Chef Norman Van Aken Shares his Culinary Odyssey

The enormity of what had just transpired began to dawn on our wine-damaged minds and we hightailed it up to our rooms. We now needed more drinks and we called room service for several bottles of red,” writes Norman Van Aken.

The “we” refers to himself, Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter. The location? Miami’s posh Turnberry Resort.

I knew [Charlie had] been right about this guy Emeril, and I knew [he] was going to enjoy retelling this saga for decades to come,” Van Aken writes in his memoir’s prologue. The saga involves smashed Louis XIV chairs and a scared maître d’ in Turnberry’s Verandah Bar. The reason? The maître d’ was “trying to paw [Van Aken’s] wife.”

And that’s how an evening honoring Julia Child concluded and how No Experience Necessary opens – so prepare for a thrilling ride.

Norman Van Aken

Norman Van Aken wth Julia Child

Norman Van Aken’s memoir, released in December by Taylor Trade Publishing, spans more than two decades full of priceless moments, colorful characters and inevitable setbacks. For Van Aken, the road to Ithaca had plenty of bumps. But he “still enjoyed” each moment, he told me.

“I wanted to share the true progression of a chef,” he said about his new book.

That is, one doesn’t graduate high school and then turn into a celeb chef the next day. The road was long, full of adventures. He hopes that No Experience Necessary reaches beyond the restaurant world. Anyone still searching for what they want to do with their life, or any individual struggling with a career obstacle, can see how success is a journey. In other words, don’t expect things to fall into place over night.

“This is a love story of survival,” Van Aken told me. It’s about surviving career setbacks, but it’s also a love story between him and the girl he met in the first kitchen, his wife Janet.

Norman Van Aken

Norman Van Aken with his future wife Janet at Key West

This is a love story of survival

“When you start your very own restaurant and you’re the chef and co-owner, you have entered a very dangerous world. You become a ghost to your wife, husband, children, parents, and friends outside the restaurant world. Each moment is about YOUR MENU,” he writes in his memoir. Despite the bumps and challenging times, the Van Akens survived.

His brilliant story telling,” says Emeril Lagasse, “will leave you inspired and hungry for more.” It does.

Norman Van Aken

Young Norman Van Aken with his sister Jane

Chef Norman, the only Floridian inducted into the James Beard “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America,” introduced “fusion” into the modern culinary vocabulary in 1988. And in 2006 he was honored as one of the Founders of the New American Cuisine.

“Norman Van Aken was a true pioneer of the American food movement in the 1980s, when chefs began to combine regional inspirations with modern cooking techniques,” says Wolfgang Puck. “He was the first to blend Florida and Caribbean flavors with a classically trained approach to fine cuisine, and the first meals I ever ate in his restaurant were revelations […] including a creamy conch chowder with sweet corn, and amazing foie gras [sic] served on top of French toast,” Puck recalls. “But one of the best things about the dining experience he has always offered is his warm, kind-hearted, good-humored personality. It comes through in this book, just as it does in his cooking to this day.”

In Orlando, we know Van Aken as one of the masterminds behind Norman’s Restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes. In late August he celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Orlando restaurant, where guests savored a $1000 dinner created by some of the best chefs, including Lagasse, Jeremiah Tower and Dean Fearing. The fine dinning venue has earned top honors as one of the nation’s best restaurants, and the New York Times once called Van Aken Florida’s most gifted chef. But before winning multiple awards, Chef Norman played several roles in his life: roofer, carnie, house painter, actor … Of course, his role as short-order cook led him to his culinary destiny. No Experience Necessary chronicles his thrilling journey, along with great recipes interspersed between each chapter.

“Norman Van Aken is the Jimmy Page of his profession – a man who was THERE at almost every important moment in its history. The OG of South Florida, New World cuisine, and a guy who knows where every body is buried … many of them to be found in No Experience Necessary,” says Anthony Bourdain.

