"My journey so far has been beyond belief," says chef Norman Van Aken.
That journey for the 61-year-old culinary titan includes a James Beard Award, recognition as the founding father of New World Cuisine and five celebrated cookbooks.
On Saturday, Van Aken will celebrate his 10 years at Norman's restaurant at Orlando's Ritz-Carlton with a $1,000 a plate, black-tie dinner. It's a fitting tribute for the man who helped change the way the culinary world looks at Florida cuisine.
Until the 1980s, Floridians had little appreciation for the state's wealth of natural ingredients. With the exceptions of citrus, strawberries and local seafood, few chefs or home cooks looked to the state and its island neighbors for recipe inspiration.
Van Aken, who began cooking in Key West in the 1970s, helped change that by creating a blueprint for New World Cuisine, also known as Floribbean fare. The new perspective infused local foods with flavor in innovative ways, from rum-painted grouper to whole chili peppers stuffed with mashed plantains. The movement — which combined elements of African, Latin, Asian, Caribbean and American flavors and techniques — altered how Florida cookery is perceived.
Helping Van Aken celebrate his success this weekend will be culinary superstars such as: Emeril Lagasse, celebrity chef, restaurateur and television personality; Dean Fearing, award-winning champion of Southwestern cuisine; Jeremiah Tower, architect of modern California cuisine; Charlie Trotter, influential American chef who ran his namesake Chicago restaurant for 25 years until its 2012 closing. Local chefs, including Sean Woods of the Ritz, also will attend.
Van Aken first bonded with these culinary legends in the early 1980s when American cooking began to emerge from Europe's shadow. He recalls becoming enamored with the food revolution going on at California's Chez Panisse restaurant under the direction of Alice Waters and Tower — and being impressed with Tower's extraordinary palate.
Around the same time, Van Aken hired Trotter — then a busboy at another restaurant — to work with him in South Florida. "Charlie rose like a meteor and soon we went from my teaching him the basics of cooking to rapping over which cookbooks and chefs we were most passionate about," recalls Van Aken.
"We both agreed Dean Fearing was a force to be reckoned with and soon he was part of our inner circle of chef cronies."
Then Trotter brought a cutting-edge chef from New Orleans to Van Aken's attention, promising his mentor he would "fall in love with Emeril."
The quintet of soon-to-be celebrity chefs got together at a symposium on American cuisine, each contributing to a speech titled "Why We Cook the Way We Cook."
Now they are all banding together again to mark Van Aken's milestone. When the father of New World Cuisine partnered with The Ritz-Carlton in 2003, it was the first time the luxury hotelier had contracted with an independent chef.
During his 40-year career, Van Aken has centered his cooking in Florida. He began in Key West in the 1970s and spent the next decade working his way up.
He teamed with restaurateur Gordon Sinclair in his home state of Illinois in the early 1980s but soon returned to Florida to open Sinclair's American Grill. In 1985, Van Aken headed back to Key West and the kitchen of Louie's Backyard, where his style began to take shape and gain recognition. In 1988, he introduced the term "fusion" to the modern culinary lexicon, opened Mano in South Beach the following year and wrote his first cookbook in 1997.
Van Aken left Mano and in 1995 opened Norman's in Coral Gables. For 12 years, the South Florida restaurant was the go-to spot for special-occasion dining and the place where he won the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in the Southeast award. That Norman's closed in 2007.
Later this year Van Aken's memoir, "No Experience Necessary," will be published. Covering his four decades as a chef and entrepreneur, the book is a series of no-holds-barred reminisces of his life, including the day he answered an advertisement for a short-order cook with "no experience necessary."
Also on the horizon is a cooking-school project that will have Florida roots and an Oct. 15 appearance at the Mount Dora Public Library's Books & Cooks event.
"Anyone can determine the cadence of their life," says Van Aken. "You just have to find your passion."
The gala dinner