My Books

Feast of Sunlight, 1988
Feast of Sunlight, 1988

Feast of Sunlight, 1988

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To my great surprise I was invited to write a book about my cooking. The invitation came via a letter written by a person who was a Vice-President of a division of Random House. Anyone who has even tried to get a book published … much less get one published will attest to the wonder of that. I had not considered myself yet a candidate for publication. But I leapt at the chance! And to my great fortune my editor, (Ms. Risa Kessler) was an infinite source of light and guidance on how to write a book. In the process she became one of my life-long friends. This book shows both my love of classical cuisine but also my initial efforts to create an awareness for the diversity of dishes I was falling in love … or imagining in my own way in Key West where we were living.

Mitchell Kaplan, (owner of the venerated ‘Books & Books’ (bookstores) and the Miami Book Fair invited us to come present in one of the first years of the prestigious annual event. We also did a coast-to-coast American book tour appearing on national and local television shows across the country. It was a huge break. At one point along the tour I met Julia Child and she sweetly praised the book to the patrons of the Boston restaurant we were in that evening.

The Great Exotic Fruit, 1995
The Great Exotic Fruit, 1995

The Great Exotic Fruit, 1995

I was quite impressed with Santa Fe based Mark Miller’s ‘Great Chile Posters’ and Berkeley, California’s Alice Waters poster on ‘Tomatoes’. It occurred to me that a project showcasing the beauty of the tropical fruits I was learning about and deeply enjoying in Florida might be well met. The poster project, (done with Ten Speed Press who had also done Mark’s and Alice’s works) also engendered a book to go along with it. This companion effort book allowed one to easily take the slim format the book is in to markets wherever the reader might be and potentially buy delicious fruits they might yet have not known before. One of my mentors on it all was the great Larry Schokman of ‘The Kampong’ property in a Coconut Grove back then. The poster is back in print and copies of the book can still be found online. It was one of the great learning curves of my life.

New World Cuisine, 1997
New World Cuisine, 1997

New World Cuisine, 1997

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I was cooking in Miami Beach when the great cookbook author Maida Heatter personally brought the legendary giant of Random House publications Jason Epstein in to the restaurant I was cooking at in 1992 and they had dinner. The restaurant was “a Mano”. It was located in the Betsy Ross Hotel on Ocean Drive. A few months later the great editor wrote a phenomenal article on my cooking for Condé Nast Traveler soon after comparing my work to the ground-breaking painter Georges Braque. Soon after that he engaged me to write what became the very first book celebrating what I had named, “New World Cuisine”. I titled the book the same. The outpouring of critical support for the book by world famous chefs and authors thrust me into the national spotlight more than any other up until that time. We did our debut dinner for it in New York City at Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant with the great chef leading the dinner in his inimitable way. It brought a kind of attention to my cooking and the cooking capable of being done in Florida to national attention more than I could have hoped for.

New World Kitchen, 2003
New World Kitchen, 2003

New World Kitchen, 2003

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After living and cooking in Miami for a decade I had become deeply involved with the cooking of a much broader geographical area than ever. I decided to take on a very vast subject of study. I wanted to show my love of the foods and foodways of South America, Central America and also get more deeply into Caribbean cuisine more than ever before. Only a fool would take on such a task it can be reasonably accused. Youth is an amazing type of armor! But I ultimately learned a treasure trove about the cuisine of the countries to the South who are so much a part of where I live. The book covers over 30 countries and a span of geography similar to the entirety of North America.

I found a believer in my idea in the beloved New York based editor Dan Halpern of Ecco Books, a division of HarperCollins. Some of his other authors included Daniel Boulud and April Bloomfield. Another was the great, late Anthony Bourdain. Anthony wrote the tremendous foreword. It is a gift I’ll always treasure.

My Key West Kitchen, 2012
My Key West Kitchen, 2012

My Key West Kitchen, 2012

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Over thirty years after moving to Key West for the first time the ‘circle of life’ surprised us and we returned to live on the Island again. It was much different from our early days for us. We had the means to buy our own home. But as it turned out our stay was not to remain a long one. The interlude of living their sparked a lot of memories and flavors I wanted to share. And since our son Justin was born there and lived there until he was about eight years of age he had strong food memories too. And when we returned for that five or so years he returned for parts of it too. It became clear that instead of me writing a book solo this could be a ‘father and son’ collaboration. And it became that. After a few months of working on it Justin had a bolt of inspiration. It came to the very structure of the book! Instead of organizing it by the dominant style found in cookbooks with a succession of soups, salads, entrees, desserts and permutations of that kind, he brilliantly suggested we organize ours around the living nature of Key West itself. The way the town is laid out and therefore how one experiences the food while living or even just visiting the Southernmost City. A quick look at the table of contents will explain it in a flash. This became our culinary ‘love letter’ to Key West. And it will always be the book we wrote together. Charlie Trotter wrote the soulful introduction.

