“The joy of the food is evident in a taped moment he shows me on a video camera monitor. A fish merchant brought in a 100 lb. crab. Norman’s enthusiastic and lively staff are gathered in the kitchen as the huge crab is held up by a fish merchant. “The merchant figured the crab was 100-years-old. He brought him to me, I couldn’t say no. We made a lot of wonderful crab dishes that weekend.” If I didn’t know better I would swear that some Hollywood special effects artist computer generated the enormous snapping crab. The creature is so huge, it looks like it could eat my toy poodle for lunch…or maybe for an appetizer.
We are in his office at the back of the restaurant and I ask Norman about dishes he wants to make in the future. Norman pulls out a thick white binder that reads “Dream Book.” This is my dream book. In it I have written down foods I’d like to make, combinations of things I haven’t tried. dishes I dream about.” The Dream Book is right next to his desk in the restaurant office. In a word, the food is dreamy, in the best ways, just like the chef.
TALKING WITH CHEF NORMAN VAN AKEN
Was your family much of a cooking family?
Yes and no. On my mother’s side—I didn’t know this until much later—my great, great grandmother was the pastry chef to the Queen of England when she was in her summer residence in Scotland.
My father was a used and sometimes new car dealer. He could stand in front of the refrigerator and eat a hotdog out of a jar and be fine with it. He didn’t care much about food. He was strictly a steak man. Conversely, his father, my grandfather, did cook. For holiday meals, we’d go to their home and we’d see Grandpa cooking. So there was something about seeing a man cook, which was pretty unusual for our area and for that time, that always stayed with me. But for food, the real catalyst was my mother.
My father met my mother when he was selling cars and she was a waitress in a diner in Evanston, Illinois. After they split up, she went back to work, and what she knew was restaurants. And from then on she always worked in a restaurant. When I would see my mother, anywhere except for at home, it would be in a restaurant. The language of the restaurant. The patois of a restaurant. My sisters—especially my oldest sister Jane—worked with her as a waitress. I would be doing my geography or history lessons at home at the kitchen table, and they’d be counting the nickels and dimes and quarters they had made in tips and talking about the customers or the service. I would go to see my mom and she would introduce me to her friends who worked in the kitchen. Our mom loved the restaurant world. She was a New York City girl, born and bred who had a Victory Garden in WWII. She was into canning and making things for the home. When I was a little boy we had our own garden for a period of time, and we had a neighbor friend that we met through our church who we called ‘Grandpa Ray’, and he had an amazing garden which we often would go and visit after church on Sundays. He would send us home with bushel baskets of his produce and apples when in season from his trees.
He was a widower and he loved to see our enthusiasm for all the fruits and vegetables he’d grown. Thanks to him, my mom would mentor us making things like strawberry jam and tomato preserves. And cooking with my sisters and my mom, and then later with my grandmother (who became my “at home mom” when my mother went back to work) gave me a deep love for food. ‘Nana’ had a small repertoire but she was very confident in her ability.
My favorite childhood cooking memories are from this time. Making jam with my mother. Making soups and bread in the wintertime when the windows would be steamed up from the heat of the kitchen, and we could see the snow on the outside and vapor on the windows. My grandmother made incredible shortbread cookies, that was her big specialty. She didn’t really make that many dishes, but she had such a regality about her. She was quite different from the people in out little town. There was two towns on each side of the unincorporated area in which we lived; one was about 26,000, and one was about 16,000 and still is. Where we lived was a little area called West Shore Park and there were about 250 of us in this area. There were no shops or anything, it was just like a little private community that used to be summer cottages for folks who’d come up from their year round residences in Chicago. Over time some families, like our paternal grandparents ‘winterized’ their home and came to live there year round.
I have always enjoyed food. I was never a picky eater when I was a little boy, I loved my food. When I began having to earn a living, after a brief time going to college, I had no idea what I was going to do. I wanted to write stories and songs. But I took jobs in a carnival, a factory, cutting grass at a golf course, a roofer. A few weeks into that job I was fired for annoying the boss by celebrating a rainstorm which ended our work day. Suddenly I was unemployed and I had to pay rent because I was living in a house with five or six other similarly minded lunatics.
