Tuesday, November 17, 2015



A Mexican boy of 20 or so ... in long baggy shorts with a baseball hat is cooking my eggs while his mother rapidly peels potatoes with a curved blade flicking the peels away from her into a bowl while she giggles at the conversation she is having with him. I can see them clearly through the kitchen that has almost no walls in this Mexican restaurant in Homestead. 

His sister is skinny but … with curves too. The light is better in this restaurant than the one we are used to going to. And the eggs are more properly cooked with the yolks unbroken and sunny yellow. The beans carry the flavor of good lard. 

A tamale is a simple thing… Often times the blandest thing… But this one houses homemade braised and then crisped up pork that delivers a firm kiss of texture which differentiates itself from the supple, smooth casing of the gentle corn mush.

The skill with which she cuts those potatoes makes me feel confidence in this place overall ... and that she is smiling while she does it. Even though this is Sunday morning and probably her seventh day of work this week.

After careful deliberation I've decided that the best food of all in this house are the corn tortillas! The simplest things are almost always the best way to determine the quality of almost anything... certainly a restaurant.

They smelled of corn. That sounds simplistic but so many commercially made tortillas have dulled our expectations of home-made and hand-made things. And these tortillas were clearly made by someone's own hands. 

I asked the young girl if they made the tortillas there. She said ‘yes’ ... and with her head she pointed to the woman in the back and said "She makes them... Gloria... my mother.

José Coronel Urtecho wrote in, “A Text on Corn”, that “the tortilla is at one and the same time a plate, a meal, and spoon or scoop. It can be eaten by itself or can accompany other foods...it is the perfect every day food”.

Tortillas morph into other words when they are used in different applications. Pupusas are one. They are a traditional Salvadoran dish made from slightly thicker corn tortillas, (hand-made of course!) … and filled with various variations on cheese, pork and/or re-fried beans. 

Tostadas are another performance artist for the reliable tortillas. Here the tortillas act as an open-faced sandwich. Although… a tad tricker to eat than the simple taco I love the variations of textures attainable when the tortilla is not almost shut. 

Flautas are pretty little cylindrically shaped examples of the way a tortilla can be used. It translates as ‘flutes’ and the music they make will have you craving a mariachi band in a cantina to be the place you have them. 

My wife, Janet, makes her own version of Enchiladas. It brings a smile to my face to see how authentically she does them. You see… when she was 18 I took her to her first Mexican restaurant and she was so insecure about the foreign sounding food that she ordered a ‘Grilled Cheese Sandwich’ off the Children’s Menu. Times have changed for Janet! 

I love the name of the ones called “Gorditas” or …  “little fatties”. They are of pure Mexican birthright and are named... not so hard to guess why... in that they are a bit overstuffed.

Alas… I am not

And all of this talk of such things has fueled an immense need to go out in search of ... 
you guessed this as well... Corn Tortillas!

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.

© 2015 Norman Van Aken

Monday, November 9, 2015


It was not originally on the itinerary at all, but as the months drew closer to our going Charlie came to one of his famously resolute decisions and told Steve Greystone, “We’re going to add in Michel Bras. Norman can’t go to France without dining there!”  With that he pulled out his map of France and like Rommel plotting his campaign of North Africa Charlie drew his heavy, dark marking pen along the routes to lead us to Laguiole and to the culinary home of the Michelin Guide three star chef’s restaurant. 

Somewhere in the middle of our long drive I realized that we were not going to a hotel to change clothes so I was forced to do a quick change in the driveway. Luckily the restaurant is perched high on a hill and the driveway was below the sight lines of the guests as I jumped into appropriate clothing. As we approached the building the other members of our party signaled for me to hurry up in that we were being invited to say hello to Chef Bras in the kitchen.

The restaurant is designed in neat, precise lines of stone and glass cut into the hills. It is an architectural anomaly with the rough-cut surrounding environment but it works in a way that is nearly miraculous. I hurriedly joined the other guests as we were escorted into the kitchen through electric sliding glass doors. The kitchen was basically divided into a hot and cold side. Everything was sleek, modern and obviously cleaned and organized without pity. On the cold side prep a group of chefs worked in various modes of preparing desserts. Windows bathed them in natural light from behind. We could see a tub of large peaches being laboriously basted in their own poaching juices, slowly and lovingly. Our appetites began to rumble.

We directed our eyes to our left. A dozen chefs scurried furiously around the delicate, lithe; trim form of Chef Michel Bras. He appeared to be in his mid 50’s but works amidst his chefs with the vigor and intention of a 30-year-old. He was kind enough to come out and quickly greet us. Then we were escorted to our table of six overlooking the grassy, stony cliffs of the lands around us. Winds seemed to be a constant here in the area around Laguiole. On this sunny day in early September they provided a soft visual tease to the long grass that lay beyond our window and the unobscured land and sky-scape around us.

