Norman Van Aken is one of the most celebrated chefs in Miami, but before he found his calling in the kitchen, he sold flowers in Hawaii, traveled the country as a carnival worker, and painted houses.
His new book, No Experience Necessary, tells the type of tale that foodies gobble up. His memoir is loaded with priceless behind the scenes stories -- true accounts that portray a verisimilitude you'll never see on so-called reality shows like Chopped or Top Chef.
This yarn is peppered with the savory characters Van Aken came across on his adventures, including Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain, and even Julia Child. Then there are the unsung heroes of his adventures, such as ex-Navy man, Fred Boomer, who with two broken arms, taught Aken to make soup.
The chef spoke with Short Order about his adventures, his passion, and the future of Miami's culinary scene. Meet the chef and get a signed copy of No Experience Necessary tonight at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
Short Order: In your book you discuss the several jobs you took on over the years, such as roofer and carnival worker. Which was your favorite?
Norman Van Aken: I take it you mean outside of the world of restaurants. If so, I think that is a mighty short list... But the brief time I was a carny worker would probably be the favorite. Until, that is, the night I was electrocuted by a faulty ferris wheel. It was kind of cool to travel from town to town and live a kind of fantasy life with the carny folks. We slept under the trucks when it wasn't raining too hard and learned the carny world which was like running away every day of your life.
Can you explain what a shoeless street flower seller is?
I was wandering down Ala Moana Boulevard in Hawaii where I'd run off to in 1971. I was out of work and a gent offered to pay me to sell flowers to the tourists shopping at the nearby shops. He didn't care that I was shoeless. He just wanted me to help him make a buck too. I lasted about a week.
Which chef(s) inspired you the most as you learned your craft?
I was inspired by people mostly no one ever heard of. I cooked for almost ten years before I realized that there was an art form lying just behind the world of diners, Holiday Inns, barbeque places, country clubs, nautically-themed places with salad bars made from recycled skiffs and the like. Still, there were some honest folks with honest lessons, if not an entire four star approach. I learned a sense of reverence for food by a Japanese chef named Tokio Suyehara that I still call my first 'real chef.' He foraged for wild dandelion greens in the yard of the Inn we worked in together and made soy and sesame salads for us with them between the lunch and dinner hours the summer before he died from cancer.
I also learned a helluva lot about making soups from a Navy guy named Fred Boomer while I was working in Colorado. He had broken both of his arms falling down a flight of stairs in a cowboy bar and he had to teach me to make his soups while he healed. And from 'Bicycle Sammy' down at The Midget in Key West, with a place that had no walls, I learned how to work a wood grill. So many more are coming to mind that I better quit! But you must 'meet' Black Betty from Pier House days too. She was an amazing teacher to me.
You've written several popular cookbooks. What inspired you to write something personal?
I love stories. I was raised on them, in fact. It occurred to me that sharing them was a form of honoring the people who created them in front of me via living life to the fullest. Even if 'honor' is also found in 'humor and pathos.'
I am fortunate that I spent a good deal of time in a place where stories abound... the world of restaurants. Key West and Miami are amazing backdrops for them, too. "No Experience Necessary" covers about 20 years, 20 restaurants I worked in and about 200 characters that I shared times with. Some -- like Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse, Tony Bourdain, Alice Water, Julia Child -- became famous. Some not. Family and friends are also in the book in a way I hope they will enjoy. It was also time to disabuse the American public watching so-called 'reality cooking shows' of what a crock most are. And let's also note, this is a love story most of all.
What is the best piece of advice you received on your way to the top?
I learned very early on that you can learn from anyone. You can't judge a book by it's cover. That advice came from my mother, by the way. She didn't hand it out. She lived it. 'Brother' Charlie (Trotter) thought I was a delivery guy the day he came in to ask me for his first cook's job.
If you hadn't found your calling, what do you think you would be doing today?
I would be a muleskinner...
What would you say is the difference between formal training and hands-on truing? Is one better than the other?
I think hands-on is the best formal training of all.
What achievement or moment in your career are you most proud of?
Professionally there are two that are tied. I was honored in Madrid alongside Alice Water, Mark Miller, and Paul Prudhomme as 'one of the founders of the New American Cuisine.' The other was receiving the James Beard Foundation's Award for "Who's Who in American Food & Beverage." I am the sole Floridian so honored thus far.
Where do you see the Miami food scene in five years?
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I see Miami becoming the world class food town it has the soul and genetics to attain. I have answered that question for the last 20 years the same way. Let's see if I am right this time. No bones about it. We have the gifts.
Van Aken is appearing tonight at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables) from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The event is free. Visit booksandbooks.com for additional information.
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