One day I saw an ad in the paper for a short-order cook, ‘no experience necessary’. So I tucked my hair underneath my sweater (this was the 70’s and my hair was quite long,) and I went in and applied for the job. I started the next day at $3.25 an hour. The restaurant was called ‘Tom and Jerry’f Fireside’. It was in Libertyville, Illinois. The same town I was born in. Despite my initial fear of the unknown job I had I very quickly came to love the atmosphere. I was making grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers and eggs over, and over again until I could give you a perfect burger in my sleep. I was learning all the time. Slicing onions for the lunch shift, putting your pickles in a row, prepping for the daily specials. Compared to the other jobs where you’d go to work in a factory then come home, you’d have nothing that translated into what you did all day. I could come home and make my pals something delicious and they’d love it.
But the road to becoming a chef was still far away. This was 1971, 1972, 1973. While cooking at Tom and Jerry’s, I met my wife, Janet, who was waitressing. We were both passionate about food and immediately … each other. From then on, she would become my partner in life. I went to Colorado for awhile because I wanted to see it was like in the West. I needed a job. All right, I figured, I’ll be a cook, again. I knew how to do it; I could open up the oven with my foot, turn the skillet with my hand, crack an egg, read an order, and wax foolish with the waitress all at the same time.
My transformation from cook to chef began, and still continues, with reading. I always loved to read as a child. I read almost like it was breathing. From Colorado I went back to Illinois. After a truly nasty winter I decided that it was time to see another part of America and headed to Florida. By 1978 I was in Key West, Florida working at the Pier House. I found myself thinking “What am I doing here?” I was working on the hot line and one of the other line cooks used a term I didn’t know, veloute. Now he was also a kid from the Midwest, like me, so I asked, “How do you know that term?” And he said, “Well I went to cooking school.”
I said, “Cooking school is not in the cards for me money wise.” He replied, “Why don’t you read.” I was insulted. “I read Dostoevsky, (a bit of an exaggeration to come back at the guy), “what do you read?” He said, “Why don’t you read cookbooks?” I didn’t know what to say to that, but I decided to give it a try.
I bought a copy of James Beard’s “Theory and Practice of Cooking” that afternoon. The book was laid out in sections: how to grill, how to sauté, how to boil and it was so much better than having only a collection of recipes. The book helped me think of it in terms of technique. Plus, I could relate to Beard being an American.
By this time, my wife, Janet and I were living on Seidenberg Avenue in Key West. It was bare bones in terms of décor … but we had this great wooden table. It looked like it washed up from the ocean not far away. On this table sat my James Beard book. When I’d come home from my job I’d take my book down and read it. I bought books until they reached each end of the table. Janet looked at me in wonder and said “You’re getting into cooking thing, aren’t you?”
I wanted to try out all these techniques I was learning so I worked it out with the Executive Chef to work with a sixth day where I could spend afternoons, after the chaos of lunch subsided to cook just about anything. I made a “Creation Station” which meant I could make something that wasn’t on the menu. I used this to hone my skills and master more techniques.
I suddenly found my way to do something where I could participate with my work and make it closer to the world of art I always wanted to be involved with. And it could pay me a living. It was a bare minimum but I wanted to do something that gave pleasure to other people.
Additionally Key West’s bohemian atmosphere gave me a place that was an escape from the mundane. There I found another language for food. This language was a way of differentiating between what I loved and admired about what chefs were doing in other parts of the country with regional cooking, and give voice to something going on in Key West. That voice came later when I ran ‘a Mano’ on Ocean Drive, Miami Beach in the early nineties. At this time it was the mid-1980’s and I began to realize that for me to cook New Orleans dishes, and San Francisco dishes—was a good way to learn a lot about cooking and to develop a repertoire. I realized I needed to find the equivalent of these ideas in the place that I was living. And so around 1985 and 1986, when I was the executive chef at Louie’s Backyard, I narrowed my focus in order to try and find a way to give my food the feel of where we lived. I wanted people to taste the region.
When I wrote a menu for Norman’s, you’ll see a lot of Latin and Caribbean dishes inspired and informed by French cooking, my original “language” for food. After Beard, I really got into French cuisine and now use it with a lot of twists. Over time my tasting menu has come full circle again to include the French techniques. And my menu is more Latin that Caribbean nowadays because of the new cookbook I’m writing, “The New World Kitchen.” The book is a chronicle of love of Latin America and Caribbean dishes and food histories.
Sometimes friends from my hometown come here to NORMAN’S and they look around the restaurant and read the menu and see this totally different culture that I’ve embraced. Then they look at me and say “What happened to you?” What happened was Florida and its influence on how I looked at food and what I wanted in my life.
In cooking as in a lot of professions people expect that you’re going to do it because you love it. I think it’s the same with art, because to me great cooking is an art, and you love doing it so much because it’s such a joy that you would do it almost for nothing. And I did do it almost for nothing for a long time.
Art is a form of a ‘state of grace’. And cooking is art when you’re in that state of grace. The more you can achieve that state of grace, the more you are an artist. I feel bad for young chefs in this day and age because they worry about whether or not they’ve got an appearance on a morning show, a food magazine or they’re on TVFN, or they’re in some commercial or print ad. They buy into the exterior superficiality of being a chef. When I started cooking in 1971, there were no such distractions. A cook was pretty low on the blue-collar ladder and yet there was something appealing about the job even when it came to making, let’s say, a stack of pancakes. I felt that if it looked right, that it smelled right, that it was going out hot then I did my absolute best. Attention to the details continue to matter to me. I certainly don’t mind that people care about my cooking enough to invite me to go places to cook. But it’s not at all why I started. I would have been a lunatic to think that when I was in Key West cutting fish on basically a door that was chained to a wall in an alley just off of Front Street in a restaurant called ‘Port of Call’, that someday I would be on television for my cooking. The idea of doing something solely because you love it, happens to be true for me. And I’ve come to finally make a nice living.
I find it immensely gratifying to make plates. The writer, Annie Dillard, said to a person who was taking a class on writing from her. “Well first off, you have to love to make sentences. If you don’t love making sentences, you’re not going to make paragraphs, and then stories, and then whatever,” I think the same thing is true about being a good chef, you have to want to make the plates.” It was a very long process. I’ve been cooking professionally for over 30 years now, that’s a long time to be doing something.
Another aspect of today’s cooking is that people are so informed and intelligent, they can discourse on food from many different countries. And so the chef today must know how to cook many dishes from different countries and regions. You need to have lots of different skills that you’re capable of doing. I’m inspired to cook by going to a farmer’s market or seafood emporium. That makes me want to gather things up and cook.
ON HIS FAVORITES
Q: Could you pick some favorite childhood dishes? It could be anything from perfect grilled cheese sandwich to anything under the sun.
A: Well…I’ve always loved pancakes. I don’t eat them very much now, but I love making them; especially different kinds—savory ones. You mentioned grilled cheese. When my father died, I think I ate grilled cheese sandwiches for two weeks, every day, the same thing. Grilled cheese, a cup of coffee and one of these cheap little cigars you’d buy in a drug store. And I’d walk around and think of what was going on. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I think, everyday of my life for the first eight years of grade school. I liked my grandmother’s pork chops and applesauce a lot when I was in high school.
(Later in Norman’s Office we are talking about favorite childhood foods again and his wife Janet is there going over the month’s schedule and the galley for the new cookbook at the desk behind me. She mentions Norman’s mother’s Spanish Cream.”)
Q: If you had a favorite “sin” food what would it be?
A: I would probably be tortillas with spicy pinto bean dip and cotija cheese as of lately.
Q: If you could cook a meal for anybody—they can be living or dead—who do you think you’d like to cook for and what do you think you would make?
A: I’ve been asked this question before and one of the answers that came to mind was what the Dalai Lama….because I’d like to learn more how to be knowledgeable and serene at the same time. Also … My dad died so young. I was 17. Cooking for him would be something that would very difficult to do, but it would mean I could talk to him.