The oblong table shape allowed for all of us to easily see each other when we spoke. It was adorned with a row of small squashes collected from a nearby garden. Somewhat large dark gray rocks were set at each place. The rocks had an even slit carved into them and flatbreads of various flavors were inset within them. Beautiful, unique cutlery made by the world famous Laguiole knife factory, whose Phillipe Starcke designed building we passed just miles before arriving here at Michel Bras lay to the right in the “nine o’clock” position of each of our place settings.

We had the Chef’s tasting menu of course. No written menus were offered so all of the courses arrived without our knowledge of what they would be. They simply asked if anyone had any allergies etc. before Chef Bras determined our progression. All of the courses were announced in French. Since none of us were fluent in French it added to the mystery of the meal. We were in a sense forced to form our own conclusions as to what some things were with only our eyes and palates as guides. 

The first little taste was a simple presentation of peeled, tiny, perfect heirloom tomatoes that you were told to first dip into a tiny bowl of mayonnaise and then some salt. Next came a savory tart made with local wild mushrooms. With these two dishes you begin to sense the difference between a chef like Ferran Adrià and Michel Bras. Michel’s food comes straight at you out of the countryside. It is hard to see where Michel’s hands connect with Nature’s. Such is the seamlessness of his vision. He is not going to play the illusionist. He shows his genius with a masterfully light touch. He has a surgical skill with seasoning and proper cooking times. The food is in perfect accord with the place that he calls home.

A deep scooped out Bernardaud bowl arrived. On the left rim lay a large finger shaped portion of perfectly cooked mackerel. A ridge of celery root purée was in the bowl. The lower right hand rim of the plate was dusted with a clean tasting citrus zest powder.

The “Ultimate Chef’s Salad” is how we collectively described the next dish. It was one of the most harmonious assemblages of vegetables, legumes, herbs and shoots. It was served tepid with a delicate vinaigrette. Now the world knows it as his amazing, "gargouillou". 

A decoratively colored glazed tile was presented. On the left was a four-inch long Breton lobster that was presented in its shell. To its right was a homemade cracker rectangle topped with an intense confit of sun-dried tomatoes. An aromatic molasses reduction glazed the crustacean. 

The foie gras course was next. It was served hot with a puree of pumpkin, apple batons and cabbage strands. There was a jus that I detected some Spanish sherry wine vinegar in.

The next course was a mystery to us until the sommelier that had been helping us throughout the meal came back over. It looked a bit like a pale zucchini cylinder in the middle of the plate. Its flavor was somewhat like zucchini meets romaine. As it turns out it was “celtus”, which is also known as ‘stem lettuce’. The celtus was served with a very pale emulsion made with corn as well as a heady black truffle essence.

The meat entrée was a 2-bone rack of lamb with a stew of bulgur wheat. The presentation was very simple. With every main entrée course it seems the Chef has the service staff bring a dish native to the Auvergne region called aligot. Aligot is a humble peasant styled dish native to the region made from a cooked mixture of cantal cheese, potatoes and garlic. The waiter comes over with a large bowl of the steaming mixture. They deftly worked two spoons in elliptical motions and magically maneuvered the long, gooey strands into a neat mass on each plate. The rusticity of this dish indicated the chef’s self-assuredness in that it had no frills and no apologies for its simplicity.

I cannot overly emphasize how beautiful and delicate each plate was in the savory dishes. This line held through in faultless exactitude with the desserts! This is what you can expect in a true “three star”. There are no gaps anywhere. It is an Olympian performance in a gustatory gymnastic “all around” competition. Bras and his team never let up.

Cheeses local to the region were enjoyed with more wine. 

Some of the dessert dishes included; A pumpkin liquid-center chocolate cake, which had an extraction of coffee on the plate; a “Guggenheim” shaped spiral with a mocha-caramel served with a sherry glass of coffee mixed with a prune eau-de-vie; and a “Popsicle” like concoction presented with three little pots of various sauces to dip them in.

After the meal the Chef greeted us again. He came to our table dressed in running clothes. He was shy and self-deprecating in a way. He thanked us for coming and then he was gone. As the sun began to fade Sergio guided us back into the kitchen. We slowly wandered around the quiet, clean and now empty place. It was a beautiful kitchen but it is the people who make this restaurant so perfect. People guided by the gentle genius of Laguiole; Michel Bras! 

