ORLANDO, Fla. – Norman Van Aken is not a native Floridian, but his name is synonymous with the state’s cuisine.
Van Aken lives in South Florida but has his restaurant, Norman’s, in Central Florida.
Van Aken grew up in Northern Illinois. He knew from an early age that he loved cooking but did not realize that it could be a career.
“I had no understanding (or) inkling that being a chef was a road for a person like me. No one spoke about that growing up in Illinois,” he said. “People in that area might have been school teachers if they were smart, but most of us (were) brick layers and cops, and my mom was a waitress.”
Van Aken spent the early part of his working life trying out a string of blue color jobs, including factory jobs, hot tar roofing, and he even worked with a carnival.
“I worked the Ferris wheel, and they asked me if I wouldn’t mind climbing up on the wheel to move one of the little chairs out of the way so a truck could pull through. I was like, ‘No sweat.’ I was a gymnast in high school and monkeyed up there to do that,” Van Aken said. “Unfortunately, the Ferris wheel wasn’t properly grounded for electricity, and I became totally stuck under that wheel until I kicked myself off and one of the carny workers saved my life by catching me from hitting the asphalt.”
Eventually, he found himself working as a short-order cook at a diner, but he still did not realize that cooking could be a career.
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Van Aken said he did not come to that realization until he made the move to Key West in 1973. He had grown up going to Florida on vacation with his family, but decided to make a move to the Sunshine State after visiting a friend who was already living in the Keys.
It was there at the Pier House Hotel that Van Aken realized what he could accomplish in a kitchen.
“My aspirations were more about being a writer than anything I didn’t know about being a chef,” he said. “But, I could see somehow this thing colliding with both the ability to be artistic and cook.”
Van Aken said his time in diners helped him to learn speed with his cooking, but in that kitchen, he was surrounded by classically trained chefs who began imparting their knowledge to him.
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“And I was like hooked —like falling-in-love hooked. I was like, ‘OK, I gotta start buying books. I gotta get some knives.’”
As Van Aken continued down this path of building a culinary cuisine. He found himself as part of the movement that would be come known as New World Cusine which involved marrying classic American recipes and ingredients with Europe techniques. At the time, much of the movement was budding out of places like California and New Orleans.
“Here I was in Key West seeing all this stuff primarily through magazines because it was before television was covering it, and thinking, ‘Well, they’re doing it there. Do I need to move there so I can do it there,’” Van Aken said. “Then hit me, I should not do that. I should bring it here — do something representational of what Florida is all about.”
With this inspiration, Van Aken moved to Miami, taking his talents to a bigger stage. He came out with his first cookbook.
Van Aken has carried this movement forward to the present day with his eponymous Orlando restaurant, Norman’s, which recently reopened at 7924 Via Dellagio Way.
In the latest episode of Florida Foodie, Van Aken shares more of his story of coming to Florida and learning his craft in Key West. He also shares how he came to coin the term “Fusion Cuisine” and how he once got into a fistfight refereed by actor Mickey Rourke.
Please follow our Florida Foodie hosts on social media. You can find Candace Campos on Twitter and Facebook. Lisa Bell is also on Facebook and Twitter and you can check out her children’s book, “Norman the Watchful Gnome.”
Florida Foodie is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that takes a closer look at what we eat, how we eat it and the impact that has on us here in Florida and for everyone, everywhere. Find new episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you download your favorite podcasts.