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.
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