Norman Van Aken is one of the most celebrated and consequential chefs in the country. Widely regarded as the founder of new American cuisine and a pioneer of "fusion," Norman has led renowned restaurants, published numerous books, and a nominee for and winner of countless awards, including an induction into James Beard Foundation’s list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage" (where he's the only Floridian chef on the list).
Sadly, Norman Van Aken has never won a Cubayashi Cup, but he counts this among his goals moving forward.
Norman also happens to be among Michael Beltran's mentors. Mike refers to Norman as his "culinary godfather."
In this first of two episodes we recorded with Norman, he and Mike talk about the beginning of their professional and personal relationship, cooking in South Florida, having conversations through food, and the question of whether cooking is an art or craft.
Listen to Norman's radio series, "A Word on Food."
Pan Con Podcast
Norman Van Aken: (00:00)
And we were rolling, Yeah?
Nicolás Jiménez: (00:01)
Yeah. I mean I was going say we should probably do a little bit of a...
Norman Van Aken: (00:04)
Cause we don't want to miss it...
Nicolás Jiménez: (00:06)
I am recording it all because I figured something like this would happen. But we do want to...
Michael Beltran: (00:11)
I'll do an intro.
Norman Van Aken: (00:13)
I remember listening to the show with Ani [Meinhold]. You guys started talking and then you jumped in and said "At some point let's do an introduction."
Norman Van Aken: (00:19)
This is pretty much how it is all the time. Welcome to Pan Con Podcast starring me!
Nicolás Jiménez: (00:26)
Starring Mike Bel... Just with. Don't make yourself a star all of a sudden. It's called Pan Con Podcast WITH Mike Beltran.
Michael Beltran: (00:30)
I don't know how this works! When I was in Cleveland I was like, "How do you do an intro? Nick usually does these things. I'm not sure what I'm doing.
Nicolás Jiménez: (00:39)
So you're listening to Pan Con Podcast. It's a podcast sandwich with Mike Beltran. I'm Nick Jiménez. We're joined off mic over here by Carlos "Carluba" Rodriguez. Say hello to the people.
Carlos Rodríguez: (00:57)
Hello to the people.
Nicolás Jiménez: (00:57)
There he is. And we are with a very special guest, who I will not even bother attempting to introduce because Mike, who we're with is far more qualified to do that. Chef Norman Van Aken.
Michael Beltran: (01:10)
It's incredible to have someone like yourself on this show. Cause when we talked about this show...
Nicolás Jiménez: (01:18)
Michael Beltran: (01:18)
It's absurd. When we talked about this show. It was like, you know ... We're just a bunch of ... you know ... And we're just going to talk shit. And then Nick's like, "Let's get Norman on this show." I'm like, "Norman's not going to want to be on this show." It's just us, like, you know ... "And then you were like, "Sure." And like, "Fuck. Norman's going to be on the show now. What do we do?
Norman Van Aken: (01:41)
What do I do now?
Michael Beltran: (01:41)
So thank you for coming on and spending some time with us. Means the world to me.
Nicolás Jiménez: (01:48)
Now bearing in mind that we have a tremendous fan base in Salina, Kansas.
Michael Beltran: (01:51)
Salina, Kansas, yes. Chef Norman Van Aken, who I call the author of fusion, the man who was a huge part of spearheading south Florida cuisine, someone who has won several awards. Honestly, I wouldn't even do a disservice in trying to name them all. Author of five books?
Norman Van Aken: (02:12)
Michael Beltran: (02:12)
Six books. I own them all. I should know that they're six. Just... Yeah, thanks for being here.
Nicolás Jiménez: (02:21)
He has zero Cubayashi Cups though.
Michael Beltran: (02:24)
Zero Cubayashi Cups! Chef, you don't know what that is. We did a pastelito eating competition. Whoever won won the Cubayashi Cup. It's a big deal.
Norman Van Aken: (02:32)
I have not attained that precious goal as of yet, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give up.
Nicolás Jiménez: (02:36)
Make some room on the mantle.
Norman Van Aken: (02:36)
I promise, I promise. Listen, it's a pleasure to be here with you, Michael. I mean, since the day that you entered my kitchen ... How many years ago was that? I don't know, but...
Michael Beltran: (02:52)
Longer than I'd like to admit.
