Before Norman Van Aken, the founding father of “New World Cuisine,” flipped his first egg at his first kitchen job in his early 20s, he was a college dropout with long hair and a penchant for hitchhiking who had worked as a factory stiff, carnie, house painter, flower vendor, roofer.
After he got fired from the roofing gig for being a tad too gleeful when a downpour halted work, he answered a help wanted ad for a short-order cook in Libertyville, Ill., near his hometown of Diamond Lake. The idea of working in a restaurant had never even crossed his mind, but the ad was motivational. “No experience necessary,” it read.
“It was kind of a calling,” Van Aken says over half a burger at The Dutch, in the W Hotel on South Beach. “But I worked at seven different restaurants before I actually heard that calling.”
He went on to put South Florida on the culinary map with his unique fusion of “Floribbean” flavors and classic technique and to win endless accolades, including a prestigious James Beard award. In fact, he’s the only Floridian inducted into the Beard list of Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage. But first he did all the kitchen grunt work imaginable, training himself as he inched along but never imagining he’d one day be called chef. Much less that he would become a nationally acclaimed culinary figure who has influenced endless others and counts superstars such as Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse as his homeboys.
“I eventually learned to never trust that a pot handle hadn’t spent an hour in the oven before I reached for it,” he writes in a new memoir, No Experience Necessary, to be released in the fall by Taylor Trade Publishing.
The book breaks down the vast experience Van Aken ended up with, burn by burn, kitchen by kitchen. It opens with a yarn about a dinner honoring Julia Child that he cooked alongside Lagasse and Trotter at Turnberry Resort in Aventura. After the stressful cooking and plating was finally over, the three chefs were invited to knock back a few at the hotel’s exclusive bar. They were celebrating a job well done when Van Aken clocked the restaurant’s maitre d’ putting a hand on his wife’s bottom.
That’s when Louis XIV-style chairs started flying. Van Aken smashed one against the bar, just missing the maitre d’s left side. Lagasse smashed another, just missing his right side. The chefs retreated to their rooms. One nightcap let to another, and somehow, Van Aken woke up next to Lagasse the next day.
Tom & Jerry’s Fireside, where Van Aken flipped his first eggs, happens to be the place where he met his wife Janet, then a spirited high school girl working part time as a waitress. She’s at The Dutch today, sitting at his side and eating the other half of that burger.
“My father was a hunter. He wanted to go after Norman with his gun,” she says. They’ve been married since 1976. They have a son, Justin, 33, who followed Dad into the kitchen, and a granddaughter about to turn one.
Van Aken worked endless sweltering hours in the trenches before there was such a thing as a Food Network, before there was an Iron Chef or a Top Chef or even the concept of chef as celebrity.
“People are going to culinary school now because they want to be rich and famous. When I started out, if anybody said they were going to become famous by cooking, they might have been locked up. “