Janet and Charlie (photo by Author)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Interview with Norman Van Aken

Interview with Norman Van Aken
What inspired you in the search of new flavors? how was your culinary style born?  
People inspire me. Food is about the love of people and families and the never-ceasing exploration of our globe. My style was born in my childhood in some ways but it took flower in Key West, Florida when I moved there in the 1970’s. Being among the diverse cultures that were new to me spurred my curiosity in ways I would probable not have known had I stayed in the midwest of the U.S. 
As we understand, you wanted to be a writer, is there any influence of literature in your cooking? 
I want my food to tell a story. It is not enough for me to merely make food that tastes good. I want it to transport the guest to a place. I want it to take them some where that engages their memory for a long time to come. Various writers have done that for me.
What can you tell us about experimenting in the kitchen? what place does this process have in your creations now a days?
I have been doing this so long that it would take some new technological device or a very ususual ingredient to call something I was doing pure “experimentation”. The way I look at it is more like the way a musician works his or her way through a song or a melody. Certain probabilities are going to be there. But I love the “finding out” as I cook. I made some soup last night with some things in our home. Odds and ends really. I had some beef, barley, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, a poblano, herbs and homemade stock. I made a simple, humble stew. But I added things and cut things and seasoned it as I went and it the zen of it I love.
Since the meaningful recognition as the founding father of the New World Cuisine, how has your style evolved?  
It has telescoped in and out and in over the years. In the first years I purposefully set about to learn as much as I could about a vast range of cuisines. Then…when it occured to me to create New World Cuisine I purposefully narrowed my thinking to include a very specific region of the World. Even so while it was smaller it was vastly deep! So for a number years I trained my eyes on Latin and Caribbean cuisine in ways that continued to open me up to more things that were generally not experienced in the white table cloth restaurants in the United States. And since I was mixing and fusing food histories as only an enthused outsider might do I created dishes that were not known as such in any country. 
How have you influenced the culinary world in the United States? 
I don’t know if I know the answer to that question! Its possible I gave a number of young chefs the “Green Light” to ponder how they could celebrate their ancestral backgrounds without apology to not being French or Italian but from all over.
Your classic cookbook, “New World Kitchen” covering many countries showcasing Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, offers a wide view of products and culture from this part of the world, whats is the importance of this regions in your cooking? 
I was working in Miami Beach in 1992. I bought a map that basically illustrated an area of the World. It was a circle that included Mexico, Central and South America, The Caribbean and parts of the old South including Florida. I said to my team of chefs. “This is where we should be focusing our inspiration on! It’s where we live. Its where the people who work with us live and it has a story that is compelling and rich as any place on the planet.” 
What do you think of the actual gastronomic trends around the world? 
I feel that trends should be not given so much creedence. I think the more intriguing things are mining the wisdom of the past and welding it to the now.
Has any of this trends had an influence on you?
I think that the ‘Slow Food Movement’ and the ‘Farm to Table’ movements now going on are a godsend. 
You were the first chef to talk about ‘fusion cuisine’. How would you explain the difference between yours and others fusion style cuisines?
In the paper I wrote I described a way of going forward with cooking that involved the bedrock honesty and “Mama” flavors of the eternal with a new modern approach. The more common definition of Fusion these days is often some kind of “shotgun marriage” between cuisines of two different countries or cultures that may end up with ugly consequences or beautiful ones. It is up the chef to do their best.
How do you see your culinary talent in the upcoming future? What are the next steps for Norman Van Aken? 

The future is a mystery. My mother used to sing that song, “Que Sera, Sera”. I think I will guess and tell you this. It will be more and more simple.

©2014 All rights reserved by Norman Van Aken

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Word on Food: MISO

Despite our (we thought!), carefully planned strategy for a lunch of divine sushi… we were in for a shock as we slowed to pull on to the side street off the 79th street causeway. The shock was due to the line of even more prepared folks lined outside the still locked door of the somewhat oddly named ‘Sushi Deli and Japanese Market’ … They were waiting for the small and coveted restaurant to open. The word had gone out. This was the last day they’d be serving before closing for the entire month of June and their annual vacation to Japan. The faithful had gathered. 

There are but 16 seats in this restaurant. As it turned out … we were numbers … 17 & 18… Oh to have left our home ten minutes earlier! That meant that we would need to wait for others to eat an entire lunch before we would be starting off with a cup of palate awakening Miso Soup. 

We spent the time studying the shelves of the small shop area of the business. ‘Sushi Deli and Japanese Market’ must have started as a shop that became a restaurant. The lighting is normal for a shop. It is .. to be honest… a bit unromantic for a restaurant. But that doesn’t stop Sushi Master Michio Kushi … working with his lovely wife and sushi expert daughter… from garnering a full house. Chef Kushi is originally from Japan’s Katsuura, Wakayama Prefecture. There fish markets may not share the fame of their Tokyo counterpart … the Tsukiji fish market but they are just as noteworthy. 