Norman Van Aken: (02:55)
I was thinking about it and as we were coming over here today in the car and just thinking back what it must have been like for you and what it was like for me to be in that endeavor and to see the purpose ... you know, the purposefulness of your intention. You know, the gung-ho spirit that you've had. I could see that you were, you know, a college jock who was just transferring me as energy from the field into the kitchen. And I'm so glad that you have done it. I'm really thrilled that you've found this post here in Coconut Grove to begin to show the world what you're capable of because it's really very special here.
Michael Beltran: (03:37)
Thank you chef. Before we start diving into like the world of Norman Van Aken and all of our wonderful discourse, I have a couple of stories that I'd like to share with people. Just talking about when we first met. When we first met, Norman's 180 did not exist. It was an empty shell. And I knew it was going to open. I was working, at the Red Fish Grill, actually. And my chef at the time, Romel Meza, which is a dear friend that actually lives in New Orleans now; I'm wearing this Camellia Grill shirt... big Charlie Trotter fan. Huge Charlie Trotter Fan.
Editor’s note: The video above was published a month before Charlie Trotter died from a stroke in November 2013.
He lives in New York and he's a huge part of my journey as well. And we were looking through one of Charlie's books and there's a big picture of you. I actually was just was skimming through the book. It's the seafood book. And you're holding up a gigantic tuna. Romel looks at me, he goes, "You know, that is?" I'm like, "I'm not sure who that is." And he says, "It's Norman Van Aken." "Oh yeah?" And he's like, "I think you would like his food." And this was like long time ago. And I was like, "Man, you know what? Fuck, I might like his food." So I went online, I got a book and I got New World Kitchen. And, man, that book really changed my life. It absolutely... It was the one... I just couldn't put that book down. I still have three copies. It's in every office I have. Every home, you know, it's everywhere. So there was that. Norman's 180 was a shell and I was like, "I really want to work for this person."
Michael Beltran: (05:19)
I had learned a little bit about Phil too. I was a big fan of Phil as well. Phil Bryant, one of the greatest chefs South Florida's also ever seen. So I went into the shell and I just kept on dropping off résumés to, like, no one. And I didn't know if they ever reached you. I must've dropped off my résumé over 10 times.10, 15 times. Just so happened, somebody got one and Phil calls me. I'd actually left Red Fish and I was working at a hotel for Frank Genetti at the time. This is a long time ago. So you guys called me and I was like, "All right, cool. I'm going to go interview." And then they were like, "I'm going to interview with you." And I'm like, "Fuck me. What do you mean I'm going to go interview with Norman Van Aken?" So I walk in this room, and it was the office. It was on the second floor. I'm usually pretty cool under pressure, but I was cracking hard. And you asked me just very simple questions. "So what do you think about food?" And I'm just like, "You know, I fucking love food." And I'm like, "Oh man." And then the guy in the other room, which was one of the sous chefs at Norman's at the time, laughs 'cause it was such a like simple answer. But now that I look back on that moment, it's still the same. Like, I was very true in that moment. And I think that you saw that and for the rest of the interview I was pretty much in shambles.
Michael Beltran: (06:53)
But I guess you liked me 'cause you hired me and, you know, that was like the beginning of a very incredible journey that had a lot of ups and downs. That was the first time I'd ever met you. So I'd like to fast forward to what was maybe three years after that, maybe four. I don't know. I was at Norman's 180. And then from Norman's I left, you know, we all ... Things happened and we all left there and I had gone to The Local. I don't know if you remember this time. We had still been in somewhat communication. We would email back and forth, whatever. And that was probably one of the top three lowest points of my life.
Norman Van Aken: (07:40)
Top three lowest?
Michael Beltran: (07:40)
Yeah. Lowest, lowest. And it had nothing to do with The Local. It was a nice place. Bottom three, though. Bottom three points of my life. It was a very trying time for me. And you had reached out to me and you were like, "You know, we're going to open Tuyo. Would you like to be a part of the opening team?" And me like a little arrogant fuck, I was like, "No, I'm good." Because I was so in my own world and so just like inundated by like drugs and alcohol and like stuff ... Just like all the stuff that's like bad about our industry. So anyways, fast forward, I think like six or seven months after that email, my time at The Local ended very poorly. I was let go for reasons that we can't share publicly. But anyways, I was like on the street for like ... You know, I was living somewhere but in a very bad place. So I reached out to you and I asked if you were willing to meet. Tuyo had already opened at that time. Matt Hawkins, which is the chef to cuisine at Ariete now and Gio Fesser, which is the Pastelito Papi and one of my best friends in the whole world, worked at Tuyo at the time. And you said yes. Which I was shocked that you said yes. So this was like maybe three days after everything happened at The Local and, you know, my world was burning and falling apart and I was in like a really ... It was like a two-day bender. Things were bad. And I walked into, what was your office in the back? Jeffrey was there, but he did not stay. And you just looked at me and you said, "Are you okay?" And I responded, "No, I'm not." And we talked a little bit and you said to me, "I don't necessarily have a position for you, but I will hire you." And that changed the rest of my life forever.
