Norman Van Aken wears many "toques". He's been coined the father of New World cuisine and was one of the "Mango Gang", a group of chefs including Douglas Rodriguez, Allen Susser, and Mark Militello who turned Miami's culinary vista from diners and early bird specials into an interesting and culturally rich experience.
Chef Van Aken is also an accomplished restaurateur, the chef and director of restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute (which includes Tuyo), and is the author of several cookbooks, the latest, My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories ($29.95), a collaboration with his son, Justin.
Chef Van Aken will be at Whole Foods Market in Coral Gables today, December 10 for two concurrent events.
From 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m., chef Van Aken will sign copies of his new
cookbook, which will be available for purchase at the store.
At 7 pm, Van Aken will host an intimate cooking class inside the Lifestyle Center where guests will be able to sample recipes from his cookbook, paired with wines provided by Whole Foods. Guests in attendance will be asked to make a $10 donation per person to Lotus House, a local residential shelter and resource center for homeless and disadvantaged women and children.
We asked chef Van Aken a few questions about his new book, his love affair with Key West, and his plans for the future:
Short Order: Your new book is part recipe book/part Key West love note. Do you still have a place in Key West? What makes that town such a siren song to many? Would you see yourself living there again?
Norman Van Aken: We still have our home in Key West. We rented homes there for the early years, only buying one about seven years ago now. The week Wilma hit, in fact. Justin, (my son and my co-author) lives there now with his wife Lourdes and their brand new baby daughter, Audrey. I would happily live there again and may when the time seems best. For now I have Tuyo and some other Miami based projects, (TV and Books related).
Many of the recipes in the book are from iconic Key West restaurants. Can you truly replicate a restaurant's famous dish at home or is the home outcome meant to be a "reminder" of what you love to eat when dining out?
That depends on the complexity of the recipe and if the recipe was well crafted. Our recipes here include some of the iconic restaurants such as MIRA, Louie's Backyard and The Pier House. It would not be my 'love letter' without those important loves remembered too. Justin and I adapted them and made them very doable for home cooks. They will probably have to imagine the Key West skyline and aural tapestry as they eat, though!
What is next for you and your son? Any other restaurants in the works besides Tuyo (and your Orlando location)?
Justin and I are at work on two book projects now. I also have a memoir coming out in May that will be my journey as a chef coming of age in America in the 70's, 80's and early 90's. I want readers to know what it was like before all of the hoopla when cooking was a job with a lot of love and craziness but not so much glitz. Now, young cooks are suddenly accorded major chef status for winning a (usually) somewhat dubious battle on TV.
Back then, it took 20 years or more to become a well-known and respected chef, and even then many might never be noticed. But it was okay! It was for the love of the game, as they say in sports. I think I prefer the past!
You're considered the "father of New World cuisine". What is the state of cuisine in Miami now?
I am happy with that tag. I have been so blessed to have so much inspiration come my way from so many different people from so many countries that make Miami and South Florida so dynamic.
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The state of our cuisine here is in regeneration again. I'm happy about that, too. But there are many restaurants here that have been doing soulful, traditional food that have labored in obscurity.
A new show I'm working on will be all about showing Miami the hidden treasures already here or the chefs who are getting venues venerating Florida in the time-honored way.