Michio has made South Florida his home and ‘Sushi Deli’ (as we call it)… his place of work since buying the spot with his hardworking wife in 1999. It is a classic family affair restaurant. Michio works elbow to elbow alongside his pretty daughter at the short and frenetic counter. The complexly configured chef steadily leads the battle of feeding a crush of followers who might wish for more seats. 

Word to the newcomers! Do not let your cell phone ring. You will be sent back across the causeway without so much as an eel roll in your belly!

Abba was playing ‘The Dancing Queen' over the simple speaker system. I seemed to be the only one hearing it. I was not dancing. Families of many ethnicities were arriving. A beautiful Japanese boy hugged his parents joyously. Perhaps he was enjoying the song. 

I slowly surveyed the offerings in the shop. Frozen octopus, rice wine vinegars, sesame seed grinders, chile sauces, rice cookers, unique drug store products with names that were oddly translated, soy sauces, kewpie mayo. ... and more...

My eyes landed on a variety of miso pastes in the cooler. Miso is produced by fermenting soybeans with salt. Fermentation is coming back in vogue for our ever curious food culture in America. Miso has fermentation in its DNA. Miso often has other ingredients in it such as white or brown rice and sometimes barley. The textures range from smooth to even chunky. The colors are an indication of ‘saltiness’ with the lighter being the less so as a general rule. And the colors range from nearly pearl to light yellow-brown to reddish brown to dark chocolate brown. Miso is loaded with umami as well as … ‘excellent for you’ nutrients.

I bought a bag of miso while still wondering why Sushi Deli does not put in more seats. 
But ... they are the ones vacationing in Japan every year .. not me.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.

© 2014 Norman Van Aken. The NPR radio show “A Word on Food” airs originally each Saturday morning on WLRN 91.3 FM in Miami and 91.5 in the Florida Keys 

Sunday, July 20, 2014


We were in Atlanta for the annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival a few years ago. The folks who started this up, have hit the sweet spot on all manner of Southern cooking and drinking with this fest. My son Justin and I were busy as bees over the 3 days and nights with various events ---  a dinner at the “Optimist’s Club”, a “nose to tail” demo on whole fish grilling at The Loews Hotel and finally a farewell party Sunday evening called “A Chorus of Greens” hosted by Atlanta star chefs, (and genuinely fine folks!) Annie Quatrano and Linton Hopkins. 

We did attend a few classes as well. One was on making Country Hams

The person many American chefs look up to on that subject is a gentleman from Madisonville, Tennessee named Allan Benton. The list of his fans would fill up a… pork barrel. He said at one point in his homespun presentation, “I’ve nearly starved to death doing this job…until now”. 

I’m glad he had the 'country steel' to hang on! Mr. Benton was joined on stage with 6 chefs from throughout the South who each had a ham they were carving from when we entered that porcine perfumed hotel conference room. Chicago based chef Art Smith had just handed me a ham filled biscuit not an hour before this class but it didn’t abate my lust for these works of edible art.

When I was about 19 I started hitchhiking with a couple of buddies on a pretty routine basis. One of the routes I came to know well was the one between my hometown in Northern Illinois and my soon to be adopted one of Key West, Florida. One of my pals was from Cincinnati…so we routinely rested up and re-fueled there...complements of his mother’s refrigerator and his step-daddy’s beer cooler.

Despite the quicker speed of the massive U.S. Interstates… we often got off...and hit the little two-lane “blue highways” to slow down...and have a look, a smell and a taste ... of America. 

I remember traveling through western Kentucky very near the Southern Illinois border one beautiful spring day and passing through the town of ‘Metropolis’, (where they had a big painting of Superman on the water tower) and another named ‘Monkey’s Eyebrow’, (named for reasons I still don’t know). It was in the town of Cadiz that I began to understand the allure of country hams. We entered a kind of General Store meets Luncheonette. A gentleman in his 80’s and smoking a white pipe was slicing up some fine ribbons of ham near the cash register. Seeing my interest, (via my twitching nose)...he offered a portion right off the ancient blade. I took it and it changed me. 

The folks who make them start with about a 50-pound section of pork meat. It is, somewhat troublingly, called a “green ham” at this point. Burying them thoroughly in a salt, sugar and/or pepper mixture for up to 3 weeks is next. They are not injected, which is a cheap, quick fix suitably only for commercial grade hams. Great hams take time, almost a full year in fact. 

Back at the Atlanta Festival there was a map printed by the good southern chefs doing the ham demo. There were hams from 11 Southern states. 

The only one missing in terms of representation was...ours.

Ham Master and James Beard Awarded Chef Linton Hopkins looked me squarely in the eye and said with the softest drawl but clearest intent, “Hope to see Florida in here next year”. 

The challenge lies before us. 

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food ©.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2014

© 2014 Norman Van Aken. Photo credit by author. Like this? Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM.