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. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The summer I became a golf caddie was one filled with suddenly unfamiliar routines and the deep lows and soaring highs of messy adolescence. I was 14 years of age and not skipping smoothly along the surface of life’s waters. My childhood pals, the Harris boys seemed to suffer no similar quandaries … so …. as is so often the case of adolescent logic I was infinitely attracted to them. In our family I was the boy child wedged between two sisters and … understanding what it meant to be male was not a commodity I could garner from them. The male ‘egg’ as it were was mine own … to crack. When the Harris boys asked me if I wanted to join them caddying when school let out that summer in my second year of being a teenager I was alternately thrilled… and nervous. It would be my first job. I didn’t know the ins and outs. When I showed up at their home in the pre-dawn hours that first morning I saw them pile into the oldest brothers beat up car with sack lunches they’d brought along. I was without that plan. The youngest of the boys, Wade, who was my age…and my best friend… told me he’d share but that I needed to learn to pack some food or I’d “be wasted from carrying two heavy golf bags by 10 a.m.!” When I asked him what was in the paper bags he smiled dreamily and said, ‘we make egg salad sandwiches’. 

I wolfed my half down just before heading to the first tee at ‘Twin Orchards Country Club’ that summer. It saved me I’m sure. And it taught me a valuable lesson about laying down a foundation before working. But the words that spiraled back to my ears as Mr. Malkin took the first “Mulligan” of a long morning were those of Wade saying “we make egg salad”. It had not occurred to me that the boys could make their own lunches. Power and control concepts flashed in my teenage mind!

Time spooled forward and it wasn’t long before the first job I got as a cook was as a breakfast one. And the egg and I became intimately intertwined. 

In recent years we have seen the ascent of the ‘slow cooked egg’. Even if you have not heard it by that term or another … ‘sous vide’ there is a strong likelihood you have had it. Through the precision of cooking instruments like the immersion circulator an egg can be brought to an incredibly specific internal temperature where the egg yolk is as sensuous as God intended. 

The egg is one of cuisine’s most important integers. It is both meal and agent. It fills the palate and taste buds with a kind of primal satisfaction that is both haunting and familiar. As an ingredient it has transformative powers beyond other basics like flour, milk, or any member of the vegetable kingdom! It is the beginning of life, but it is also a partner to a cook as intimate and needed as the knife … or the garden. Nora Ephron said, “When I fall in love it always begins with potatoes”. For me it would be eggs. When I finally mastered some dishes as a cook I came back to the shared home I had with some pals and I made them omelets for dinner. My stock soared! 

Next time around…it will be a slow cooked egg.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2014 Norman Van Aken

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. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Foods of India

(From the NPR Radio Show, "A Word On Food" by Norman Van Aken)

A Word on Food’ is done with … words … of course. Where would I be without them? Our blonde-haired, blue-eyed granddaughter Audrey is not yet two… yet she is teaching me to try more communication … with the hand language known as ‘signing’. She has been taking lessons to learn how to say things with her hands. 
We were gathering the other night for her Daddy’s birthday celebration in an Indian restaurant. The unmistakable aromas of curry dominated the small dining room. It was just after opening … and the place was already popping! Audrey was seated with her back to the wall near a corner between her happy parents when her Grandmother and I arrived. She locked her baby blues on me and instantly made the sign one makes in this clever, language for “Grandfather!”.

Over time the room grew loud with laughter … folks strained to be heard… a sizzling platter of some fragrant dish swept past us several times making quite a racket! For some … it was hard to get heard. Audrey … sagely made the sign … for ‘hungry’ …. and her father twisted off some naan bread and spread it with a mild chick pea mixture. Audrey smiled. Another universal form of dialog that worked in the din!

India holds over a billion people. It’s cuisines are encyclopedic. As one would expect … Indian cuisine varies wildly as one moves from region to region.

North Indian is agricultural despite the presence of the large cities of Delphi and Calcutta and has extreme climates – summers are hot and winters are cold. North Indian curries are usually thick, moderately spicy and creamy. Samosas, Chicken Tikka and Biryani are very popular there. 

South Indian cuisine is perhaps the hottest of all Indian food. Meals are centered around rice to quell it some. Dosas … pancakes made from a batter of rice and lentil flour … are a favorite.

The Eastern region bears the strong influence of Chinese and Mongolian cuisine. Popular dishes there include Momos (meat or vegetable-filled wontons), Tomato Achaar (tomato pickle) and Jhaal-Muri (a spicy street prepared snack made with puffed rice and mustard oil).

Western India possibly has the most diverse styles of food in India. The climate is hotter and drier there so the relatively smaller variety of vegetables available are preserved as pickles and chutneys. Vindaloo is popular. Thaali … a large plate … is a style of eating there … A meal can consist of as many as 10 different vegetable dishes, rice and chapati … Indian bread. 

Due to the various Indian diaspora communities … Fusion Cuisine has become an exciting field of taste exploration. Anglo-Indian, Indian-Singaporean, Malaysian-Indian are some. Another is Indian-Chinese. And as with many fusion cuisines this one was born out of historical upheaval. It originated in the 19th century among the Chinese neighborhoods within Calcutta … during a period of escape from the Opium Wars. After tasting Indian foods … the Chinese began to incorporate many spices and methods of cooking into the cuisine they had known for centuries. During the reign of the British in India, the cuisine was considered by the Europeans closely to what Gods taught of ambrosia. ‘Heaven on a plate’ in other words… I will ask my granddaughter what the sign for “ambrosia” is … when she gets a little older. 

After the meal I was given the duty… and honor of helping her wash her expressive hands. 
Now we could … ‘speak’… without curry … sticking to our sentences!

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

© 2014 Norman Van Aken
 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.