Interviews with NVA

An Interview: No Experience Necessary

No Experience Necessary, The Culinary Education of Chef Norman Van Aken, 2013
No Experience Necessary, The Culinary Education of
Chef Norman Van Aken, 2013

There are some strong words of endorsement for your book. Here’s a few.

“. . . One of the most compelling and page-turning memoirs I’ve read. . . . Revealing, funny and brutally honest . . . ”
—Thomas Keller, The French Laundry

“Norman Van Aken is the Jimmy Page of his profession—a man who was THERE at almost every important moment in its history. The OG of South Florida, New World cuisine, and a guy who knows where every body is buried . . . many of them to be found in No Experience Necessary.”
— Anthony Bourdain

“Norman Van Aken was a true pioneer of the American food movement in the 1980s, when chefs began to combine regional inspirations with modern cooking techniques. He was the first to blend Florida and Caribbean flavors with a classically trained approach to fine cuisine, and the first meals I ever ate in his restaurant were revelations and are still memorable today. One of the best things about dining experiences with Norman is his warm, kind-hearted, good-humored personality. It comes through in this book, just as it does in his cooking to this day.”
— Wolfgang Puck

What made you decide to write a memoir at this time?

I guess my last Birthday was a marker that said to me.. “you are no longer too YOUNG to write one!”

But I also wanted to share the world of cooking before it became the world of fly-by-night celebrity and dazzle factors. I wanted to show how gritty, fun, earnest, ridiculous, searching, romantic, dangerous and economically fragile of a life we lived in search for the great food and great restaurants we wanted to show the world.

How did you go about selecting the recipes for this book?  How hard was it to decide which ones would be included?

The recipes are a reflection of where I was at each chapter of that time. So early on…while not yet a chef and working in a carnival I recalled the ‘corn dogs’ we ate and I wanted to share that recipe… A few years later I was learning soups from a former Navy cook who broke both of his arms shortly after I started at the Holiday Inn with him. He couldn’t make the soups himself and so he taught me. I still love making soups. As I learned more toward the later years the recipes are more sophisticated I suppose….but I love all kinds of flavors… from “Bicycle Sammy’s Potato Salad” to the Asian inflected”Tuna Tartare” I made at a restaurant in Key West named MIRA.

Just as you seemed fated to the kitchen, it seems like you were fated to be with Janet? When did you know?

I think I knew it best when I came back to her. I split and went to Colorado when I felt the responsibility and commitment was too soon for me. I was about 23 and I took flight. I had some fun out there hitchhiking to Aspen and Boulder… climbing Long’s Peak…but something was calling me back to Illinois. I can still remember going to her parents home and finding her down in the basement doing laundry. She was stooped over filling up the dryer when she heard my cowboy boots clunking… looked up the steep, wooden stairs her father had built in that small home she shared with her 7 brothers and sisters and my heart melted. That was the second time I came back to her. It stuck.

Was it more exciting to meet Julia Child or Tennessee Williams?

For me it was meeting Tennessee Williams. In the strange illusion that TV can create I almost felt like I ‘knew’ Julia before I actually did. Part of that was her amazing ability to put everyone at ease with her.

Tennessee was an “Everest” to me. A poet of the first order. I revered his work and when I shook his hand back stage at a presentation in Key West of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that I had a bit part in…and later when he kissed my cheek at a cast party at his house I felt the brush of HISTORY.

Julia was a great supporter and even friend. I treasure them both in those different ways.

Two of the best lessons your book seems to relate even though you don’t sermonize, are work hard at whatever you do and know when it is time to move on. Can you explain these a little further?

My mom was my great teacher when it came to a ‘Life’s approach’ to work. She showed me how to find a life of work that was instilled with passion. She was a restaurant worker. After she left my father she had to make a living to provide for her three children, (I was the middle child and the sole male) as well as her mother, Nana who watched over us with Mama at her job. She truly loved her work and it was illuminating. But she also taught me another lesson when she left my dad…and it was this. Life is too precious to be unhappy. You have to be strong and know if it is wrong and cannot be fixed… move on.

Your book is also an adventure book and kind of a career guide.  Any advice for people interested in a career in the kitchen?

Read this book! I might save you a lot of time.. and shock.. when so much of this happens in various ways to you. Cause it most likely will! My story is not so different than many in many walks of life or careers to be sought. The path is filled with many dead ends and bad news types…but if you live it to the fullest you CAN rise above it all and make it.

At what point did you realize that you didn’t need to go to a cooking school like C.I.A. to be a chef?   At what point did you really accept this?

I had no idea I wanted to be a chef even after I cooked a few years for a living. No one really showed me what a Chef with a capital C was in the first jobs. I was a working class hero just like my friends who were carpenters, house painters, landscape workers etc. Work was something to be endured to pay the bills and bar tab. BUT then I started working at a place in Key West called The Pier House and I met some young workers who had just graduated from the C.I.A. I always thought of myself as a reader and reasonably smart… but they were using terms I didn’t know. It pissed me off and intrigued me. When I heard what the tuition was my dreams of going were out the window. But soon I realized two things… I could learn as much by reading while I continued to cook…and that I could cook my ass off… once I got past the initial years of passage…about into my 8th year on the job.

With all the drugs, the drinking, and the crazy events, how did you stay out of jail?

One sure fire way to stay out of jail is to have friends who go there to serve time. Once you see your best friend locked up you make a solemn vow to avoid that shit. My boyhood pal Wade went into jail as did his brother Steve when I as 28. Big marijuana bust up in Ohio…. which is where they were each incarcerated. Steve actually was in the jail where “The Shawshank Redemption was filmed”. I visited Wade at his prison. I won’t be back. Good Lord willing. They both got out after a few years. Wade died about ten years after that. He was in my arms. I know he would not want me locked up. I’m sure it made him go so young.

You’ve done national TV with ‘CBS: The Dish’ and ‘Jimmy Fallon Live’. What’s next on the tour?

The funny thing is…we are going back to my home town of Diamond Lake, Illinois and doing an event with the local Pizza place we all loved and still do. It’s a long way from the “Bright Lights”…but hey… you know… that’s fine by me sometimes too. “No Experience Necessary” is all about … keeping it real.

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