Norman Van Aken may not be a household name like some of his friends, but that's probably the way he wants it. Credited with being one of the founders of New World Cuisine, Van Aken paved the way for his publicly celebrated friends, such as Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain, and Mario Batali by creating (and making the world take notice of) the culinary revolution taking hold in the U.S. during the 1980s.
Before becoming an internationally renowned chef, he worked as a carny and sold flowers in Hawaii barefoot. He is more public radio than Food Network; more Key West than South Beach. Van Aken may be a chef, but everything he experienced on the path to discovering that calling has made him a storyteller, a skill he displays on his NPR radio show, "A Word on Food" and in his new book, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken.
No Experience Necessary is the story of how a young Van Aken tried his hand at various blue collar jobs while searching for something he didn't even know existed. It delves into the hands-on education he received in various kitchens and the education he self-administered by reading the best cookbooks ever published. Written in a conversational tone, the book reads like a story overheard at a dive bar at just about that time when shit gets real.
It's fascinating to read about a time when chefs weren't rock stars winking at you from 50-inch flatscreens, a time when culinary school was not a goal, but a Plan B. Before Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, before Paula Deen and Rachel Ray, there was Van Aken, and No Experience Necessary tells the story behind that transition, not only in the man, but in American society.
No Experience Necessary takes foodies with a fascination for insider information on a behind-the-scenes tour of the elusive Neverland known as the "back of house." Chef chasers (foodie equivalent of starfuckers) will also get a kick out of the book's appetizers -- blurbs from Wolfgang Puck, Batali, and Bourdain -- who calls Van Aken the "Jimmy Page of his profession" and "Florida's OG."
And the main course will really satisfy true food fanatics, with stories such as the time Van Aken and Emeril Lagasse behaved more like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. After cooking a meal for Julia Child, the two chefs decided that the guy flirting with Van Aken's wife needed a lesson in manners, and smashed two antique chairs to bits -- on the day Van Aken and Lagasse first met. Van Aken's casual writing style lends weight to, rather than detracts from, such anecdotes. There's no fancy demi-glace here; the stories are all meat and bones.
The book is peppered with humorous anecdotes and quirky characters, such as former sailor, Fred Boomer, who taught Aken to make soup -- with two broken arms; and Lionel, who drunkenly confesses to having eaten human flesh.
Readers are invited to accompany Van Aken on his journey from aimless teenager to celebrated chef, dedicated husband, and proud father. We're also invited to try the dishes he learned and created along the way, with many chapters including recipes.
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If you have more than a passing interest in food, its culture, and history, No Experience Necessary will leave you feeling full and satisfied.
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