Florida-based, James Beard award-winning chef and author Norman Van Aken has a new title to add to his professional roster: TV show creator and host.
Some may recognize Van Aken's name from the Mango Gang of the late '80s and early '90s, a group of mindful chefs — including Allen Susser, Mark Militello, and Doug Rodriguez — who developed dishes while celebrating Florida's multicultural melting pot.
Van Aken has long been a force in the Miami dining scene, making a name for himself as executive chef at a Mano, which opened in 1992 at the Betsy Ross Hotel (now called the Betsy South Beach). His namesake, Norman's, opened in Coral Gables in 1995, making it on the finalist roster for the James Beard Foundation's "Best New Restaurant in America" that same year.
Today, the Florida-based chef has a long history of operating successful restaurants in the Sunshine State, most recently with his third iteration of Norman's located in the Dellagio Town Center of Dr. Phillips.
Perhaps his most poignant credit came when Smithsonian magazine credited him as the creator of "New World Cuisine" while giving the word "fusion" new meaning to the culinary community via his love for combining Caribbean, African, and Latin American ingredients in a single dish.
Today, with a new television show in collaboration with Blackstone and co-creator/director Nathan Lippy, Van Aken aims to deliver a behind-the-scenes glimpse into his everyday life both in and out of the kitchen. The series launched late last month, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and the Roku Channel, with a second season in the works.
Dubbed Norman's Florida Kitchen, the show shares the same title as Van Aken's 2017 book, which delivers the chef's forward-thinking approach to New American cuisine while celebrating his culinary muse: Florida.
"Like each of us, good food has a story to tell. This show really serves to share my general adoration of Florida," Van Aken tells New Times. "When I first moved here as a very young cook, the cultural diversity of Florida not only informed my work but also created who I am as a chef."
Weaving together the chef's professional and personal life, each half-hour episode takes viewers through a single recipe, from product sourcing to demystifying various techniques Van Aken has learned over his 50 years of cooking in a professional kitchen. Almost all of the cooking is done in his Buena Vista backyard, where he employs a Blackstone griddle setup.
The 12-episode show opens with Van Aken as he walks you through his early food discoveries after arriving in Florida in the late '80s, including a stop at the Homestead market Robert Is Here. In the second episode, the chef recalls one of his earliest food memories: a pizza from a restaurant in the Illinois town where he grew up, reimagined with a Latin twist.
In another, he goes shopping at Foodtown Supermarket in Davie — recently reopened as Mango Tree Supermarket — where he discusses tropical fruits and other unique items.
"I didn't go to cooking school. My education comes from being in places like this. I would talk to people who worked there...and that's when my cuisine began to branch out. It came from going to markets like this," says Van Aken. "It was part of my everyday education."
For the final episode, Van Aken plans a new menu item alongside the chefs at Norman's, a full-circle moment that shows the creative, collaborative process behind the fusion he's helped define.
"My hope is to try to make people understand that cooking is not just putting food on the table," says Van Aken. "It's also fun and not as daunting as you might think. Our goal is to go back to the way cooking shows used to be — comfortable and fun."