Along the way, Van Aken met a multitude of intriguing characters that added to his adventures, or played the role of culinary mentors. One of these mentors was Chef Fred Boomer who missed the “era of ‘celebrity’ chefs,” Van Aken explains in his memoir. “Cooking was still looked at as a dead-end job, the result of destructive and pitiable life, not even a profession back then,” he writes. In fact, cooking positions were posted next to stripper ads in the newspaper. Boomer cooked at the Holiday Inn in Greeley, Colorado. It was 1974.

After a bad car accident that left Boomer with broken arms, Van Aken had to learn how to cook his mentor’s specialties – his soups. They reflected Boomer’s world travels with the Navy, and Van Aken started to work with exotic flavors like Greek avgolemono (“with its bright lemony notes and satisfying chicken-stock backbone”). This experience may have influenced his future fusion kitchen, but Chef Norman’s culinary eureka moment happened on his beloved island, Key West.

It was a morning in 1987 when Van Aken sat on the deck behind Louie’s Backyard. He looked up from the open cookbooks and saw a sailboat drifting south.

“I too drifted with it for sometime,” he writes, “wondering where it might be going and what the sailors would see, touch, and taste when they got there.” That’s when a serious thought about South Florida’s cuisine came to mind. “I thought about how North America’s music had evolved, how its literature and architecture and dance were amalgamations of cultures bumping up against one another,” he continues. “Key West was a place where Spanish, African, and Anglo influences converged, yet the food we were eating […] seemed almost frozen in time,” Van Aken remarks. This epiphany directed him to his new teachers: “In the cafés and homes of South Florida.”

That’s when everything clicked. Once enamored with the food revolution at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in California, Van Aken now set out to change the South Florida culinary landscape, and with that, change North American fine cuisine.

“The American culinary landscape would not be the same without his vision,” says Mario Batali, “his authenticity and his highly personal and remarkably provocative food – and his food would be as delicious if not for his story and the recipes in this essential tome.”

More great moments took place in Key West, including his favorite, but that will give away the ending of his book. When asked to pick from his other special moments documented in No Experience Necessary, Van Aken will tell you about the night he partied at Tennessee Williams’ house on Duncan Street. He wanted the role of Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando’s role in A Street Car Named Desire), but he ended up playing the neighbor. After Tennessee Williams came to the final rehearsals at the Key West community theater, he threw a house party for the cast. Somehow, Van Aken ended up in his kitchen.

Whatever on earth are you making, my boy?” asked the literary icon.

“Some tamarind iced tea. Would you like a glass?” Van Aken hoped he would accept. The playwright must’ve liked the refreshing concoction because “he [later] set the empty glass down, leaned over, elevated himself on his toes, gave [Norman] a little peck on [his] forehead, and then rejoined the cast out by the pool.”

“Tennessee Williams just kissed you on the head,” Van Aken heard his inner voice say.

Norman Van Aken

Norman Van Aken with Tennessee Williams

Perhaps one can look at this as a blessing.

So what’s next for Chef Norman?

“I do imagine writing another book,” he told me. But he has to figure out an angle so it’s not a repetition of No Experience Necessary. He sees himself as both chef and writer. He has penned five cookbooks, including My Key West Kitchen co-written with his son Justin. Maybe he’ll open another Norman’s in the future, not sure, but it’s more likely that he’ll open a “freestanding restaurant, something smaller.” Until then, there’s Norman’s Restaurant in Orlando and Tuyo in South Florida. (Tuyo is part of the Miami Culinary Institute, where Van Aken is Chef and Director of Restaurants.)

The New World Cuisine’s OG truly enjoys his craft. He always makes sure to create “layers of flavors,” he said. When someone takes ten-twelve bites, each “bite should be different,” Chef Norman told me. In other words, he wants “flavors to keep coming at you.” He aims to create “a taste of Florida on a plate.” And in his writing, he wants to share stories that touch his audience; he wants to give them a “taste of life.”