Norman Van Aken on Wynwood Culinary School and Restaurant: "Teaching and Learning Are Magical"

Norman Van Aken to open culinary school in Wynwood.
Norman Van Aken to open culinary school in Wynwood.
Courtesy of Norman Van Aken

Venerable chef and original Mango Gang member Norman Van Aken returns to Miami's culinary scene with a trio of exciting announcements. 

The James Beard Award winner is opening a cooking school, restaurant, and lounge inside Wynwood Arcade at 50 NW 25th St. Van Aken's triple-play will join other high-profile tenants such as the Salty Donut, Bonobos, and Patrizia Bozzi Design.

The school, In the Kitchen With Norman Van Aken, was originally scheduled to open in the MiMo District, but Van Aken says, "We couldn't get traction on permitting." The chef just confirmed he signed a lease at the Wynwood Arcade with a space that includes a rooftop deck. The expected opening date of the school is September. October is the goal for the restaurant and lounge to begin serving guests.

Van Aken, whose many career highlights include serving as executive chef and director of restaurants at Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute, thinks a dedicated place for food aficionados to hone their skills is exactly what Miami needs. "This is for people who are enthusiastic and want to gain precision in everything." The classes will range from nutrition to sushi-making and will constantly evolve based on the students' wants and needs. "We'll learn what courses and skills people are really attracted too. We'll keep on refining the program, just like you would the menu at a restaurant."

"The school will also offer guest classes from visiting chefs. I've got a lot of colleagues who come through Miami, and I would like to have them share their knowledge. We'll have all kinds of distinguished chefs and cookbook authors."

Van Aken says that he has always loved teaching but that when he met chef Candace Walsh, everything fell into place. "When I met Candace, things clicked. She immediately said she wanted to do this too. It went from an idea to a business plan quickly."

The school will take a hands-on approach to learning. "It will be a platform where the students cook," Aken says. "They don't just watch us. They'll have the blenders and knives and everything they need. We'll invite them up front to see what we are doing."

Van Aken, who considers himself self-taught, is the only Floridian inducted into the James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage" and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johnson & Wales University.  He says sharing knowledge is rewarding. "To me, teaching and learning are magical." The chef describes the camaraderie found in the kitchen. "In cooking classes, I've found that people encourage each other. When someone flips a crepe without a spatula, everyone applauds like it's the best thing they've ever done."

The classes, the chef hopes, will also give practical advice to home cooks, something he thinks is sorely lacking — especially in young people, so Van Aken plans to offer classes to the entire family. "Sometimes people recognize me in the grocery store and ask my advice on how to cook something. The generation-to-generation communication that has supported cooking for so long has degenerated, and that can't be. It just blows my mind that there's no cooking taught in school. While I can't redo the entire school system in America, I can offer the ability for parents and children to learn together."

The chef says sessions will vary in length and price. "Some classes will be shorter, and some will be a half-day where we have lunch after. Pricing-wise, there will be a range, but we want to be there for the community. If we have a chef from France, it would be more expensive, but for regular classes, it will be as affordable as can be. We will certainly provide a value because we are going to have the most beautiful setting and use the highest-quality ingredients."

Van Aken says the restaurant and lounge are still being fleshed out. "I really don't have too many specifics. That came as an opportunity as we began to look around for spaces. Candace found the space and found we could do a restaurant too. Right now the rooftop lounge is a construction zone. We are just now working out the design for the restaurant itself and where the bar will be and where the kitchen will play out."

Although the restaurant is yet to be named, the concept is pretty simple. "Anything that has me will have Florida. We will have a very vibrant partnership with Candace and Susan Buckley [Ace Hotels, Il Mulino, and the Spotted Pig]. It's exciting for me to present dishes to Miami that I haven't presented before. We're going to have Florida locality in a very modern way — the kind of cuisine that I think fits the diverse population, and the weather, which has always been a guiding force."

The food will be driven by "the things that grow here, the bounty from the waters. I happen to be pretty educated in the use of Latin, Caribbean, and Asian techniques. "

The award-winning chef-turned-teacher says that he will never stop learning and that the school will also have a hand in the menu. "The curiosity of people over the world and sharing what we can do with different foods never gets old. I love a conversation on the way different people would cook that noodle or spice that dish."


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