Q: What dishes would you make for him?
A: I’d probably make him some sort of steak with sauce béarnaise and asparagus spears, a baked potato, and some simple seafood to begin with, something he’d like that wouldn’t be too strange for him.
Q: What’s a favorite aroma or smell that you really like? You smell it, you’re jazzed. Your body says “Oh, I just love it.”
A: Caramelizing onions. Roasting garlic, toasted cumin, bread baking. Vanilla. Barbecue, fresh fish at the fish market. It’s like smelling the sea air and the ocean. And I love spices and aromatic things. Another favorite is cookies baking. You know when you’re walking through a neighborhood, and you can smell somebody baking cookies or frying bacon and potatoes and your mouth waters.
Q: What about a taste?
A: I love the taste of acidity. When I eat something that’s either meaty or fatty, I like there to be a good spine of acidity. I find myself clicking my tongue because it’s good, there’s a little acid ring at the end of it.
Q: Is there a recent moment in the kitchen was so much fun?
A: There are so many. A month ago we had Daniel Boulud in here with Michael Romano and Tom Colicchio cooking with me and our whole staff. Big nights like that are fun. Charlie and Emeril doing a dinner with me for Julia Child here was incredible and a joy. But it’s the everyday evenings of just working with my crew, making the “amuses.” I love making the amuses because they aren’t on the menu, so I can make whatever I want that day. We give them away during the dinner, little tastes to give joy to the diners. Here, this is for you, it’s free.
Q: If you had to take one thing from your kitchen, one piece of equipment or utensil where would you say, “Okay, this is the one thing I’m taking with me because I have to race out of here.” What do you think it would be?
A: One thing? I would grab the computer if things were really going down because it has my legions of recipes on it. I would also take a wooden spoon that came from Africa. It’s about this thick, (holds his fingers round about three inches) I mean it’s a big handled wooden spoon. It would be something I’d have to grab because it’s already survived so many fires and so many hands. I found it when I was out of town cooking at a ‘Masters of Food and Wine’ event in California. During the trip I went into a shop that had all kinds of adds and ends. I picked up the spoon and I could still smell smoke on it, and I knew that it was something I wanted.
Q: Do you like to cook with music on?
A: I love music. When I was 20, I thought I would write songs for bands. I was really interested in being a lyricist. I couldn’t sing; still can’t. I’ve played harmonica for bands. At that time, I was still a rock and roll Midwesterner, so there was a lot of country rock like the Eagles, or Willie Nelson floating around so I wanted to be like them, but I love all kinds of music.
Q: You said you and Janet, your wife, met at ‘Tom and Jerry’s Fireside’. It seems you’ve been side by side ever since.
A: We met each other at the diner and she’s worked at almost every restaurant I’ve been involved with in some capacity. But her job has changed over the years. Now she’s involved with the editing and testing recipes for the cookbooks and keeping track of all of our events.
Q: It sounds like you both share a great enthusiasm for food and the relationship has grown into their really good partnership.
A: Absolutely. Janet’s one of eight children. She loves to cook. Her mother cooked fresh food for the family for years. Nothing out of a can, nothing out of a box. When we met, Janet was 17. I can’t imagine what she would have done outside of being involved in this business because she’s such a natural. We don’t have a normal life….Most people, they have two different careers, and they work their careers out together. I don’t know how people keep their marriages together that way. If anybody else lived with me, they’d complain. “You don’t do anything else. You’re always there or you’re at an event.” Unless both husband and wife are involved with the restaurant business, you’d rarely do much together besides share a bed. When we started NORMAN’S I said we’re not going to be there seven days a week because we have a family. Janet and I have a son, Justin. He was starting junior high when we opened the restaurant, so I said we’re going to be closed Sundays. We had to make the numbers work on a six day week and we did.
