Food Culture

Why I Wrote ‘My Florida Kitchen’

NORMAN VAN AKEN’S FLORIDA KITCHEN

WHY I WROTE, ‘MY FLORIDA KITCHEN’

I wrote my sixth cookbook, “My Florida Kitchen” because I felt it was time for an update on our rapidly changing state. The last cookbook written on the whole of Florida was an excellent book written by Caroline Stuart and Jeanne Voltz titled “The Florida Cookbook”. That was written back in 1996. Much has been happening in the past 20 + years! I wanted to share what I have found and also what I have created in response to what I have tasted made by others.  

I am inspired by our rich culinary past but also the ever changing colliding and embracing ‘now’ of this geographically and culturally diverse state.

Florida is not too much smaller than Italy. When you put that into a context like that it is plain to understand the diverse characteristics inherent here. 

My cooking life began with a 6 month stint in a Midwest diner… it was in the same town I as born in. The food was honest and home-made. I got off to a good start there. My next cook’s job came about after I hitchhiked to Southern Illinois and then found two brothers that were happy to drive us all down to Key West in their van. I wanted to find a place to live that was sunny, on the water, and bohemian with a mix of artists, music, writers … Key West was it. There I began to taste a new palette of exotic ethnic flavors that cast a deep & lasting imprint on me. For nearly the next 20 years I cooked there… all the while expanding my knowledge of global cuisines by reading all that I could when not behind the stoves.

I wrote my first book “Feast of Sunlight” in Key West. Soon after that the more populous world to the north beckoned … Miami. Quickly I was swarmed with an even more eclectic range of foods and ways of cooking. And my cooking responded to it all. We were “jamming” on a stage that had the primary ones I’d gotten familiar with in Key West… Cuban, Bahamian, Haitian, Afro-American … but also an incredibly mixed multiple of countries from the tip of South America, through Central America and the whole of the Caribbean too. After all Miami is the “gateway to the Americas”. The bounty of ingredients I had to learn of and employ in my kitchens increased exponentially. And so for 10 years my absorption of Florida now included all of that wonderland.

Intermittently during that arc of time our traveling to various states and lands … often for events …

In 2003 while working at the original NORMAN’S in the Coral Gables section of Miami representatives of The Ritz-Carlton Companies approached me and invited us to join them in the  new endeavor they were building in Orlando. The union occurred and that began my assimilation of what it meant to explore the foodways of Central Florida stretching from coast to coast. 

There are more Hispanics moving to the the south coming from countries other than Mexico now. There have been Chinese living in the Mississippi delta since immediately following The Civil War. When I walked through the graveyard in Key West a few years ago I was fascinated to see headstones dating way back with Chinese names on them. There’s an increasingly large population of Vietnamese in coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. Many are shrimpers and fishermen and women. Of course that brings on the attendant community and services needed to feed this new immigrant population. That means more restaurants, cafés and markets. And that means the more we have the opportunity to learn more about one another and through the positive method of sharing the tables. 

Note: This book is published by University Press of Florida.

It was selected to represent the USA in the local category of the ‘Gourmand International World Cookbook Awards’ and has been awarded the Florida Book Award’s Gold Medal for Cooking.

There were a number of wonderful things written about it. One of them by the New Orleans based Chef Nina Compton. She wrote, “Norman elevates flavors that are the core of Florida’s cuisine. He is truly gifted in the way he makes them shine”. If you go to New Orleans you must eat Nina’s food!

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