The first time I interviewed Norman Van Aken my hand cramped up.
Despite the claw, I was in awe: The 65-year-old chef is one of the fathers of Floridian cuisine — along with his South Florida "Mango Gang" of Allen Susser, Douglas Rodriguez and Mark Militello. Or, take your pick, one of the three amigos of modern American cuisine with Emeril Lagasse and the late Charlie Trotter. During our interview, he was articulate and thoughtful, with a bird's-eye view of the shifting culinary landscape.
He has a unique point of reference. For more than 40 years, Van Aken has brought his talents to a Florida audience: He was in Key West in the 1980s at Louie's Backyard, then he had Norman's in Coral Gables. For the past decade he has refined a signature style at his namesake restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, and he's gearing up to open a cooking school and restaurant in Wynwood Arcade in Miami. He has written five cookbooks and a memoir and he has a twice-weekly NPR show called A Word on Food. There have been James Beard awards and countless television appearances, Van Aken in crisp whites, looking relaxed, persuading the country that Florida food has been given short shrift.
And then there's this: Last year it was announced he would open a restaurant in Mount Dora across from the recently debuted Modernism Museum. Wait, Lake County Mount Dora? "Let's go antiquing or bass fishing" Mount Dora? Isn't that a bit far from the state's gastronomic hustle and bustle?
As at the center of so many surprises, it's a love story.
Van Aken visited the charming small town with one of the country's three freshwater lighthouses in 2013 at the encouragement of food writer Heather McPherson. He had ribs and brisket at barbecue enthusiast Larry Baker's house (it was reportedly excellent) and discussed Baker's plans to, with partners Ken Mazik and Donna Brown, open a small but world-class museum. It would be one that largely showcased the sculptural furniture of artists like George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick. What they needed to draw art aficionados from around the country was a world-class restaurant to go with it.
The building started life as a home for unwed mothers. Most recently it was the Garden Gate Tea Room, ladies eating crustless sandwiches, pinkies extended. During the painstaking renovation of the historic 1921 building and in the absence of a real name, Van Aken and team kept calling it the "1921 building."
On a Sunday afternoon, a Times photographer and I drove up to 1921 by Norman Van Aken, the town's epic holiday light display revealing itself by degrees as the sun set over Lake Dora. A little window shopping, a brief tour of the Modernism Museum, and we were ready to sit down with Van Aken for dinner and a long meandering conversation about where the chef had come from, where he's going and just what Florida food means to him in 2016.
Van Aken had two items on his wish list with this restaurant. He wanted Scott Geisler as general manager and Camilo Velasco as chef de cuisine, both of whom he had worked with at Norman's in Orlando.
Geisler gave us the tour: Here's the chef's table room with its Murano glass chandelier; the Nakashima Room with its dramatic chairs and free-edge wooden tables; the Chihuly Room featuring a triptych of paintings by the glass master; John Whipple paintings and Paul Evans sculptures, Tiffany glass and a 1902 dinner bell.
Stunning, and utterly matched by Velasco's plates as they started emanating from the open kitchen: a crudo dish that looked like a jewel box of curls of cobia, ruby grapefruit and watermelon radish, Velasco enthusing about the dayboat fish he's sourcing from Ponce Inlet (wreckfish, wahoo, lionfish and other invasives and bycatch). After that, a torchon of foie gras, marinated subtly in citrusy Curacao, surrounded by swaths of floral lychee, cubes of crystallized ginger and pineapple gel speckled with vanilla bean.
It didn't take long to realize this wasn't the Floribbean cuisine that Van Aken has made famous.
"I was asked to write a book on Florida for the University Press of Florida," Van Aken said. "In the process I went from being Miami-based to being Florida-based. My greatest hits from Miami have become the stock and trade of dishes in Orlando, more Latin-Caribbean. Here I've looked to shift focus, to create a fusion of this changing Florida. The goal is to retain a Southern feeling with farms as inspiration."
They do inspire: The next dish, my favorite, brought a hand-speared flounder dusted with Szechuan peppercorns and grains of paradise, set atop a lush carrot curry and paired with wood oven-roasted carrots the kitchen staff had harvested at nearby Over the Hill Farm. Oh, and Velasco had made an ingenious oil of the carrot tops, the essence of vibrant greenness, the droplets shimmering in an orange sea. Whoa.
"I didn't get into this business to keep making the same dishes," Van Aken said as the next course arrived.
Although he may acknowledge Mount Dora is a surprising stage for a chef of his stature, he talked about the energy and momentum the town has. 1921 might be the catalyst, he said, spawning cheese shops and gourmet groceries and other ambitious restaurants.
Next up: a rosy, tender Wagyu strip steak in a puddle of black garlic jus circled with hedgehog mushrooms and a chestnut puree; then a whimsical persimmon ice cream pop reclining on a spiced apple cake, the work of pastry chef Gloriann Rivera. Yes, it's easy to see this stuff sparking a revolution in Mount Dora.
Customers passed through the Nakashima Room on the way to the bar or the restroom and did a double take when they saw Van Aken sitting in his chef whites. Some were tourists visiting the town for a romantic weekend, others local repeat customers, but all recognized the chef's full cheeks, toothy smile and shock of graying hair. He's a Florida treasure.
So just how many restaurants has Van Aken helmed over a more than four-decade career?
"In my memoir each chapter was a restaurant. That was 20 restaurants, but the book ended in '92," he said, swirling the remainder of his wine. "So, I'd say 30."
Walking back out to the twinkly-lighted street, muzzy with too much good food and conversation, we bid our farewell to the chef, marveling at his ability to embrace something new, to reinvent himself. He seems to see 1921, with its glamorous modernist trappings, as more of an evolution.
"The thread will always be Florida as long as I'm involved."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.