Norman Van Aken Talks Fusion and New World Cuisine, His Newest Restaurant and the Path that Led Him To Mount Dora

Norman Van Aken

Celebrity chef Norman Van Aken is coming to Mount Dora.

The internationally renowned chef and author is opening his new restaurant, 1921 by Norman Van Aken, in Downtown Mount Dora in July 2016.

If you follow restaurant news – you have heard about it, read about it.  It has been in newspapers, the blogosphere, all over the internet. It’s big news for this quaint, historic city just north of Orlando.

Van Aken, who is commonly acknowledged as one of the Founders of the New American Cuisine and the culinary leader credited with creating the term “fusion” in modern culinary circles, is the author of six books: Feast of Sunlight: The Sumptuous Cuisine of Key West’s Master Chef, The Exotic Fruit BookNorman’s New World Cuisine, New World Kitchen: Latin American and Caribbean Cuisine, My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, and No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken.  His newest book, scheduled to be released this year, is titled My Florida Kitchen – and was penned with his wife, Janet Van Aken.

For a casual foodie to interview a chef like Van Aken, who has won the James Beard Award twice, has been honored alongside the likes of Alice Waters, Mark Miller, and Paul Prudhomme, who was friends with the legendary Charlie Trotter, has been acknowledged internationally for his cooking prowess and groundbreaking culinary creativity – well, it can make an interviewer feel a bit like a garage band groupie interviewing a rock star.  That is, until the interview begins.

Van Aken’s relaxed and enthusiastic approach to sharing his climb from humble beginnings to celebrity status makes the conversation an easy exchange.  Open, generous in his responses, Van Aken sat down with the Mount Dora Citizen to talk about his interest in Mount Dora, explain how his cooking style continues to evolve, and offer some insight into what diners might expect at his new restaurant.

MDC: How/when did you discover Mount Dora?

NVA: “I was invited to Mount Dora by Heather McPherson about three years ago. I’ve known Heather for a long time.  [McPherson is, herself, a cookbook author and was a food and restaurant writer and editor for the Orlando Sentinel for 30 years.] Heather had asked me to be involved in a charity event at the local library.  So Janet [Van Aken’s wife] and I came up to Mount Dora so I could participate. We really enjoyed it here.  We thought it really was a beautiful little town that had something very special about it.”

MDC: So, what was the jumping off point that led you to consider Mount Dora as a restaurant location? Also, you’re working very closely with Main Street Leasing on 1921 by Norman Van Aken – how did that relationship begin?

The site of Van Aken's newest restaurant - 1921 by Norman Van Aken, opening in July in Downtown Mount Dora
Site of 1921 by Norman Van Aken – opening in July at 142 E 4th Avenue Downtown Mount Dora

NVA: “Before we got here, Heather mentioned that there was a very nice couple across the street from where we would be staying.  She said he was really a world-class barbecue guy, and he wanted to know if Janet and I would like to go over to have dinner at his house.  ‘I said, twist my arm, Heather, sure!’  So we did.  We met Larry [Baker, of Main Street Leasing] and Merry and had a wonderful time at their home.  We really hit it off.  I did the charity event at the library and then scooted back to Miami.

“That first meeting, when we had dinner, was just a friendly gathering.  There was no mention made of business, or working together in any way.  Then, when I was in Miami, Larry called me and asked questions about how I would set up a restaurant here, in Mount Dora.  And I said, ‘You know Larry, consulting is one of the things we do.  If you’d like me to come up and take a look, I’d be happy to.’  So, Ken [Mazik, of Main Street Leasing] flew me and Janet up to Mount Dora, and from there we started having that more serious conversation about business and working together.

“It was when we came the second time that our conversation turned into a business conversation – and the possibilities of what we might potentially do together.

“Then, of course, I visited the Mount Dora Modernism Museum, across the street from what is now 1921.  To see the exciting offerings at the museum – from the expansive collection of fine art, to concerts, lectures and workshops – was inspiring.  It cemented the relationship for me, showed me a level of discernment and commitment that I really appreciated. Many of the extraordinary details in the restaurant are designed to reflect the alliance we have with the museum and reinforce the common theme between the two.”

MDC: Going back, to your beginnings as a chef, where did you grow up, and does that still influence your professional style?

NVA: “I grew up in a small town.  It’s a little town north of Chicago…so far north that we only went down to see the Cubs play once in awhile. (smiles)

“We lived in the West Shore Park area of the larger community of Diamond Lake. There were only about 250 people living where I was raised.  The community next door, where I went to grade school, was bigger – about 17,000 people. In bios I usually refer to that larger community of Diamond Lake as the place I grew up.  We lived on Diamond Lake in an unincorporated area; there was no post office there.  It was farmland, up near the Wisconsin border.

“Of course, the experiences you have in your childhood talk to and influence everyone.  Almost every chef will remark positively about the experience of being connected to their mother or their grandmother, or someone in their past life, when it comes to food.  I think you need that very deep connection to endure the kind of physical beating it takes to live this lifestyle.  There has to be a loving rationale behind it.

“My mom and my maternal grandmother were seminal influences. From a very early age onward, I liked being in the kitchen. I liked being around the prep, and smelling the food, and helping.  It meant being with my mom and my sisters. I have an older and a younger sister.

“During WWII my mom worked in a Navy shipyard.   She did a lot of those aspirational things Americans did following wartime – including creating a victory garden in our backyard, making her own strawberry jam, shelling peas and shucking corn, going to the roadside farmers market in the summer months and buying all of our produce there.  Being frugal, thoughtful of the circumstances of the time. The market was not large, it was what you would expect to find in a very small town, similar probably, to the farmers market you have in Mount Dora.

“While my mother and father were together she was a Girl Scout leader. When Girl Scouts would crank up there were more gals around, working on projects – many of which were centered on food.  I always liked the feelings associated with being in the kitchen together, making things happen, working together…down to the details of pushing the strawberries through the sieve, it was all good stuff.

“The big change for me as a professional, though, came when I moved to Key West.  That was a seismic change.”

MDC: When did you know that following the path of culinary arts was your direction in life?

NVA: “The interesting thing is that I did it for years, before I actually accepted that this was what I was going to do and be.  In America, growing up in the 50s and 60s, being a chef was not something that had the élan or mystique that it does now.  So I had no thought process or intent of making that a career, even after the first several years of cooking.

“I cooked because it was something that I was sort of naturally good at – and it seemed a lot better to me than painting houses or digging ditches, or working in a factory.  I had already done all those types of things.  I had been a hot-tar roofer, I had worked in a carnival.  I sold flowers on the streets of Honolulu.  When I was ten years old I helped my father in his car lot, by cleaning the cars.  I was a caddie; I tried a lot of things.

“Then, there was the cooking.  I was a breakfast cook at a Holiday Inn in Colorado.  I worked at a Holiday Inn in Illinois where the broiler guy sat on a chair drinking a beer until it was time to take his fork and turn a steak over.  It was a rough and tumble crowd, a rough and tumble life.  You didn’t look forward to saying to your girlfriend’s father, ‘Hey I’m a chef’ and expect the father to say, ‘That’s great, glad you’re dating my daughter.’  There was this sense at the time that being a chef was something more for hobos or drunks, not a regular job or career.

“But, around my sixth or seventh year of cooking, I started meeting these young people who were graduates of the C.I.A., the Culinary Institute of America. They were coming into the kitchen in Key West with a vocabulary and knowledge of food that was not symmetrical with my experience with food – which had been cooking in diners, or at the all night barbecue place, or other stops along the road.

“It was at the Pier House in Key West around ’78 or ’79 when I met these young people who had a whole different outlook toward their work. They didn’t just approach their work like it was something to be endured before they could go home – or go to happy hour, and pray for the weekend.  Instead, they were trying to be really good at something, to excel.

“I always knew my interest would be something within the arts. Finally, I realized at that time, ‘What do you know, it’s not somewhere else – it’s all right here in the kitchen.  This is where I can learn to do some of the things that I am seeing are being done in Europe.’  Prior to that, these new ideas were behind a veil to me; I didn’t know they were there.  So, I had this slow awakening that this could be what I wanted to do, not just what I did.

