At Home at Norman’s

From humble dishwasher to Executive Chef of Norman’s at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes

If you’ve had the unparalleled experience of dining at Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, then you may have also had the pleasure of meeting Norman’s Executive Chef Andres Mendoza. For anyone who hasn’t, please allow me to introduce this impassioned man to you. Originally from Mexico, Mendoza began cooking at just 14 years old with his mother and grandmother. At 20 years old, he moved to the United States with his family and got a job as a dishwasher for Marriott.

“That was my very first professional kitchen and I just loved the atmosphere. I would always look at the chefs with the long hats and think about how amazing their job was.” -A.M.

Chef Norman Van Aken

Chef Norman Van Aken

Despite his immense respect for the craft of cooking, Mendoza had only seen it as his hobby. The thought of becoming a chef was so far removed that he had chosen to study marketing in college. Fortunately, for all current and future diners at Norman’s, the universe ultimately had other plans in store. Soon after the dishwashing job, Mendoza became a busser for Houlihan’s. Day after day, the inquisitive Mendoza would ask so many questions about the kitchen that the chef began to give him small, basic tasks to help with such as peeling potatoes. As Mendoza continued to work in small kitchens doing basic prep, he began to fall deeper and deeper in love with cooking. His curiosity and craving for more knowledge on why things were done a certain way eventually led him to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. Halfway through his education, Mendoza got his first fine dining job as a line cook for Citricos restaurant. Two years later, Mendoza entered Norman’s kitchen for the first time and his life would change forever.

“As soon as I walked inside, I realized Norman’s was my place to be. The smells in the kitchen were so familiar and reminded me of my past. The ingredients and the flavors reminded me of my home and my culture.” -A.M.

Mendoza immediately accepted a position at Norman’s as Chef de Partie and in time, worked his way up to Executive Chef. Although Mendoza has been with Norman’s for four years, the deep passion with which he still discusses cooking and working at the fine dining establishment is beautifully genuine and truly contagious. In simple, heartfelt words Mendoza conveyed to me the incredible adoration, love and reverence he has for his job. His heart beats in a thousand different ways for cooking and if there’s truth to the idiom “home is where the heart is,” then Mendoza’s home will always be Norman’s.

Maple Glazed Kurobuta Pork Belly 3

Maple Glazed Kurobuta Pork Belly

I’m sure it also helps that right now is one of the most exciting times in Norman’s recent history.  Chef Norman Van Aken, who is widely regarded as the founding father of New World Cuisine, says it’s time to refresh and dress the 13-year-old restaurant with significant changes that will allow his guests to become reanimated. It began last year when Norman’s beautifully remodeled their patio to create the new outdoor space by the golf course. Now they’re continuing the transition by renovating the lounge with more modern furniture and creating a dramatic new wine room for intimate group tastings. There is so much more on the horizon for Norman’s and 2016 is set to be an exciting year for many reasons. The new year will also bring about the highly anticipated grand opening of Van Aken’s brand new restaurant 1921 by Norman Van Aken.

“We are very pleased to continue our love affair with Florida and in this case, the city of Mount Dora. It harkens us back to the little town we’re from in Illinois.” -N.V.A

1921 by Norman Van Aken is set to open in early 2016, is being built in a historic building created by the Modernism Museum. The beautiful building, which has been in downtown Mount Dora since 1921, proved to be the perfect location for Van Aken to express his cuisine in new ways while forming a creative collaboration with the museum, which is located right across from the restaurant. While Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes has dishes with a strong Latin Caribbean feel, the new restaurant will be inspired by more Floridian Southern fare although Van Aken says the Latin Caribbean leaning will still be present as that’s simply part of his DNA. The new restaurant will also establish a more casual atmosphere, while still maintaining Norman’s dedication to excellent service and driven search for high quality ingredients.

Yellowtail Snapper

Yellowtail Snapper

“I’ve got a whole new collection of dishes that I’m here to showcase and we can do that with the new restaurant and we’re looking forward to it.” -N.V.A

Van Aken is also in the process of writing a book titled Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen that will be published in one to one-and-a-half years, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves as we discuss all the exciting times to come. While it’s always stirring to look ahead to the future at this time of year, it’s just as important to slow down and appreciate the present season we’re in. If you’re finding that difficult to do with all the stress of the holidays, Norman’s three-course prix fixe Christmas menu just might be your perfect remedy. The menu seeks to focus on traditional holiday foods and combines a celebration of different cultures all into one tasty menu. From Mexican and Caribbean to Puerto Rican and American, the incredible Christmas and New Year’s prix fixe menus are ones that you’ll have to see (and taste!) for yourself this holiday season.

“We like to focus on feelings whenever we are creating a new dish or menu. We try to pull something from our backgrounds: What do you miss from your country? What do you miss from your childhood? What did you used to cook with mom? What did you used to eat with grandma? We answer those questions and then take it to a fine dining level.” -A.M.

I underestimated the impact our conversations would have on me. I left with a renewed appreciation for the importance of food and the feelings that it can bring. In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, it’s easy to forget that cooking and food is so much more than just a means of survival. It’s about the families and loved ones that it brings together. It’s about the great moments that it inspires. An experience with good food can become forever intertwined with your memories and instantly come rushing back to you with a just simple smell.

“Many people think that cooking is just something cool to do, but it’s something wonderful. It’s almost magical. It’s inspirational. I will always say that I was chosen by the kitchen because that’s how I feel. I got into a job in the kitchen almost by mistake and I never left and I’m not planning to leave the kitchen anytime soon. My house is Norman’s. This is my home.” -A.M.

Check out Chef Andres Mendoza’s recipe for dessert cajeta flan in order to bring a little piece of Norman’s to your own home this holiday season!

Cajeta Flan

Ingredients:
5 whole eggs • 4 egg yolks • 2 cups sugar • 1 can evaporated milk (12 oz. can) • 1 ¼ cup whole milk • 1 tsp. vanilla extract • 1 cup cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) • 1 cake pan 9” or 6-8 ramekins.

Method:

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 350°.
  2. In a non-corrosive sauce pan combine 1 cup of sugar and a little water (just enough to form a wet sand).
  3. Melt the sugar at medium to high heat stirring often until the caramel reaches a light amber color. Pour the caramel into the cake pan or ramekins. Use caution, the caramel is very hot!
  4. In a Blender add the eggs, egg yolks, whole milk, evaporated milk, vanilla extract, cajeta and the rest of the sugar and blend until smooth.
  5. Pour the mix into the cake pan and let the custard rest for about 20 minutes.
  6. Set the cake pan into a large baking pan and pour hot water until it reaches about half way.
  7. Bake for about 30 to 40 minutes for the small ramekins and 40 minutes to an Hour for the cake pan.
  8. To tell if the flan is done, gently shake the pan. If the flan jiggles it needs more time, about five to ten more minutes. They are done when the flan does not jiggle when shaken or when a paring knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
  9. Once the flan is done remove them from the water and let it cool down at room temperature.
  10. Refrigerate overnight before serving.
  11. Serve with your desired seasonal fruits and whipped cream.

Note: The cajeta can be found in Hispanic or Mexican supermarkets.