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

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

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I wrote this book to remember. Before memories of ‘lost time’ faded to fragile remnants… like letters left in an attic too long … I wrote this book to share what it truly meant to become a chefs before all of the hype and adulation. I was a reader since I was capable of unlocking the words on pages. When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would answer, ‘an artist of some kind… a writer maybe’. It was all I could imagine. But I had no idea on how to get to that place. So I spent a lot of my young life in a dreamy state. I stayed in school long enough to avoid going to war in Vietnam. I wanted no part of that and even though college was not helping me find my way I did that until I ran out of all funds and started to work. Along the way I was a housepainter in Key West, a hot tar roofer in Illinois , a concrete sprayer in Kansas, a roving carnival worker, a small-time actor, stoned, shoeless street flower seller in Honolulu, and a dreamer all over the place. One day after a tremendous afternoon thunderstorm I was fired from a job. I was elated. That was until I realized I was nearly broke and rent was due. I picked up a newspaper and hunted though the want ads. One said, “Short order cook needed. No experience necessary”. I answered the ad in person that afternoon. To my shock they hired me. And even more surprisingly … I found a job I actually liked. But no thought of becoming a chef entered my head during that time. In fact almost seven years of cooking from hash houses to barbecue to Holiday Inns to ersatz European. But then… while toiling in Key West I began to work with a kind of crew that I had not ever worked with before. They saw cooking as a true craft! They wanted to excel. They wanted to be chefs. And over time the candles came on.

This book tracks my journey from before the first cooking job… when I was still a carny/factory worker/hot tar roofer … to a time where I had become one of America’s first generation of ‘famous chefs’. I reasoned… if people wanted to know where I’m at they might like to know where I’d been…

“Chef Van Aken’s memoir captured the attention of the prestigious IACP/Julia Child Award and received a ‘finalist nomination’ along with Michael Pollan, Anne Willan and Luke Barr.”

“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

“Long considered a culinary renegade and pioneering restaurateur, Van Aken is an American original who chopped and charred, sweated and seared his way to cooking stardom with no formal training, but with extra helpings of energy, creativity, and faith. ‘No Experience Necessary’ offers a uniquely personal, highly-entertaining under-the-tablecloth view of the high stakes world of American cuisine told with wit, insight, and great affection by a natural storyteller.”

“By far the most emotionally accurate read of what it means to live a life as a chef—told by the Huckleberry Finn of the food world.” -Mark Miller

“Best stories since Kitchen Confidential” -Jeremiah Tower

Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen, 2016
Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen, 2016

Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen, 2016

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It occurred to me that it was time that Florida had not a full on evocation of the cooking possible here for about a quarter of a century. So I made it my mission to take on the task.

From the University Press of Florida release; “This long-awaited cookbook embraces the history, character and flavors of the state that has inspired Van Aken’s signature fusion style and “New World Cuisine” for over forty years. “It’s an excellent collection of recipes that showcase the abundance of seafood and fresh produce of Florida combined with Cuban, Caribbean, and South American influences,” -Emeril Lagasse.

The only Floridian chef inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America and a 2016 MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductee with Jacques Pépin and Wolfgang Puck, Van Aken was never classically trained—a fact that might be gleaned from his memoir titled No Experience Necessary. “I didn’t have the money to attend cooking school, but I did have the will to be self-taught,” he reveals in his latest cookbook. “Initially I was deeply influenced by France’s ‘three-star chefs’—Roger Vergé, Alain Chapel, Alain Senderens, the Troisgros brothers. Yet my day-to-day eating experience was of vibrant New World flavors—West Indian chutneys and Central American plantains, Bahamian conch salad and Cuban steak à la parrilla. Slowly but surely the magic of those foods and their special language came to define me as a chef.”

With its forward-thinking blend of old and new, thoughtful step-by-step instructions for exquisite meals and plenty of friendly conversation, Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen is a rare immersion in a culinary artist’s world. “I realize I have been blessed to find a ‘job’ that is actually a life’s passion!” says Van Aken. “The gracious thing to do is to share it.”

“Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen 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.”

 
© 2018 Norman Van Aken. All rights Reserved.