Food

Norman Van Aken is closing his flagship restaurant, but not because he wanted to

La Ventanita: Norman Van Aken discusses how Cuban food in Key West shaped his career

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.
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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.

The founding father of New World Cuisine is being forced to close his flagship restaurant.

Norman Van Aken, the Miami chef who won a James Beard award for his groundbreaking Norman’s in Coral Gables, will close the eponymous Norman’s in Orlando after 16 years. Its last service will be Aug. 31.

The new owners of the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes did not renew the restaurant’s 15-year lease beyond a one year extension last year, he said. The news comes months after Norman’s in Orlando was named a national James Beard finalist for outstanding restaurant.

“The new owners are putting in a steakhouse because they wanted to do something really original,” Van Aken said.

Since then, Van Aken said he and his longtime business partner have been looking for a new Orlando location. He said they are close on a spot, but nevertheless the restaurant will take several months to build.

Van Aken has shuffled his restaurant holdings in the last year. Last November he left the restaurant 1921 in Mt. Dora, parted ways with Three in Wynwood in June and took over as executive chef at Ad Lib in Coral Gables in April, which just lost award-winning pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith.

Norman’s Orlando restaurant opened in 2006 as a creative playground for the chef who invented the term fusion as it related to fine dining. His original Norman’s in Coral Gables was a finalist for the James Beard award for best new restaurant in 1996 and Van Aken won the prize for best chef in the Southeast a year later.

Van Aken will host a star-studded goodbye for Orlando’s Norman’s with an Aug. 3 meal and reception involving three other James Beard award-winning celebrity chefs, Ming Tsai, Edward Lee and Dean Fearing.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 40 years and it’s never easy,” he said. “But you don’t get into it because it’s easy. You choose it because it’s your passion.”

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Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”
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