Michael Beltran: (09:50)
150 percent. You did not need to hire me. You did not need to, you know, help me at that point. And you did. So all I can say is, thank you for that.
Norman Van Aken: (09:59)
I can see you sitting in the chair. It was by that table that was supposed to be a big prep table, but it ended up being a kind of an ad hoc office for us because there was no other office. And had this coat on and looked like you'd been driving for 24 hours.
Michael Beltran: (10:16)
It's close to it, yeah.
Norman Van Aken: (10:17)
And you were beat up and the world had given you a serious whipping. But I remembered your work and I remember the promise that I saw within you. I wanted success like I've always wanted success and the only way you get success is to build a team. I am a member of a team. I happened to be... Typically, I'm often the quarterback of the team. But I would get nowhere if it weren't for the linemen and if it weren't for everybody else, you know? If it weren't for the fans.
Michael Beltran: (10:53)
We need the fans.
Norman Van Aken: (10:56)
We need the fans. They pay for everything. You know, you had and have, you know, that intrinsic quality, that ineffable quality of caring so deeply. Yeah, your answer was true, Michael. You love fucking food. You didn't need to say it any fancier than that, really. I can see it in your ... Like a method actor looks for truth, you were telling me the truth with your heart and I appreciate that. You know, when you say you applied for the job 10 times, somebody else applied for a job 10 times with me — Charlie Trotter. He was front-of-the-house, bus boy, in a restaurant that I, for reasons I don't even understand, won the job as the head chef in 1982 and he came in to the kitchen and said, "I know I’m a bus boy, but I want to work in the kitchen."
Norman Van Aken: (11:52)
And I basically said, "We don't have anything." He hadn't worked with me. I didn't know anything about him. He was very thin, very pale. Couldn't really look me in the eye at the time. And my sous chef — the wonderful, amazingly talented Carrie Nahabedian from Chicago — said, "Hey, let's start him at garde manger. You know, I'll keep an eye on him." I said, "Okay, he's your project. You keep an eye on him." And a year later we were communicating like you and I have been able to communicate, which is like about anything, music, books, cup of coffee, the industry, what it means, how does it mean to grow up with the bad shit that's part and parcel of the industry as well. And, of course, I think the commonality of our language, so much had to do with the shared love of Latin flavors — Cuban, Caribbean, Miami, all of that — and you had it in your DNA, grew up with it. You had the vernacular for it and you had — very key — you had the appreciation for it. It astonishes me, Mike, how people can live in this town or in this region of Florida and cook food as if they're cooking in New York, Chicago, California, Kansas, East Jesus, Ireland, I don't know. But they don't seem to grasp that this is the most spectacular place to be a cook. And I say a cook, I mean the working part of what we do.
Michael Beltran: (13:34)
Absolutely. It always goes back and I say it like a million times ... Who says the Miami story? You know, who's talking about ... People have labeled Ariete and the food that I enjoy doing as like Cuban or Cuban American; I don't totally believe that. I love cooking Cuban food and I love my culture, but it's more very indicative on Miami as a city, you know? And I had this conversation with someone just recently. It's like "Who's telling that story?" And there's a lot of people that are taking that on in different forms. And someone I talk about often is Niven [Patel], because you know, Niven grows stuff in his backyard and then he puts it on the menu. You know what I mean? That's incredible. But for me, you know, the way I like to ... When I relate it to Cuban food, if you will, is like being a Cuban American kid, 34 years old ... It's the food that I grew up eating, you know? And I grew up eating very differently than my parents did, but still with an appreciation of the same foundationary things like something simple like mamey or starfruit or mangoes, you know? Or níspero or things of that nature. Like that foundationary aspect that makes Miami special. Our climate is really, I think, a very huge foundationary part of my food. And I learned a lot of that working with you in the past. And people, you know, they always asked me like, you know, "How was it working with Norman?" It was incredible. I mean I call you my culinary godfather for a reason. On top of that, you're an encyclopedia of food. You know, I would go and ask you a question and you would have not only an answer, but you would have written a paper about it 20 years ago that you could print out and give to me. I mean, you don't get that very often in life. So, you know, it's an appreciation for these flavors that is so I think rare cause people are just like, "Oh, it's just a mango. You just put it in a shake." No, that's not how this works, you know?
