Norman Van Aken is a highly distinguished award-wining chef, cookbook author, consultant, and chef/owner of multiple properties in Florida, including the legendary Norman's. He trained world renowned chef Charlie Trotter and is considered the U.S. founding father of new world cuisine, a fusion of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors.
FE&S: What was your first job in foodservice?
Norman Van Aken: I was a busboy-room service waiter at a Holiday Inn near an airport in northern Illinois when I was 13 or 14 years old.
FE&S: When in school, what besides cooking were your academic interests?
Norman Van Aken: Literature and history were my only reason for hanging around when it came to the academic part of school. Sometimes science would be cool but I really loved the other two. Sports and dramatic activities carried a lot of weight, too.
FE&S: If it were me just starting out in the foodservice industry, what advice would you give?
NVA: Run like hell!
FE&S: Well! Then, what has kept you working in the foodservice industry for so many years?
Norman Van Aken: A combination of mortgage and passions. But not in that order. I am fortunate. I get to work with my wife and son. Plus I have a lot of young folks who still call me chef.
FE&S: Knowing what you now know, would you still pursue a career in foodservice?
Norman Van Aken: No doubt. But I would have worn better shoes.
FE&S: What if you didn't work in foodservice – what would you be doing?
Norman Van Aken: Writing songs and stories in Key West.
FE&S: What's the best advice anyone ever gave you for what you do?
Norman Van Aken: Read. Travel. Taste. Repeat.
FE&S: Who was the person that influenced your career most?
Norman Van Aken: My Mom. Her name was Ruth, and she was a woman who loved the restaurant business as much as she loved a good adventure. During World War II she'd gone as a young single woman from her hometown of New York City out to Long Beach, Calif., to work in a shipyard. It was just the first of many roles in a life that she embraced with dazzling fearlessness. Over time my mother became a waitress, met my father and married and after we kids were old enough she went back to the restaurant life she adored so much and became a hostess, cashier, or whatever else it took to get the work done.
FE&S: What about you? Who do you admire?
Norman Van Aken: The young immigrant who starts with nothing and moves up to become a chef.
FE&S: How about the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
Norman Van Aken: You will learn a craft and share a passion with some of the finest folks on Earth.
FE&S: What aspect of your career gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment?
Norman Van Aken: What gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment is being known as the "Father of New World Cuisine" and that our work has shone a light on cuisines so deserving in the process.
FE&S: Other than your own, name the foodservice company that you admire most and why.
Norman Van Aken: I admire Newman's Own for being so relevant, intelligent and nurturing in a world that needs all it can get.