“Janet often tells, up to this point, how I would come home to her and say, ‘I’m sorry.  I just know that I can do better.  I know I don’t make any money, and I smell like fish and garlic, and my hands are cut up, and I am in a pissy mood.  I’ll do better, I’ll do better.’  She was as patient as Job, telling me it was all right, it would be all right.  She was there through it all.  In my first cooking job she was a waitress still in high school – that’s where we met.”

Janet and Norman Van Aken
Janet and Norman Van Aken

Janet Van Aken, who has sat quietly beside her husband to this point, smiles and nods and says, “Norman worked the day shift, and I worked after, when high school was over.  One day he stayed late, and we met.  Met at a restaurant.”  Norman nods, smiling in return and says, “I immediately wanted to know her.”  They have been together ever since.

MDC: Have you ever experienced a culinary disaster, either as a customer or a chef?

NVA: (laughs) “So many, as a customer.

“There is no doubt about it, that I was fortunate to come up in Key West, which was in many ways an ‘off-off-off Broadway’ kind of environment.  In that place, I was allowed to make my way, my mistakes.  I have had my moments of breaking hollandaises, breaking caesar salads.

“Back in those early days in Key West, I usually tried to get to work before the boss, so if the thing I was making didn’t work out, I had a chance to fix it before he, or she, got there.

“My biggest disaster was when I had an accident while I was making a boiling hot batch of crayfish bisque.  The blender I was using had a top that you had to clamp down, because it was under pressure.  You had to clamp the top down, use that kind of pressure, because you’re crushing the shells as you blend the bisque.  The top blew off the blender – five minutes before we were to open on a Saturday night – and I was the chef.  The boiling hot bisque went right down my face and I had to go to the hospital, to the emergency room.”

MDC: You’ve been dubbed one of the “Founders of the New American Cuisine” and you are credited with introducing the term “Fusion” to cuisine – when did you realize you were creating a new way of looking at cooking and dining?  There are many definitions of New American Cuisine used today, what does the term mean to you?

NVA:  “Well, it certainly didn’t happen when I was by myself, alone.  It happened when I was invited on stage. The acknowledgment for Originators of the New American Cuisine happened when I was in Madrid, when I was awarded alongside people I considered culinary heroes and pioneers before me – Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, Mark Miller, specifically.

“It’s when you’re given an award like a James Beard award, which I received twice – once for the region, once for Who’s Who – that you feel that amazing blush of pride to be recognized by your peers.

“When I came up with fusion I was cooking in Key West.   I was writing a kind of position paper for myself, for my own life.  It was a very specific moment.  At the time, I was reading a book on culture and cuisine by a french writer named Revel, about the culinary history – primarily of Europe – from the middle 1500s to just prior to the present era.  It was about nouvelle cuisine. In reading that book, I began to see the pattern of humanity going back and forth between complexity and simplicity.

“At that point in my life I was kind of imitating the cuisines of other people, primarily from other parts of the United States. I was imitating what I thought was the best.  I do think that’s how you learn –  but at some point I began to see that I had to stop doing that.  I needed to create my own voice.

“When I first wrote that position paper, in 1989, I tried to make myself clear about what I was relating.  I was young, I may not have been as clear as I could have been.   Essentially,  fusion is the marriage between the rustic and the intellectual.

“I wanted to say it doesn’t need to be three-star chef/restaurant experience with all the finery, the crystal, the silver, and the ornate sauces for it to be good food.  I was aspiring, on the one hand, to understand that world, but on the other hand, I also knew I could go into a dive-y little spot in Key West and eat some sensational food that was every bit as good as the high-toned restaurant experience.  I wanted to see if I could take the best from both of those worlds and fuse them.

“There were European philosophers who talked about the idea of the ‘noble savage,’ and that was kind of in my mind with fusion when I was working through this, defining what fusion meant to me. But fusion is two concepts.  Like in a dictionary, there are often multiple definitions for the same word.

“The other definition is a fusion that occurs, for example, similar to a marriage of people from two different countries.  They intersect, they meet, and their lives begin to interweave and become something that is not one or the other, but become twain – that twain is the other fusion – of life, of culture, of food.