Norman Van Aken: (15:43)
But there'll be rhapsodic about ramps.
Michael Beltran: (15:47)
Norman Van Aken: (15:47)
You know, great, love ramps. There's nothing wrong with ramps, but as far as I know, they don't grow here. And so how do you not know what monstera deliciosa is? How do you not know what níspero is or by it's other name, sapodilla? I've been lucky, Michael. I've been extreme ... It was a stroke of amazing luck. I was at a party and a Champaign Urbana, college town, in 1971. I was totally burned out on America as it existed by then. Watergate, Vietnam. I had just crashed a terrible romantic relationship. And I went down to see some buddies who were hard parting folks, did a little import business on the side. It was like two o'clock in the morning. And I remember Derek and the Dominos were blasting away in the stereo and we were blasting away and I said, "Hey, whoa, wait a minute. Where's your brother? Where's your brother, Steve?" There were three brothers. I grew up across the creek from them and they were just amazingly funny guys, so many stories, so many wonderful memories. But they said, "Oh, Steve went down to Key West, you know, to do a little dealing." I said, "Where's Key West?" and they said, "You know, you go to Miami and keep on going south."
Michael Beltran: (17:03)
Until you can't go anymore.
Norman Van Aken: (17:04)
"Anybody want to go?" And these two brothers were at the party. They said, "Yeah, we'll go." I said, "All right, when you want to go?" They said, "Let's go now." They had a van outside. Panel van; Ford Econoline. We got a bag of white cross and we jumped in the van and in 36 hours we pulled into Key West. Knock on Steve's door, woke him up. It was four o'clock in the morning. It was 36 hours of travel. I'll never forget going down US1 across the Seven Mile Bridge, Greyhound bus coming the other direction, Sparks hitting our van as we were so close because at that point in time, it was the old bridge and it was so narrow. We pulled into town and everything was different. The town smelled different than any place I'd been. The ancient architecture of the Bahamian wooden houses were different, the little lanes. Stayed there a month, didn't work, just partied. Stayed, hung out. But I was so influenced by this, the power of this island that I made it my business to figure out how to get back to it. Two years later, I stored up enough money, 300 bucks, got into a drive-away car, which I can't describe in a short period of time, but it was a free method for us to get from Chicago to Key West. Landed in Key West, got a job shortly thereafter at an all-night barbecue place called The Midget. There were no walls on the outside of it. It's kind of sitting outside like the way we are right now. Corrugated tin roof, charcoal grill. I worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. A guitar player named Jimmy Buffet was playing guitar once in awhile there while he was trying to figure out what he was doing.
Michael Beltran: (18:51)
He figured it out.
Norman Van Aken: (18:54)
Nobody knew him back then. Um, but it was my second job as a cook. But the point being is that it was an amazingly lucky thing that so early on I got the voice and the flavors, the words, the story of Key West in my head before I was 23 years old. I realized something about it was like a love affair. And so I realized that I wanted to represent that early on. It took me a little while to get there. I still had some more education to go through 'cause I was not educated formally. I had never been to cooking school, but I'd always been a reader. So I switched from novels to cookbooks and I started to read some of the great books and I became educated in the French, especially, methods of cooking. You know, some heroes like [Roger] Vergé and [Paul] Bocuse and [Michel] Guérard and others. They were my early influences. And then as fate would have it, my wife Janet had a baby boy. She got homesick. We returned to Illinois. I got a job in a place up there where I met this owner that was really aware, educated man about the entirety of the American restaurant situation. And he, through his just everyday way, turned me on to the realization that there's a lot going on in America with food. And at that time it was just at that time that American regional cuisine was really taking off. We were moving away from our slavish following of the European model. The Eurocentric model was admirable, but we are Americans. And so people in Texas and Santa Fe were doing a certain kind of food, you know, the young progenitors of the southwestern cuisine food movement. There was Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck doing this, and Jeremiah Tower doing the California food movement. We didn't have Internet back then. I need to remind some of the young listeners of that. But we had magazines that were starting to cover the story and I felt a mixture of jealousy and desire. I wanted to be in the magazines and somehow I knew at some level that I needed to tell the story. I needed to represent south Florida, Key West. And then when we came to Miami in '92, I began to branch out and learn more about what it meant to be here. My heroes, many of them have been writers. I think that there is a ... The universal truth of a William Faulkner novel is made capable by his complete