Home Cooking: Chef Norman Van Aken celebrates his roots

South Florida's acclaimed chef, Norman Van Aken, often referred to as the
South Florida's acclaimed chef, Norman Van Aken, often referred to as the "Father of New World Cuisine" visits Vera restaurant in Chicago. | Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times Media
Robert K. Elder
relder@suntimes.com | @robertkelder
May 23 9 a.m.

Anthony Bourdain calls chef Norman Van Aken “the Jimmy Page of his profession — a man who was there at almost every important moment” in the development of American cuisine.

Van Aken — who also serves as our guest editor of this week’s Pioneer Press papers in central Lake County — runs Norman’s Restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Orlando, often hailed as Florida’s best restaurant.

But before Van Aken, 60, became a champion of fusion food and New World Cuisine, he grew up in Diamond Lake and Mundelein, in a community called West Shore Park. In the following interview, Van Aken talks about the forces that shaped him in Illinois, including working at tollway oasis restaurants and the Deer Path Inn in Lake Forest — the latter of which gets its own chapter in his new memoir “No Experience Necessary.”

Van Aken will sign copies of the book at Bill’s Pizza & Pub, 624 S. Lake St. in Mundelein, from 5 to 8 p.m. June 19 as part of a national tour. And to offer a taste of his cooking style, the restaurant is adding signature Van Aken’s Key West-themed food and drinks to its menu for limited time.

Q: Who were the people and what were the forces that shaped you in Mundelein and Diamond Lake?

Norman Van Aken: Principally, my mother and my grandmother were the ones who shaped me in my hometown.

But when people think of Diamond Lake and Mundelein, I don’t think people think of a breeding ground for future chefs. Yet, ironically, I feel that being from there was a huge part of why I ended up being involved and making food. But when I was growing up there in that region it was very agricultural area, very rural …

It was a very mellow place with all four seasons, of course. My grandmother on my father’s side was involved with Hawthorn Mellody Farms, which was a unique farm and also a museum in a way, an attraction where people came out from the city to see farm life.

My grandmother was the person who was a tour guide for Hawthorn Mellody Farms, the milking part in particular. And kids from the inner city were bussed up there to get a taste of farm life and my grandmother, which was very exciting for us kids, because she was like a movie star to us. She would speak over the microphone to hundreds of kids or so.

They would watch as the farm hands milk these cows behind these big glass windows at Hawthorn Mellody Farms. I actually was noting some aromas in a cheese yesterday and thinking how much it reminded me of being back in the barns in Hawthorn Mellody Farms — that sense memory of smell was very Proustian and was alive there. [It brought me] straight back to Hawthorn Mellody Farms.

Q: You got your start working with your mother at the tollway Oasis on Route 60, correct?

Van Aken: The Fred Harvey Restaurants, I think they were called. She worked there as the cashier/manager/jack-of-all-trades and it was during that time that she would occasionally tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, the busboy is not coming in, I need help in the restaurant tonight.” So I got my taste of working the restaurant with her at the oasis.

Q: Then she went to the Deer Path. Was that your entry into the Deer Path Inn?

Van Aken: No, I was finishing high school when she was there. I moved first to Northern Illinois University and then to the University of Hawaii. And so two, three, four years passed. I became 23 in the midst of this and I decided to move back to Illinois. I needed a job, so I applied at the Deer Path Inn and they were surprised to see what I looked like at that point in time, but they hired me.

Q: And you had hitchhiked home, right? So what did you look like?

Van Aken: I looked like ZZ Tops’ roadie. [Laughs]

Q: And what did you do for them as ZZ Tops’ roadie?

Van Aken: Well, I tied up my hair in an incredibly complex braid that could be hidden…. and I worked a swing shift between the lunch and dinner. Almost all the chefs that worked there worked lunch and dinner, with maybe a two-hour break in the afternoon. So, they essentially worked from 10 in the morning until midnight.

So it was an eye-opener in terms of what the world of being a chef was all about because you could see this was brutal. Six, seven days a week, minimum, these guys worked those kinds of hours. A number of them lived in a bunkhouse behind the Deer Path Inn, because they had no home other than that. It kind of was a cautionary tale, but one I didn’t listen to, because I continued in the business.

Q: So what did you take away from working at the Deer Path Inn?

Van Aken: A mixture of things. On the one hand, I saw that these men had no personal lives, many of them, and many of them were stone alcoholics. I mean, drinking the wine right out of the shrimp dishes from the coolers sometimes.

One of my jobs was, once the chef went off … was to rush out to a liquor store and get a bottle of vino and three or four six-packs and stash them in the coolers so they could drink on the job without the chef knowing it. That was normal to me. I was 23 years old. What did I know?

But, on the other hand, the man who was working with me, Tokio Suyehara, who was the chef when my mother worked there … he became my de facto culinary instructor and he did some amazing things.

He did this thing with stir-fried lettuce one day that really shocked me. I never had anything like that before. He basically chopped up heads of lettuce and then stir fried it with sesame oil and soy and made a pretty delicious warm salad. Warm salads became more accepted in the ’70s, but it was pretty new to me.

I remember him going out to the yard of Deer Path Inn and picking dandelion greens in the very first days of spring, and bringing them back into the kitchen and making us another type of salad with dandelion greens.

And I thought, “That’s inspired that you can go out there and forage in the yard and make something to eat out of it!”

Q: You’re also championing the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Why this charity, in particular?

