Norman Van Aken Explains What Young Chefs Need to Understand to Survive
Norman Van Aken is known as the father of New World cuisine, a fusion of Latin, Asian, African and other flavors, and was an early proponent of fusing together flavors from around the world. His flagship restaurant, Norman’s, just celebrated its 15th anniversary at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. He spoke with us about staying at the top of his game for decades, his nonstop curiosity, and what young chefs need to understand.
What advice do you have for chefs who are trying to bridge the gaps between their particular vision, food trends and the bottom line?
People come to (Norman’s) not just because I'm Norman Van Aken, but what Norman Van Aken might mean, as far as (being) reflective of the diverse population where we live, the excitement of having dishes that are not trite. So, I think you’d need to argue it on sheer economics with people, with certain people—that’s what's going to move the needle.
Guests are going to require it. If you don't bring it to them, they're going to go somewhere else. They're going to vote with their pocketbooks, right? So, they'll just go to the other restaurants in the community. They won't go to that restaurant. Or they'll go to the hotel restaurant as they have for many years for breakfast and then they're going to venture out.
You can have the most gifted chef who's really got the passion and the fire, but if you don't convince the accounting team, then you're going to have a tough struggle. And then, that chef's going to feel like their life needs are not being met, and they're going to go move on – and then you're going to get the next one down the line, and the next one down the line after that. And then, you're going to be right where you were five years ago.
You’re known as the father of New World cuisine. How has that evolved over the past 25 years?
It's become more nuanced. If I had moved to Italy from America and fallen in love with Italian cuisine and let's say I was in Florence, it would have taken me awhile to absorb what has been happening in Florence. But after a decade, I might be able to then understand the differences between the cuisine of Florence and say, Rome.
I came first to Key West and the dominant thing that you would have tasted and begun to get some cognizance of would have been primarily, let's say, Cuban, Bahamian, maybe elements of Haitian. And some Southern. Whereas then over the time I came to Miami, I began to taste Argentinian, Nicaraguan, Brazilian, Peruvian food, in situations similar to what I did in Key West, which was... to go to the little restaurants and taste things there.
And sometimes the people who cooked in the restaurants would say, "Chef, when can I make staff meal? I want to make something from Ecuador." Whatever they were from. So, I'd learn in that way.
It’s like when you're a little kid and you get a coloring book and there's a map, and then you get to finally color all the countries in. I'd say I've colored more of the countries in now.
Are there any countries you haven’t colored in?
Always. Always. And I'm always kind of person, say somebody picks you up in the Uber and they're taking you to the airport and I'll go, "Where you from?" And they'll say, "I'm from Costa Rica," or "I'm from Venezuela," or whatever. I'm like, "What dishes do you make? What dishes do you like?"
What do you wish young chefs today understood?
How to read.
What do you mean?
They don't read. They barely read. They watch things. They don't read. And I know that it's very tempting just to watch it on the tube or on the internet. And they don't sit down with a book and make notes in the book or make notes in a notebook next to the book.
Even at Norman's when I had a room where I had hundreds of my cookbooks, I said, "You can come in before work and you can study and read the books. You can't have any food and stuff to mess up the pages. But you can read." Rarely did anybody ever take the opportunity up, and it just blew my mind because I never went to school for cooking.
My school was books and reading and real life. So, my first impulse is to say, read – and don't smoke.
What makes reading a different learning experience?
I think it's about not the constant interruption that comes across through the electronic methodology, which is that you could be reading about something, whether it's making a sauce or the historical aspects of a dish – and then your email comes in. Then, somebody texts you.
And then there are secondary things, like talk to other people. Go to a market that you don't have very much knowledge about. Go to a market where there's Asian workers that are working with Asian products and even if it's pointing and pantomime, try to learn what this is and that is and take that into the kitchen and see what it means to work with rau ram, a Vietnamese herb, and see what it tastes like. It’s all that. Be curious.
Do you see that distraction or lack of focus in the kitchen?
Well, there is a period of your life that is going to be the chaos and cacophony of the kitchen. I didn't read a book on cooking for the first number of years while being a cook because I didn't realize the resources that were there. So, that is a challenge. It's coming at you: Here's the orders. Make this. Fill this. Cut this. Cook this. Shell this. And it's very frenetic.
You have to find some time for you, some time for quiet, to sit at a table with three or four books out and notebooks and a highlighter if you like and take that in.
I am not against television. I think there are great shows. Tony Bourdain. I did Tony's show twice. I loved his show; [it’s] so sad that he's gone. But then there's the silliness of the competitive shows that I think can be quite confusing, especially for really young cooks. There are people like Jacques Pepin who said very openly he hates those kinds of things because that's not what cooking's about. It's not like in 90 minutes you’ve got to have this done…I passed on doing “Top Chef Masters” because I just felt like they're going to make me sign a 20-page contract and they can make me into “here's the Dutchman (character)” or something.
You have no control over how you’re going to appear.
You don't. No. I said, I'd rather be relatively famous, but not as a jerk famous.
This article originally appeared on Plate's sister publication's site, Hotelsmag.com.