laser-down drill into the county that he wrote about and placed his characters from. I think we can be extremely diverse and expressive by staying more within the zone of what it means to cook in South Florida than trying to cook like they are cooking in Oslo or some other place. They need to cook like they cook in Oslo. I want people to maintain where they cook, from where they cook. And I'm happy as can be to go to a true Italian restaurant, French restaurant here in Miami if there are some ... well, when there are some ... but I also admire when I see young people, 'cause compared to me, you are young, grappling with how to be a voice for this culture and a voice that is not just doing Abuela's food. Nothing wrong with that. Abuela did it marvelously, but you are not of their generation. What has happened in your life that also has power to it, that makes you want to be adaptive in ways that you go, you know what? I am a Cuban American person, but I fucking love this Thai thing. So you're gonna write your own chapter. You are writing your own chapter. For me, my chapters have been about being a Midwesterner who came to Florida and became known as a person who was articulating Florida in a particular way, "fusion" being one of the more argued about terms I've ever created. No, the most argued about term I've ever created, but it's okay. That's all right. You know, everybody didn't love the term "rock and roll" and everybody didn't love the term beat generation. But it's okay if it is arguable, it means it's powerful.
Michael Beltran: (23:56)
Just to rewind a little bit, when you were talking about Charlie Trotter applying ...
Norman Van Aken: (24:03)
His birthday was yesterday.
Michael Beltran: (24:04)
Yeah, it was yesterday. So I mean, for the people that don't know who Charlie trotter is, you should probably use the Internet thing and Google the the man cause he's a legend and you know, that's from a time I think that food was so, like, ahead of its time, you know, when Trotter's was around. And the impact that that had on Chicago's dining scene was very similar to like the impact that you had down here. It always surprises me when you mention someone's name, like a Charlie Trotter or a Jeremiah Tower or Dean Fearing or, you know, some of these, ... Alice Waters ... They've been so important to the development of American food. Not only just a dining, 'cause Charlie Trotter was big in just overall dining. You know, the experienced that he curated at Trotter's was one of a kind. But you know, people just don't know enough about it. Everything in today's world is so indicative on, like, what is now. The world of social media and the world of the Internet has just really made people gravitate towards like, "What's on my feed today?"
Norman Van Aken: (25:33)
It's sad. Because they're depriving themselves of the richer meal.
Michael Beltran: (25:36)
But not even just ... It's the knowledge. Like, you know, I have a ton of cookbooks. It's an ungodly amount of cookbooks. I know, because I hear about it all the time that I have cook books all over the house and I don't care because it's just, like, I love them all. But there's a huge portion of my cookbooks that are all very old, you know, and I feel like that food was so pivotal. Understanding that technique, and I'm sure that you can agree that a lot of younger cooks — myself included, when I was younger — wanted to skip the base technique part to learn how to like ... "how to do this in a sous vide machine ... like, why don't we just learn how to cook things over fire?" You had a great quote in Culinary Artistry. "Cooking over fire is one of those things that connects us to our primordial past."
Right? That's one of those quotes that's always stuck with me forever. And I think it's now like why I'm so big on, you know, Ariete has wood in the kitchen. We use a lot of smoke at Leña. Leña is obviously charcoal and wood. Navé has a wood oven. All those things are like very important to me because food in essence to me ... A lot of people are trying to rewrite chapters of food now and in today's world, like René Redzepi and Dan Barber, which they're incredible, you know, but before you can do that, you have to understand how to cook for real, which is using a sauté pan or using wood grill or using a smoker. And, you know, you told me something too when I worked for you and I always used to bitch, I was like, "People just always call me the fucking grill guy," right? "I'm always just the grill guy because I always just worked grill." And you were like, "What's so bad about that?" And I'm like, "You know what? You're right." It stuck with me forever. There's nothing wrong with that. It's totally fine with me, you know? But it's talking about the old-school food mentality and really learning from the group of chefs that are the reason that we're here. You know, the Trotters, [Thomas] Kellers obviously the Norman Van Akens the Dean Fearings. I find that there's so much purpose behind that food. Everything on that food had a purpose, whether it was an emotional attachment or just a functionality perspective on the plate, which a lot of people lose in today's world. You know, food is sometimes just because it looks cute. Instead of it being, having like substance, you know? The three component and go thing is kinda been lost over time.
