Kitchen Inquisition: Norman Van Aken

Norman's returning to Miami, and Miami foodies couldn't be happier

You can't say the phrase, "New World Cuisine," in the culinary world and not think of Norman Van Aken; he's only known as "the founding father" of it. His new project, Norman's 180, comes to Coral Gables in February of 2010, with a whole new set of dishes with a more "rustic food" theme we're sure will be delicious.

I'm sure all the dishes on each of your menus are like your children, but if you had to choose only one dish from the menu, which ones are you most proud of?
I'll choose this one, because it was my mother's favorite, called the conch chowder. It's a Brazilian-style conch chowder I ended up making for Emeril Lagasse's festival in Vegas which raised a lot of money.

Most popular item on the menu?
It always has been the pan-cooked filet of Key West yellowtail, with a "belly of mashed potatoes." Learned to make it when I was a breakfast chef in Key West.
How would you describe Miami's dining scene?
One word: "Ever-adolescent." I've been saying it for so long, it's like a child that's around 16 years, it's got all that promise, and all that anguish of a teenager. You look at it as, "When are you going to grow up?" and, "Wow, you'll be beautiful when you grow up." It's a coming-of-age diversity thing.
At what point did you realize you were destined to be a chef?
I was cooking about nine years for a living before I realized I was falling in love with what I was doing. It was very different in the '70s, as opposed to the "rock star" chef idea you have nowadays. That "rock star" idea was happening more in Europe than here. I didn't really think of being a chef for a living until I started to actually read what I was cooking. 
The 5 ingredients every home kitchen should have?
Sugar (honey, anything sweet), fat (butter, etc.), acid (citruses), meat, and starch (pastas, bread, etc.).  
The 5 utensils every home kitchen should have?
Wooden spoons, sharp knives, an old-fashioned vegetable peeler, a black-iron skillet, and a corkscrew. 
Your fondest food-related memory?
I was hitchhiking with my wife from Florida to Chicago when we were about 18 years old, we stopped at a grocery store and bought ham, cheese, etc and made sandwiches in a nearby park.
First dish you learned to make?
Cherry pie, hands down.
Favorite dish to make at home?
Pizza. We make it from scratch, which is why I like making it. Thin crust, Neapolitan-style pizza.

With Thanksgiving coming up, what is your favorite holiday dish to cook? What about to eat?
I'm always put in charge of the turkey. I'll do a traditional turkey, but I'll do in various ways. My favorite thing to eat, of course, is [my wife] Janet's turkey stuffing made with giblets and mushrooms. Even more than that, Janet's gravy.

What can we expect of your new restaurant?
You could expect me to be there [laughs]. You could expect to see a whole new roster of dishes, because I could leave my famous children [my dishes] in Orlando, and make way for my new children here.

If you had to choose one food style to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
That's a tough question. It's so exclusionary; you're going to piss someone off [laughs]. I would say Modern American. Most people would say my signature style is New World, but with Norman's 180, I'm really broadening my style of cuisine.

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