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Morning Buzz of the California Kind: Chef Norman Van Aken Recalls a "Ms. Julia" Moment

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Norman Van Aken, Chef/Owner Norman's at the Ritz Carlton, Orlando (and soon to be Norman's 180 in Coral Gables)

It seems everyone has his or her own favorite Julia Child story. That's how well known and firmly entrenched in the American psyche the inimitably voiced gourmet goddess, (of the more Nordic sense) became.

I was fortunate to know her and perform with her and it seems that each time I was in her presence; her unwavering well, "Julia-ness", stunned me! Whether it's a "save the liver!" faux memory or a more personal touch--such as having your cookbook signed in her finely etched, surprisingly small, way.

One of my personal memories took place back in 1990. I had been invited to go to Fetzer Winery up in Mendocino, California for a big weekend event celebrating their spectacular new organic garden. Janet and I left for San Francisco on the 12th of July. We took the chance to dine at Jeremiah Tower's new place, "690" for dinner and Wolfgang Puck's "Postrio" for breakfast the next morning before driving up to Mendocino. It was a blisteringly hot in wine country that July.

The Fetzers had invited quite a lineup of chefs to not only cook but to discuss the craft of cooking. I was immersed in a group of talented chefs that could not only cook brilliant food but were conversant and knowledgeable about its place and value within our culture. Chefs included Stephan Pyles of Dallas, Anne Rosenzweig of New York and John Folse of New Orleans. Julia Child was the big draw and she walked amongst us; a female Buddha of contentment and grace.

The Fetzer family threw a big opening night party for us at their "Big Dog Saloon". The next morning Stephan Pyles and I were scheduled to appear on an early morning radio show hosted by San Franciscan KSAN radio star, Narsai David. Stephan and I joined the other chefs staying up until nearly dawn, sharing the enthusiasm chefs have for the passion of this job. We shared a fair share of wine too! Our heads were splitting as we walked down the soft path to the place in the gardens the radio folks had set up their remote "studio". Though it was not yet 9 a.m. the heat was a force. We had not yet had coffee and the need was growing more fiercely by the moment. When we tiptoed to the table near where Ms. Julia and Mr. David were already on the air. We saw coffee cups. We mimed our needs, holding our hands in mock prayer. Narsai signaled that he was going for a commercial break. When the radio guys cleared us, I asked Julia where we might find some of the coffee. She smiled broadly to all of us, held up her coffee cup with her pinky extended and remarked merrily, "Oh no, darling, Narsai and I are drinking the Gewürztraminer!"

--- Norman Van Aken, 8.4.09

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