1. I know that you love to cook and create dishes from a lot of Latin and Caribbean countries, but have you traveled to most of the places that you are inspired by? And which places were the most inspiring?
We haven’t been able to travel as much as we’d like to. The restaurant business is pretty much a very needy child. I am so fortunate I fell in love with reading as a young child and it has helped me immeasurably in understanding many cuisines. I find inspiration to be a moving thing in the sense that what is important continues to change. Some very important ones that jump to mind from the last book we did were Peru, Brazil and Argentina but in earlier times there were different shining stars and I know that new ones await me. That’s something I love about cuisine and art in general.
2.What do you consider are the “key” ingredients to becoming a great chef?
A great curiosity, a great hunger, a great capacity for hard work, a very honest ability to critique’s one work, the ability to inspire and lead others and, of course a palate that is pitch perfect… the last one is a gift from above…but you can develop it to some degree.
3. Before becoming the chef you are today, did you ever consider doing a different profession?
Being a Chef was not something young men yearned to be when and where I grew up. There was almost no example of it. Men cooked at home but not so much. My Grandfather did some home cooking on the holidays. I dreamt of being a writer…and I’m sure that is why I write the books and other things too.
4. Being exposed to a lot of Latin culture, did you pick up Spanish along the way?
I took Spanish in high school the year after I took Latin. I learned the most Spanish however during the stint I had working in a carnival when I was quite young and the “kitchen Spanish”. My son thinks its funny when I try to even order breakfast in the language however.
5. What do you say are your biggest accomplishments as a chef?
The biggest is that my son has decided to follow this path. I’m not sure that is my “accomplishment”. I would consider equally the fact that my wife and I have shared this life 100% all along the way.
6. Do you ever get tired or bored of cooking?
No. One gets physically tired at times but I find it a source of continually opening doors and giving pleasure to others too.
7. Would you say it was difficult to get to where you are today?
I would say it was my decision and if there were stones to move I could have quit but I didn’t and it has made for a most interesting middle age!
8. Do you have an ultimate favorite dish?
This is one of those impossible questions in that it changes…but I do love rustic foods like many forms of tortilla based dishes, thin crust pizzas, soups of all sorts and hot fruit pastries with home made ice creams. Did I mention bacon? It is all about a great conversation with meat, fat, starch and acidity..
9. Is there anyone in particular that inspired you to become a chef?
I followed my mother into the restaurant world but she was a Front of the House person. She didn’t mind jumping in the kitchen to help a cook out but she was in love with the guests and so she helped me in a million ways to be a restaurateur. I had one Japanese man who was a kind of mentor but it was more about his poetic approach to life than cooking skills. When I met him he was dying but he met the end with such bravery I will never forget him. Books, cooking, tasting, traveling and a lifetime of just doing it were my way.
10. At what age did you begin to cook?
I didn’t really cook until I was 21 and got my first job after being fired from being a roofer but the seeds were there all along. My mother and my sisters spent many hours in the kitchen when I was just a child, (before the teenage years), putting up tomatoes and canning fruits etc. Those times were so important. I always had a love affair with food…it just took awhile for me to have that lucky break and answer an ad for a “short order cook”.
11. What’s the worst experience that you’ve had as a chef? Your best?
The worst is when you lose a restaurant. We lost the one we called “MIRA” back in Key West in 1989. We were too “over the top” for our market. I cried big tears and felt so bad.
The best? I hope that though I am grateful and have no right perhaps to hope this but I hope that day is still ahead.
12. What kind of advice would you give someone who is beginning their career in the culinary field?
I think it’s a lot more confusing to be a chef now than when I was starting. Now its like show biz too. I didn’t get into show biz when I started so I didn’t have the worries of those things. I think the best thing would be for a person who is serious about cuisine to realize the distinction between being successful at cooking does not require television or other media forms. If you can be happy cooking the only audience you need is a nicely full dining room. TV and books all help put “asses in chairs”…but if choose the other road its okay too. What is important is for You to define Your goals Chenoa.
Good Luck! Chef Norman