Norman Van Aken: (28:32)
Charlie and I talked a lot about how that ... He was very, very upset ... And he said, you know, "I'll tell you what man, 80 percent, 90 percent of the chefs work in my own kitchen, do not know who Frédy Girardet is." Now I'm sure that we could take that number higher if we mentioned it to the chefs of South Florida.
Michael Beltran: (28:56)
Norman Van Aken: (28:57)
You know, in the olden days, whatever the art form was, whether it was music, whether it was baseball, I mean everybody knew who Babe Ruth was. Everyone knows who dizzy Gillespie was. People know. But in this world of this instant media feed, everything seems to be washed out over a 24-hour cycle. And I'm not going to go on an entire bitch about this cause I don't want to talk about that so much. I just want to say, you know what? It's so much more than that. There's so much more craft and so much more power that's available to us. People should be able to eat your food as if they were blindfolded and find it amazing. It does not need to be Instagrammable for it to be amazing; it needs to be amazing without it being Instagrammable.
Michael Beltran: (29:43)
Man, that's amazing 'cause it's so true. Before I worked for you, when I was working at Red Fish Grill, you were on a panel and StarChefs and the subject was art versus craft. And that's another one of those things that I read that forever stayed with me because, you know, in everyday conversation, and I'm sure you hear this all the time, you know, it's cool to be a chef now. It's like, "You're a chef. That's cool. You're such an artist." No, I'm not an artist. I'm a craftsman and I will always believe that. I think people who really care about food and really care about creating and curating that experience for the guest believes in the craft aspect of it because it's not just putting one plate out. It's about putting the whole experience together. And that in and of itself is a craft and it's so difficult to do every aspect of it. And you're hugely known for service. Like, being very in the service ... so if you could talk a little bit about that, like how, how you've kind of seen maybe the dining world change. Have you seen it change? Do you feel like people have taken away from curating the experience and it's more about just like come in and eat and go or have you seen that at all?
Norman Van Aken: (31:21)
I always feel like there's at least two mighty rivers and one of them is fast food, fast-casual and one is dining fine dining. They're very different from each other and they coexist. We walked in here tonight and I know that sometimes people recognize me and maybe I get a different experience than some, but your team, very naturally welcomed to me. And I don't think some of them knew who I was. I mean, I'm not dressed like a chef, and I just really appreciate that. I think that another place where Charlie and I talked about this endlessly was service and he wrote a book on it as a matter of fact.
Michael Beltran: (31:58)
I read it.
Norman Van Aken: (32:00)
Lesson In Service? Lessons in Excellence?
Michael Beltran: (32:00)
Right. It's two.
Norman Van Aken: (32:04)
Right, so, you know, I mean, I think it's whether it's 49-51 or 51-49, people may not understand that you have to use, you know, chervil to garnish this aguachile or you use poblanos versus jalapeños. They may not get it. They don't need to get it. They need to hopefully like the flavors in their mouth, but they don't need to mentally process what herb it was, what chile it was, what fruit it was, but people universally process genuine care. That incredibly personal, meaningful way that you embrace people without being, you know, silly about it. Even if it's said without words, it's just that care. Service is key. I grew up the [son] of a waitress who became a manager as she grew older. I had no plan on being a chef when I was in a grade school. Nobody in my grade school, my high school did. My mom though would come home from work and count the tips on the kitchen table. My grandmother would be making dinner. My mother and father split up by that time. My oldest sister Jane worked with my mother. They would split up the quarters, the dimes and nickels and rolled them into paper packages, put them the bank and they would talk about what service was that day. And I'd be doing my geography assignment, you know, in the living room, which was, you know, as far away as this tree right here. And I'd be unconsciously, I'm sure in many ways hearing them, but also somewhere it was making itself in my brain, have a presence. And I could see how much it meant to my mom and my sister who, who meant the world to me, that people were happy, simply happy. Nothing is more gratifying to me than not just making the plate, putting the food on the plate, which I adore, but seeing the server or the bus person taking the plates away from the table empty and the people looking up at me saying, "That was amazing." And you can tell they're genuinely affected by it. And if we've gotten to that place, then I feel like I've done my job. I want to touch back on something. You mentioned a book a little while ago called Culinary Artistry, right?