“The other term – New World Cuisine – occurred to me as I was was sitting on the Deck of Louie’s Backyard in Key West one morning with my collection of cookbooks, thinking about the specials I might want to write and perform that night.

“It was a magical day, the sun was just brilliant, the humidity was low for Key West.  As I sat by the water, a boat was sailing across, heading south towards the horizon.  I took a hit off of my coffee and I looked at my stack of books and I looked again at the boat.

A portion of Van Aken's cookbook collection
A portion of Van Aken’s cookbook collection

“I wondered, ‘Where are they going?  What are they going to eat when they arrive?’  From the direction they were traveling, I realized they were probably headed to Cuba.  And, I suddenly thought, ‘Why am I cooking southwestern cuisine, or French cuisine, or Greek, or Italian when this little island town is so full of its own food histories, and the people and places who have come here for the last 200 years?’

“So, instead of following the ways of the great teachers of the time through the cookbooks that I was reading, I decided to put my books away for awhile and explore Key West with a different set of eyes.  I began to read the menus in a different way. Instead of just enjoying the food as a person who was intrigued by combinations of flavors, I began to think how I would ‘fuse’ and coalesce the Bahamian, and African American, and Cuban things that were there in my own life.

“From there, I started with something that I felt was specific to this region.  It’s what I was calling New World Cuisine, because when Columbus, on his way looking for India bumped into this land mass, it became known as the Nuevo Mundo, or the New World.

“I also wanted a term that was broad enough to showcase, one that didn’t hyphenate or limit – terms such as “Flori-bbean” cuisine, a term I am sometimes associated with – is limiting, I don’t necessarily like it.  It confines the cuisine  to Florida and the Caribbean, when so much of what we draw on in Florida also comes from Central and South America.

“Besides which, history never confines people to hemispheres. Remember, people from Asia came to the United States, and went to Peru and Cuba to work sugar cane, and railroads, and things like that – especially in the 1800s.  There are natural interactions that occur, when people from different geographic locations fall in love, get married, eat together, taste the neighbors’ foods, and the food of their friends.  As people taste different foods, new things come out of that experience and begin to happen with food.

“I think the reason I am a chef is that it is a continual opportunity to uncover unexpected, beautiful flavors.  I think you can potentially harmonize a dish that is, oh, I don’t know – Swedish and Greek, maybe.  There is a higher level of occurrence when there is a kind of unique or specific DNA to foods that make them go well together.

“Before the current sort of boon and vogue of Key West – which really seems to be stepping away from the historical roots they are about – in the 1940s and 1950s you began to see people cook in their homes in a way that was really an interesting patois between the islands – and even Asia and Africa. So it was a really rich place to learn to cook and get inspiration.”

MDC: For those of us who are non-professionals, what should we all keep in our pantry for those evenings when we want to create a simple, elegant meal at home?

NVA: “Well, I am a big believer in having a stocked pantry.  That may mean spices, a lot of good spices to select from; that is important.  I am a also big believer in vinegars.  I think acidity is really important to make food remain interesting and give it structure.  So the pantry is a place that is important for anyone to be successful. Sometimes it’s called the larder, sometimes the pantry – but between olive oils, and other flavors of oils, vinegars and spices and other condiments like asian fish sauces, hot sauces –  a well-stocked pantry is important to create interesting recipes.”

MDC: What are some unusual “must try” flavors/ingredient combinations that all Floridians should sample at least once?

NVA:  “One that jumps to mind is mojo. It comes to us primarily from Cuban cookery.   It can come in a formulated way, which is a fully made mojo, or in more incidental ways, like squeezing lime on a nice, larded piece of meat, so there is that interaction of acid, fat and meat working together.

“Also, one of the central things that is part of the dialog that’s going on all around us now is “farm to table.”  I was here, outside at a local restaurant recently, when Camilo (Velasco, Chef de Cuisine, who will be integral at Van Aken’s 1921 restaurant) pulled in with a trunk-load of produce from a local farm.  He had beets, carrots in various colors, and some sweet corn that was astonishing.

