Key West was a huge influence on chef Norman Van Aken, who became one of the great innovators in American cuisine. He discussed hitchhiking from the Midwest over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.

How Cuban food in Key West inspired one of the great innovators of American cuisine

BY Carlos Frías

Norman Van Aken had climbed to the top of the Ferris wheel when he felt the electric jolt.

A former high school gymnast, he was the only one who thought he wasn’t crazy to scale the ride to help break it down. The rest of the crew of traveling carnies watched in awe from the ground. He stretched out from atop the highest seat and grabbed a guide wire that was connected to an ungrounded circuit. His body closed the loop. The bolt knocked him back and sent him hurtling toward the pavement.

A fellow carny, a Mexican immigrant who often shared his wife’s homemade tacos with Van Aken as they traveled across the Midwest, put himself between the teen and the ground — and cradled his head just inches from the asphalt.

“I just laid there trembling, thinking, ‘I have to find something else for work,’ ” he said.

Van Aken, 67, recalls this itinerant time in his life as he rummages through a box of pastelitos and croquetas from Versailles at his year-old restaurant in Wynwood, Three. He worked a string of odd jobs before the age of 21: He tarred roofs, worked in a factory assembling picture frames, mowed golf course lawns and traveled with a carnival across the Midwest.

But it was tasting flavors like this for the first time more than 40 years ago that turned him from a journeyman and short-order cook — who had hitchhiked his way from Illinois to Key West — into one of the great innovators of American cuisine.

At the memory, he goes right for the perfectly golden guava pastry. Guava has a tang to its sweetness, he says, that few other fruits match.

“The combination of pastelitos and a cortadito, that’s my weakness,” he says.

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There was no culinary school for Van Aken. He is a self-taught chef who used to climb trees in his hometown of Diamond Lake, Illinois, (population: 250) to read under the dappled sunlight of the canopy. Of course then, he was just reading for fun — Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Charles Dickens.

“Reading has always been my salvation,” he said.

And he was always drawn to food.

While pumping concrete for pit silos in Kansas in the early 1970s, he remembers watching the Mexicans who were his fellow laborers unpack their lunches, tightly rolled cheese and chorizo burritos. The flavor was unlike anything he had ever tasted.

“The laborers shared their meals with me,” he recalled as he sipped Cuban coffee. “It was still warm and the cheese was melting, the chorizo was warm. And we would sit there with this astonishing level of hunger.”

Sitting in a cab or in a plane, Van Aken still relies on food to break the ice with strangers.

“The whole time, I’m learning. I’m asking them what’s their favorite dish,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll know what the dish is, sometimes I won’t. And then I’ll Google it and learn that.”

He has his mother to thank for that. She worked her way from waitress to general manager in an Illinois restaurant, where the chef, Tokio Suyehara, was a Japanese immigrant whose family had been jailed in a World War II internment camp.

He hired Van Aken as a line cook in his kitchen. Van Aken became one of the crew among Asians and Mexicans who worked morning and evening double shifts. In between, his first mentor would share tea and stir fry with Van Aken as he would tell him about Asia and his travels. Van Aken remembers him foraging for dandelions from the yard and using them to cook.

“I was swept up in the imagination of what this life could be,” Van Aken said.

He hitchhiked his way to Key West (“The world’s largest outdoor sanitarium,” he says), where he remembers a different pace of life that seemed a world away.

It was where he first tried Cuban food.

And just then, we go for another pastry. First the cheese, with its creamy filling. Then the beef one, redolent in cumin and onions.

It reminds him of his first day in Key West, sitting at a counter with several local handymen at a simple Cuban fonda. He copied their order, masitas de puerco, deep fried pork chunks, with garlic and onions, and a side of caramelized sweet plantains. He aped them and squirted lime over the top. His palate was never the same.

“That was one of the things that just so knocked me out. This was speaking directly to me,” he said. “I loved the way it was wrapping around and in between richness, sweetness and acidity.”

That was the food that made him want to learn more, he said, that made him read the masters, from Paul Bocuse in France to James Beard in America.

His food became a meeting place for disparate cultures and techniques. He was the first person to use the term “fusion” to refer to this melding of cuisines, particularly at his restaurant Norman’s in Coral Gables, and later the flagship that remains in Orlando.

And his food continues to evolve, as Miami becomes a hub for more of Latin America. If there are more Peruvians, Hondurans and Salvadorans, he wants to see that reflected in his menus. He has such respect for what immigrant cultures have added to America that he turned down a recent opportunity to cook at an event presided over by President Donald Trump, because he disagreed with the president’s approach to immigration.

When he picks a simple ham croqueta out of the Versailles box, he continues to be inspired. It’s around November and he says he would love to do a Thanksgiving croqueta — turkey, stuffing, wild mushrooms and almonds — with a cranberry dipping sauce. Tradition with his own fusion.

“You’ve got to have a little bit of that wildness,” he said.

“There aren’t just dishes. There are stories,” he says, finishing with more Cuban coffee. “I wanted my food to tell a story. It’s never been enough for me to assemble food that was just about a litany of ingredients that get along well together. If you’re interested in listening to it, you’re going to learn the story of these things.”

Carlos Frías is the James Beard award-winning Miami Herald food editor. Contact: 305-376-4624; @carlos_frias