ON BEING A CHEF
I think that of somebody had said to me, “Hey, kid, what do you want to be kid when you grow up?” When I was say eight, I would have said, “An Artist … probably a writer.” What I’ve learned as a chef is that I have to have an amazing combination of patience and coercion. I have to get the cooks in my kitchen to do what’s in my head, and I have to be patient enough to where I don’t cause them to crumble, but I have to make it happen because this is the way I see the food. This is the way I see the experience happening. I’m sort of trapped with this vision of what the experience is, for instance, today I asked Craig, (one of his chefs) “Are you ready to do the “Five-by-Five”, (the new tasting menu for March,)….Or should we walk into it over the course of two days?” It’s not normally what I would do, but there was a dish Craig wanted to work with a little more, so I gave him the extra days. I didn’t do it because you’re a guest and you’re here watching, but because my staff is working long hours and it’s been a hard season. They’re dealing with the difficulties of maintaining the standards of a restaurant that has a certain reputation, and we’ve struggled through a very difficult economic time. I’ve got to gauge situations daily and show that I’m not a total maniac or they’ll go down in flames. That’s using patience.
I’ve head to develop patience. It’s something I’ve had to learn on the job. I don’t think people would characterize me as being a patient person—anything but. However, you have to have it if you want to fulfill your vision to make new food, food that people have never seen before, at least not in the context of seeing it prepared in this new way. On top of that the dish also has to be delicious and priced within a certain range so people can afford it. So there are all these demands and I have to pay attention to how the crew is handling the demands. Only then can the kitchen work well.
The other key to my kitchen working well is that I hire nice people. Hire good people and teach them to do the job. Even of they know how to do something already, they haven’t worked with me before, so there’s got to be room for getting the style of the kitchen into their heads and hearts. But if you hire loners who won’t join in or ‘stars’ (in their mind) they don’t last. You need a team. As the years pass and chefs come and go, I find we still often have an amazing connection. When I travel to do a special event, I’ll get a call out of the blue from a former chef who’s moved on; they might be in New York, Los Angeles, anywhere, and they call to say that they’d love to come and help me with the event. Or I contact them and say we’re coming, and they’ll join me for the evening. It’s very rewarding to see how far my chefs will go to help themselves, each other and me.
Q. What would you like to be doing ten years from now?
A. I’d like to do a special kind of cooking show in my studio kitchen (a stunning private dinning room with a full view of the studio kitchen.). During the show I’d feed, let’s say, 24 people a night. We would tape the show and transfer the shows to CD. That way I’m teaching people how to cook “live” and recording it so that more people can watch it on CD at their own leisure. I’d like to have more time where I’m able to garden or go fishing. I see myself much more content to live in a place where that’s all possible.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Q: What would you tell a novice cook, or a chef to remember about working in their kitchen and preparing food?
A: You can always start over.
JANET DULIN JONES
Short Bio – 2022
Janet Dulin Jones has written feature films for Sony, Paramount, Fox and Disney-Touchstone, Oprah Winfrey and wrote the film “Map of the World” produced by Kennedy-Marshall, starring Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore.
Her original TV series “Gramercy Park” is in partnership with directors: Mike Newell and Scott Winant, Producers Brenda Friend and Consulting Producer Martin Sherman. Her feature film, “Beautiful Madness”, about the poet Elizabeth Barrett and her secret affair with Robert Browning, is being produced by producers Jane Goldenring and Jane Wright and award winning director, Lisa Ohlin. Janet and Mike Newell are prepping, “The Ambassadors”, her adaptation of the Henry James novel with producers Philippe Carcassonne and David Parfitt and Cleone Clark.
Her new play, “The Elizabeths”, is set for production in Winter 2023 in London with Marc Routh, NYC and Mark Perry, London, producing. She has also teamed with director, Trevor Nunn on an original project for theatre to launch in summer of 2023 in London.
Her film adaptation of “What If God Were The Sun,” garnered actress, Gena Rowlands, SAG, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Janet is hosting and producing the movie lover podcast: Cinema Sounds & Secrets, which premiered in February 2022 on Valentine’s Day on all platforms.
She is a member of the WGA, was a WGA Nicholl Award Finalist and was a Writer-in-Residence in the WGA/DGA Paris, Ile de France Program.