Norman Van Aken is no stranger to accolades. Chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and Anthony Bourdain sing his praises, along with the late James Beard winning chef and restaurateur Charlie Trotter, who called Van Aken the "Walt Whitman of American cuisine." Though he's been recognized around the world for his contributions, his influence is felt most keenly in South Florida, where he discovered a new culinary landscape over 25 years ago.
Considered the founding father of New World Cuisine, Van Aken was the first to fuse Latin, Caribbean, Asian, and African elements into American eats in the Southeast. The Illinois-native opened his first establishment, Norman's, in 1995 in Coral Gables, the success of which led to another location in 2004 at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando. Condé Nast named Norman's one of the "The Top Ten Restaurants in the United States" and also has been heralded by Gourmet, the James Beard Foundation, and the New York Times, who deemed Van Aken South Florida's most gifted chef.
Van Aken is one of the only chefs in America to have won the James Beard Award, the Robert Mondavi Award, and the Food Arts Silver Spoon. He's also the only Floridian to be inducted into the prestigious James Beard list of "Who's Who in American Food and Beverage." In 2013, the International Academy of Gastronomy awarded Van Aken the Grand Prix Gastronomic Culture Prize, the first time the award has gone to an American.
Van Aken has embarked on several Miami endeavors since Norman's. He recently left his post as executive chef at Tuyo, the acclaimed restaurant at Miami Dade College's Miami Culinary Institute, where he also was named director of restaurants in 2011. Van Aken, who is on the board at the Latin food institute of the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, is an honorary graduate of Johnson & Wales.
In addition to instructing aspiring chefs, Van Aken shares his culinary wisdom with the masses through his five cookbooks, Feast of Sunlight (1988), The Exotic Fruit Book (1995), Norman's New World Cuisine (1997), New World Kitchen (2003), and My Key West Kitchen (2012), written with son Justin Van Aken. This February, Van Aken released his first memoir, No Experience Necessary. Locals can catch Van Aken twice a week on WLRN's "A Word on Food," where the chef shares musings, memories, and background behind recipes, ingredients, and famous dishes.
Norman Van Aken's great grandfather was a show business agent who represented the likes of Al Jolson and Buster Keaton back in the early days of film. Van Aken developed an interest in theater, partly due to the stories his grandmother shared with him of those days. He acted in plays in high school and appeared in a Key West production of A Streetcar Named Desire that was attended by none other than Tennessee Williams.
In His Own Words
"Miami is the major 'artery' when one thinks of the whole of South Florida cooking. From Key West to North Lauderdale, Miami is the main vein. As such, a lot gets circulated and a lot changes. That said, it circles back.
"The farm-to-table scene was alive and well at our restaurant "a Mano" in 1992, for instance. Glad to see it circled back and even got larger. And this: It will give me a lot of pleasure to help represent all of Florida at 'The World's Fair' in Milan, Italy next year. Readers can be sure we will be sharing the very DNA of the Miami I first met during my madcap times on South Beach up through Norman's, and on to the new venture you will be learning about quite soon."
Miami Food All-Stars
25. Dewey LoSasso
24. Mark Soyka
23. Jason Starkman
22. Lorena Garcia
21. Barton G.
20. Mike Hampton
19. Chef Creole
17. Cindy Hutson
16. Jack Homes
15. Shareef Malnik
14. Bruce Ozga
13. Robert Is Here
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12. Julio Cabrera