked at on Miami Beach is a … contender.
Favorite music to work to in the kitchen?
Jazz in the morning. Rock in the afternoon. All kinds of blues cleaning up.
What’s your favorite post-shift snack? Favorite meal to cook at home?
Pizza for a snack. Favorite to cook at home… grilled steaks & ribs or roasted chicken.
What is your favorite D’Artagnan product?
Right now the veal sweetbreads.
Name one ingredient you can’t live without … or one you’d be glad to never work with again?
Can’t live without extra virgin olive oil nor kosher salt.
Never again. 1,000-year-old eggs.
Weirdest or most interesting ingredient you’ve ever cooked with?
We accepted a live turtle to cook in 1983. I said a prayer and cut off its head. Later that night one sous chef and I butchered it. Then I followed a Paul Prudhomme recipe for turtle soup. It was unforgettable. The entire range of the events.
Best meal of your life so far?
Sharing lunch for 6 hours with my dear friend Charlie Trotter along with our wives at Michel Bras for a restaurant meal.
Fondest food memory?
My first picnic with my older sister Jane. We walked two blocks to her best friends house and had peanut butter and jelly on the steps of the home. The sunlight was magical as was the flavor of the sandwiches. I was five years old.
If you could share a meal with anyone, who would it be? What would you eat?
My father. He died when I was 17. Heart attack. I’d want to have whatever he wanted. Likely a steak. And I would ask him many questions and learn all I could.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I’d own a blues/rock/country bar in Florida somewhere. Once in a while, I’d play with the band. I’d cook in a small kitchen in the back making whatever I wanted. The ocean would be out back.
Thanks for talking with us, Chef Norman.
To see what’s cooking, follow Chef Norman on Instagram.
Since 1985, D’Artagnan has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement, producing superior tasting products by partnering with small ranches and farms. We are committed to free-range, natural production, sustainable and humane farming practices and no use of antibiotics or hormones. That’s why D’Artagnan products have been revered by America’s most renowned chefs for over 30 years. We offer the same high-quality products to home cooks at dartagnan.com, along with recipes and guides to help you live the tasty life.
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