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A world of culinary influences on Florida

Daytona blue crab cocktail, "revival style." Bacon-speckled hush puppies. Black grouper ceviche with leche de tigre and popcorn.

These are some of the recipes you'll find in Norman Van Aken's new cookbook, Norman Van Aken's Florida Kitchen. Amid opening a restaurant in Mount Dora and a cooking school in Wynwood, the "father of Florida cuisine" and fusion cooking pioneer has penned his sixth book, championing Florida food as a blend of influences from around the world.

"It was time for somebody to write a book on contemporary Florida," Van Aken said in a phone interview recently. The book was released in early September.

Van Aken, the "big dog of Florida cooking," as Anthony Bourdain calls him, first introduced his idea of New World Cuisine and fusion cooking in the 1980s. He describes his philosophy as a "two-parter," first as a way of combining the rustic with the ornate, and then as a "marriage" between cultures. His recipes show not just the bounty of possibilities the technique provides but how to achieve modern, complex flavors not-so-complexly at home.

The results are dishes like Cedar Key creamy clam chowder, a Flora-Bama white mojo barbecued grouper sandwich and "Koreatown" fried chicken.

"I felt the obligation to not be staying within my known zone of Latin-Caribbean," the chef said. "I had to get more Northern, more Central Florida, more West Coast Florida to be really able to say with certitude, 'This is a book about all of Florida.'?"

The only Floridian to be inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage talked with tbt* by phone from Miami, where he's opening a joint restaurant-lounge along with his school, In the Kitchen With Norman Van Aken. We spoke to him ahead of his appearance in St. Petersburg at the Museum of Fine Arts in late September as part of its summer series Simmer & Sift.

What was your goal in writing the book?

I've been convinced that Florida has needed more opportunity to show what a beautiful state it is in terms of its food history and food culture. … It's like, great, we do have beautiful weather, we do have beautiful beaches and palm trees. And we have places here to fish and to camp and go RV parking, all those things that make it a beautiful place that a lot of people would be jealous to have. So they almost don't seem to understand that we can also have the intelligence and the variety of our foods.

Do you think it's important to be able to define Florida food?

If you ask "What is New York food?" or "What is Texas food?", you're going to get a lot of people both nodding their heads and disagreeing because that's the way it is, and that's the way it is always when it comes to food. I found it very eye-opening when I wrote the book New World Kitchen, that was around 2003, where I'd be speaking to members of my team at the restaurant who were from the countries oftentimes that I was primarily basing the recipe off of, and saying, "Well, did you use boniato or did you use potato or did you use yam?" And one would say, "No, we never use boniato, we always used malanga," and the other would say, "We never used malanga, we always used boniato." And I'd be like, "Aren't you from the same region? Aren't you from the same country?" But that's the beautiful thing about food ... it's always as varied as people, as varied as the populations.

Do you see a lot of fusion happening in Florida food?

It's a powerful term. When you say "fusion," … you get people who say, "I hate fusion, I won't do fusion, I refuse to do fusion," and then I'll look at their menu and, "Where did you think these different things came from? Did you think they came only from Italy? Because let me tell you something there were no tomatoes in Italy until Columbus and the Columbian Exchange." So, the political debates about these things have seemingly settled down and people realize there's good fusion and there's bad fusion. There are people who have done inconceivable things with food and there are people who have done some beautiful things with food by paying homage to foods from different places.

You've said that the book ended up becoming a template for your menu at 1921, the restaurant in Mount Dora. What was that process like working on both at the same time?

It was really important, because I wanted to differentiate very much the menu in Orlando (at Norman's in the Ritz-Carlton) from the menu in Mount Dora because they're geographically close to each other. Probably more important to me is that I don't want to be typecast. I don't want people to think, "Oh, he's going to do his XYZ dish, his yellowtail or his conch chowder, and he's going to have that dish that we love so much down in Miami." As a chef I always appreciate the fact that people will fall in love with a dish and not want me to take it off the menu, but having another restaurant in another town gave me a little bit of a green light to offer up a whole host of dishes I haven't done before. It's like if you're a performer and you've got a great album, and six years pass and it's time for another one. You're not going to write the same songs. You want to show people where you're at now.

How's the cooking school in Miami coming along?

It's coming along fast now. I believe that school will be open by September. It's going to be sweet because this is a school where people cook with us, they don't watch us cook. They all have their own units. The suites that they basically work at are going to be like if you were cooking at home on an island and had a burner and a cutting board and all that, that's all there for you. … It's for enthusiasts, and you can sign up for a single class just to see if you like it. You don't have sign up for a semester or six weeks of classes. You can dip your toe in the water and see if you dig it.

Does life ever slow down for you?

This is probably the busiest in a long time. … I've opened restaurants over the course of my life a number of times, more than I could count probably. But to do the school and the restaurant at the same time is definitely a new miles per hour.

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