Van Aken: It is feeding families up there. My niece does her volunteer work for them and we’ve done similar things down here in Miami with our community food banks. So it’s just a natural extension and it’s clear that food is simple to our lives in many ways, being able to connect to people and making sure they are getting what they need is only common sense.

Q: In your mind, what’s the most important development in American cuisine?

Van Aken: America coming to respect itself for having cuisine. Now when we were coming up, we were basically told that American cuisine didn’t exist. If it did exist, it was horrible.

It was not refined and not elegant and it was almost like Twain and his life as a writer rubbing up against the European sensibility. It took a lot longer for America to come to its age of acceptance and being heralded as it is now.

Q: There is a now whole network devoted to food, a Disney movie about haute cuisine [“Ratatouille”] — when you started cooking did you ever envision that this was the direction we were going: the chef as celebrity?

Van Aken: No, and you would have been thought to be a lunatic if you had said that in 1975.

The late, great Charlie Trotter — who I shared my life with as a chef — he always sent me packets with lots of clippings from the Chicago area down to me in Key West. On the outside of one particular packet he had picked a picture of Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé wearing Mickey Mouse hats from the newly opened restaurant at Disney World. It was Bocuse and Vergé — the gods of French cuisine, along with Gaston Lenôtre — the pastry chef god of French cuisine. Those three men were brought from France to open up this French restaurant at Disney. And Charlie wrote something like, “Oh my god, we’re all going to hell. Now what?” Is this what cuisine is going to become? It’s going to become manipulated into a circus of respectability, but married to commercialism in ways that seems so the opposite of what we really were about?

We didn’t look at cuisine for the reason for it to become the Food Network. We didn’t think of that. We didn’t wish to be that. And in many ways I feel that there’s kind of like two parallel lines running. One is all the competition shows, which to me is not what cuisine is supposed to be about at all. It is not a competition and it’s not a carnival splash tank sort of a thing.

It is much more about farming and fishing and growing and nurturing and teaching and tradition — rather than what it is trumped up to be on television.

I think there’s a lot of good things that have come out that people are much more conversant in the overall dialect of food; very much more so than any of us were in the ’70s or even the ’80s. It is amazing that people now know as much as they do about food and care about it. My next goal in life is to open up a cooking school so that I can continue to feed that imagination and that curiosity.

Q: Charlie Trotter began as a busboy for you in Sinclair’s in Lake Forest. What was the young Trotter like?

Van Aken: Skinny. White. Intense. Quiet. Intense. I could say intense about three times. It’s totally surprising that this young man ballooned in the way that he did in front of me. It was startling to see it and it happened fast. But fortunately, I got to be around him in these like three magical periods of time as his chef, both in Lake Forest, then in Jupiter, Florida, and then in Key West, Florida, where he came to work with me. And to see his progression was amazing and beyond anything that I have seen before or since in regards to it.

Q: You talked about the danger of this corporate side of cuisine. But, I see the public embracing the rock ’n’ roll side of the food world. In your book, chefs are picking fights, smashing chairs. And so, is it a requirement that chefs be a little unstable and have volcanic tempers, or is that just one of the perks?

Van Aken: Well, [laughs] I think there is passion and sometimes it manifests itself in destructive notions. And hopefully, in time, it manifests itself in ways that are less destructive and more creative and still inspiring.

Yes, it is very much like rock ’n’ roll, there’s rock ’n’ roll that is life-changing, moving, beautiful rock ’n’ roll. The rock ’n’ roll that Lester Bangs talked about.

And then there’s rock ’n’ roll that is a [expletive] sell-out and it’s nostalgia bands … It doesn’t have that truth. Food, cooking is very similar.

So I think that Anthony Bourdain rings a bell because he rails against the banalities that exist out there in the food world. And I hope I echo them very strongly, because I feel like he and I are kindred souls in that way. Charlie and I were kindred souls in that way too.

Q: What side did you come down on in the foie gras wars?

Van Aken: I served it. I still serve it. I have not felt that it is something that is wrong to serve, even though my great friend Charlie was very well known for being in the other camp about that.

Q: But are there things that you won’t serve at your restaurant? Because of a moral stand or endanger animal issue?

Van Aken: Oh, well, Chilean Sea Bass is one of them. We don’t serve that, we very much don’t serve bluefin tuna because of that or shark’s fin. But it wouldn’t be in my world of cuisines to serve shark’s fin anyway.

Q: You talk about your cuisine world, but let’s get back to your real word a bit. When you do take time to visit home and bring the family back, where do you go?

Van Aken: We always go to Bill’s Pizza & Pub. We often go to Bill’s before we get home. It’s for peanuts to eat and throw the shells on the floor, draft beer … my wife will get an Italian beef and I will get Italian sausage and we’ll split them.

Q: Is that very much the taste of home for you?

Van Aken: Yeah. I remember going in to Bill’s before I remember going to any other restaurant.

And visiting with the family, my sister-in-law, she loves to cook. Her husband loves to cook. We don’t go fancy at home. I used to try that when I was a young chef coming up and then they said, “put away the squirt bottles and the tweezers, man, you are at home now.”

Q: How do you use tweezers in a kitchen?

Van Aken: To delicately and artfully arrange things … mostly micro herbs and things like that. Extremely, extraordinarily fine, wispy greens that you want to arrange just perfectly. It is a little bit “twee” for me. I want more to play with a spoon or my hands, not anything else.

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