Food & Drink

Norman Van Aken to open new Wynwood restaurant, cooking school this year

Norman Van Aken, a member of the famed Mango Gang who helped put South Florida on the culinary map, returns this year with a Wynwood restaurant and cooking school.
Norman Van Aken, a member of the famed Mango Gang who helped put South Florida on the culinary map, returns this year with a Wynwood restaurant and cooking school. Miami Herald staff

Chef Norman Van Aken is ready to cook in Miami again.

One of the so-called Mango Gang who helped put Miami’s fine dining on the culinary map is opening a new restaurant, rooftop lounge and cooking school in Wynwood before the end of the year.

“I feel like I’m getting a chance to do it again,” Van Aken told The Miami Herald Tuesday.

Van Aken, 64, a multiple James Beard Award honoree, had announced the cooking school, In the Kitchen with Norman Van Aken, when it was supposed to be part of the Vagabond Hotel revival in the Miami Modern district in late 2014.

But “glacial” permit delays forced him and his partner in the venture, chef and entrepreneur Candace Walsh, to look for a new location, and they found it in the Wynwood Arcade, a retail and restaurant space in the heart of Wynwood’s revival area.

Van Aken’s son, Justin, a chef and co-author of one of Van Aken’s six cookbooks, will be the general manager of the school and teach classes along with Van Aken and Walsh when the school opens in September. They will also bring in local and national guest chefs to teach techniques.

That will allow Norman Van Aken to act as a statesman for the school, teach classes and focus on his role as executive chef of the new restaurant, which will be owned by Walsh and her business partner, Susan Buckley. The 5,500 square-foot space has yet to be named but is expected to open in October.

Expect to find the hallmarks of Van Aken, who pioneered using Florida’s ingredients in his cuisine, at the new restaurant. He was one of the first to use the term “fusion” and created his so-called New World Cuisine, combining American, African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin flavors.

“The DNA is probably always the same, but it’s going to be a different menu for a different time,” he said.

It was that touch that won him a James Beard Award as Best Chef: South in 1997 and made his former restaurant, Norman’s in Coral Gables, a perennial nominee. Since closing Norman’s in 2007, he has focused on his restaurnat in the Ritz Carlton Orlando, aside from a short-lived venture, Norman’s 180 in the Gables in 2011.

However, Van Aken is clearly still in touch with the culinary scene. He has taught rising young chefs, such as Michael Beltran of the stellar Ariete in Coconut Grove, who studied under Van Aken at Tuyo, part of the Miami Culinary Institute.

“I’m like a proud father in some ways,” he said.

Van Aken said he’s been looking for a way to leave a legacy, and that was the heart of the school, which will be called In the Kitchen with Norman Van Aken. It won’t be a degree-based school but rather a place where techniques can be taught to everyone from home cooks to aspiring chefs.

Van Aken himself is not a classically trained chef (That’s where Walsh’s expertise comes in) but a “self-taught marauder,” and his goal is to pass on what he has learned in decades of cooking in Florida.

And he’s not ready to stop experimenting for diners, either.

“If you’re a musician, you don’t stop loving music just because your band broke up,” Van Aken said. “ I’m ready to come back and put together a new band.”

This story has been updated to reflect Candace Walsh and Susan Buckley’s roles in the venture.