Tell us about your formative years and how did you find your way into the culinary field to become widely known as ‘the founding father of New World Cuisine’.
NVA: My ‘formative years’ eh? I first must tell you that I wrote a memoir on this which goes into some length on them. It is titled, “No Experience Necessary, The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken”. The title is a somewhat wry one in that once I got into the kitchens of an America that were so much less evolved than the ones we have now a days… I got ALL kinds of experiences. And they were a mix of every kind. I wrote the book in part to put on paper what the world of kitchen life was really like… at least for me… and it was a far cry from the celebrated world of ‘chefs and television and sponsorships etc’. I hope that what the book might do is to encourage the young to not feel like they are alone in finding the first years fraught with all kinds of twists and turns.
But turning to the time before I first wore an apron and burned and cut my way to some level of proficiency … I grew up in a beautiful part of Northern Illinois. My mother was my first culinary teacher but it was never consciously realized that she was doing it. She was following her inner loves and part of them were gardening, canning fruits and vegetables and making simple but honest home cooked meals. When my maternal grandmother came to live with us she also shared her love of cooking while my mother went out and got jobs in restaurants to take care of the bills and us all. It was a loving and beautiful time. But in no way did I have any thought of being a chef one day. It simply wasn’t part of the dialog of our world back then. I didn’t watch chefs on TV nor dream of going to cooking schools. I actually titled the memoir from the very ad I read in the newspaper that availed me my first job cooking. The ad said, “Short order cook needed.. no experience necessary”. I had been working all kinds of scrappy odd jobs. They included factory work, landscaping, concrete work in Kansas, selling flowers on the streets of Honolulu and also traveling with a small carnival in Illinois. My last job before cooking came into my life was one of hot tar roofer. I was fired for enjoying a summer rainstorm too heartily. But.. once I got into the kitchen I went from hating work to finding it the first job I actually wanted to excel at. It took years before I realized I was actually going to be a chef ‘for real’. And that really took off once I moved to Key West and the foods and foodways that would come to define me.
Your philosophical approach to cuisine is ‘creating a marriage of the sensual and rustic with the classic and intellectual in a celebration of the various places one lives – creative and full of flavors – a true culinary experience. Please describe your culinary philosophy?
NVA: I was the first person to use the term ‘fusion’ when it came to cooking. My ‘culinary philosophy’ is essentially a two-parter. When cooking in Key West at a time of continuing awareness of the long history and general sentiment that Western European cooking was more ‘vaunted’ by most I felt an idealogical shift. I loved the ‘3 Star restaurants’ of France etc. but I also loved the soulful cooking of the immigrant cultures around me on the island. I decided ‘fusing’ them was a means of creating blessed ‘union’ of things. That is imbued within the quote in your question. The second part of my philosophy is more geographically specific. (But it is filled with the ramifications of travelers, explorers, merchants, shifting economics etc.) I termed it “New World Cuisine”. Back in the 80’s when I was doing this folks asked me often what I called my cuisine. They said, “It’s not French. It’s not Southwestern. It’s not Cuban… What is it?” I pondered that a while. I ultimately wanted a term that illustrated the grand explosion of what ‘The Colombian Exchange’ brought about. With the ‘discovery’ of The New World there was a huge shift in global cooking. I wanted to dial into how I wished to convey it from my small spot of the globe; Key West. I felt if Faulkner could create an world in that small county and convey all he did regarding the complexity of the human condition I might be able to stay small but be large too. When we moved up to Miami the acceleration of understanding more about more countries in South America etc. came into my repertoire by cooking, reading, asking native folks their way of doing things and more.
How do you bring about this balance on a plate?
The philosophy is all ‘behind the scenes’ as far as I’m concerned. Like great plays or books that should not be part of the necessary awareness of those we seek to touch with our works. The balance must come from the honest well springs of deliciousness, compatibility, excellent produce, (ingredients), appropriate relationships between things like fat, meatiness, acidity, starch, spice, herbs, greens etc. and then technique.
What are your greatest influences in the kitchen?
NVA: Local ingredients and the food history of those that taught me whether by books or ‘hands on’. I have an extensive culinary library but I also just love to go to farmer’s markets and wing it when I get home.
What are your treasured pleasure food?
NVA: I love things like Classic French, “Nonna” Italian, Sushi, BBQ and my wife Janet’s homemade French Fries.
What keeps you motivated at this point in your career?
Cuisine is limitless. Via our Cooking School we are teaching more and more home cooks to catch the wind of how limitless and fun it can be!
Being a chef is perceived as a glamorous profession, what advice could you give to chefs who are first entering the field today?
Read my memoir!