Chef Norman Van Aken, with Camilo Velasco, Chef de Cuisine
Chef Norman Van Aken, with Camilo Velasco, Chef de Cuisine

“I ate the corn from the cob standing right there in the parking lot, just shucked, not cooked.  Our Florida produce is not as varied as, say, California, or what you might experience during the summertime in other states – like in the Midwest or New Jersey – but what we do have can be really very, very good.

“Our seafood is sublime. I am just blown away when so many people have to have salmon, or farm-raised tilapia or shrimp from God knows where in Malaysia, or someplace.  Why not fish from Florida? We will have some fish  on menus many people don’t usually see.  We want to cast a wider net, so to speak, and provide greater opportunities for and from the ocean.”

MDC: Every memorable meal includes:

NVA: “A kiss.”

MDC: What’s the furthest distance you’ve ever traveled to dine – or are yet willing to travel to dine?

NVA: “Furthest, so far, was a pretty epic journey that Janet and I took with our dear friend Charlie Trotter who passed away a few years ago.   He almost commanded me to join him on an homage tour to three places – three places primarily.  First, there was a visit to a three-star chef in France, named Michel Bras, the second place was the world famous Spanish chef, Ferran Adriá, from the restaurant El Bulli, the third place was at the home of what many consider to have been the finest chef in the world, when he was practicing in his restaurant in Switzerland, Frédy Giradet.  So, traveling to France and Spain, in that instance.  Amazing memories that last indelibly.

“Where would I like to travel to dine that’s far away that I haven’t been?  Vietnam. I have a very strong interest in all things Asian that goes back a long way.  The first chef that I worked for who had a poetic effect upon me was from Japan – not Vietnam, but Japan.  My mother had worked for him previously, as well.  His effect upon me was profound, and it instilled in me a curiosity about all things Asian.

“Then, around 1994, I began reading a book titled The Foods of Vietnam by a woman named Nicole Routhier.   Photographically, it was a beautifully rich book, one of the first of that type of cookbooks.  There were others at the time, and we have many of those now – but I found that one really fascinating.

“Along the gulf, from Florida all the way to Texas, we see a lot of fusion between Vietnam and the Gulf Coast.  I think that is a fusion that works really well.”

MDC: What new food trends excite you?  Do you still get inspired to try new things?

NVA: “I think as long as you’re breathing you should continue to be inspired.  One thing I really like? I am very much for the “casualization” of high-end food.  I like that high-end restaurants need not necessarily concern themselves with all the trappings of the three-star restaurants from before.

“I think there are a lot of committed and very talented chefs who are doing what took place in other countries long ago, which is to create neighborhood restaurants. Neighborhood restaurants don’t have to be just beer and burger places.

“I love to see the husband and wife team do something really close to their hearts and give it their all.  I think that’s important. If you go to a city, or country, that has an amazing reputation for its food – someplace like New Orleans – it’s not limited to those ‘Top-10’ restaurants where it might cost $150 for a couple to have dinner.  It’s mom and pop joints.  It’s the food that is sometimes sold from a counter.  I love that, as Americans, we have moved past that point where we think everything good has to come out of a high, high end restaurant.

“Coming to Central Florida and 1921, means a a shift.  And the shift will be to a broader Florida than what I did in Miami, which was more dominated by Latin and Caribbean than Asian. Here you will see more a sort of southern ‘twang’ come into the menu than I would have done in Miami.  My being here, spending time here, and tasting the food that’s growing here is rightfully going to be a big inspiration and a big re-positioning.  As I think about being in Florida, up this way a little bit, I also start to think how I love Vietnamese flavors and I love the flavors from the Gulf of Mexico. What if I fuse those? (smiling)  Not that I will ever confine myself to a single particular nation or combination.”

Van Aken, talking about his upcoming plans for 1921 by Norman Van Aken
Van Aken, talking about his upcoming plans for 1921 by Norman Van Aken

 

MDC: What do you want people to take away from a dining experience in one of your restaurants – 1921 by Norman Van Aken, in particular?

NVA: “Memories – very fond, comfortable – maybe even surprising – but memories.”

MDC: Favorite after-dinner libation?

NVA: “Whatever Larry Baker pours.”

For more information about Van Aken’s new restaurant, follow 1921 by Norman Van Aken on Facebook here: 1921

Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)