Michael Beltran: (34:32)
Karen and Andrew ... what is her last name?
Norman Van Aken: (34:36)
Page and Dornenberg. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg. So the conversation comes up oftentimes when we're having a think about "Is cooking an art? Is cooking a craft? Well, I think it's both. I think that there are times when you're cooking where you enter a state of grace. It's momentary, it's elusive. It's not going to last. I think when you're cooking 99, 97, 96 depending on how good you are, how connected you are, that is craft. If you're doing it right. But if you have this moment where you have this transcendent thing that happens, then you do enter a state of grace where it does enter the world of art, but just don't expect it to last.
Michael Beltran: (35:30)
Norman Van Aken: (35:31)
Picasso was an artist, of course. So many other artists. Too many to even bring up, but there are many things that he made and did that he would have thrown away. But for much of his life, he was able to attain a state of grace with his art that was phenomenal. That's why you say Picasso, everybody knows what that means. I feel there's moments that we, we can get to in cooking where there are moments of grace that reached the level of art. Just know that is going to be gone before long. I sometimes feel that we're sculptors who sculpt in rain.
Michael Beltran: (36:15)
Oh yeah. 100 percent.
Norman Van Aken: (36:15)
For moments, you know, you can create this bubble of beauty, but because it's food and dies rapidly.
Michael Beltran: (36:21)
Well, it's a very interesting subject because I have this conversation with my chefs often, which is, "It's a beautiful dish. Can we do it as beautifully 40 times on a Friday night with only one guy working the station?"
Norman Van Aken: (36:41)
Yes. Yeah. It's a business too.
Michael Beltran: (36:44)
Yeah. It's a very fine line. Right? It's a very interesting place to be because I'm fortunate enough to be in a position now that we are doing some smaller dinners with people that we're keeping it super intimate and, you know, we're cooking pretty much whatever we want. We're doing art. We're doing our version of art. And it's something that for me is very special because, you know, Ariete, there's nights where, I mean, it's cranking and it's real hard and it's a small kitchen and you have to be very smart about how you put the menu together and such. But when you're in that moment that you're up at 2 o'clock in the morning and you're writing down ideas on dream sheets, which I still use, and you're putting down 30 or 40 ideas and then you're writing down components of all those dishes and then you reflect back on it on the next day and you're like, "Well, this is like 10 components too deep. I need to cut it here, there and the next," is when the artist, the business person and the craft really start to ...
Norman Van Aken: (38:01)
Because we wear a number of hats. And we have teams that have to be molded and nurtured and understand which hat to wear and when.
Michael Beltran: (38:09)
Yeah. Well, it's also an interesting place to be when ... I remember vividly the New York Strip dish that we had on the menu at Tuyo. And I don't know if it was anyone else other than me and Gio Fesser working that station that they would have been able to pick that dish up. You know, same thing with the pork Havana — that version that was on that menu. If it was anyone else other than the two of us and you know, a handful of other people that I know working that station, it would've been really hard for them. You know, and you also ... And I've just learned this in a very stubborn fashion over the last three years ... You have to cater your menu to your team. Albeit very reluctantly inside of your own brain, inside of your own being and inside of your own personality, you need to cater a menu to be like, "Well, this person works this station. Can they do this on a Friday night? And I mean, it's a tough place to be because I know if I was working the station on a Friday night, I could do it. And you can be very difficult and be like, "Oh, they're gonna fucking do it." And yeah, that's a nice place to be, but it's not realistic. And I've learned that the very hard way. You know, I'm super fortunate too, that we have some really incredible young talent in our kitchen. But still, it's not like putting Matt on the station and he can bang it out without a problem. Or me, you know, or the countless other great chefs that we have working here. We're not that fortunate to have Morgan Garmo on a Friday, you know? So I don't know that that conversation of art and craft and business all together, I think is the new topic, is where the industry is going now. Because unless we're opening restaurants that have 35 seats and it's only a tasting menu and you're only inviting the guests that you want to invite, which there are some people lucky enough to be doing that, we're subject to the business. And that's why I think the conversation of art and craft is so difficult too, because we want to be the artists. We are the craftsmen, but we're forced to be the businessmen.
Norman Van Aken: (40:25)
I have paid many bills with yuca shrimp. And with the yellowtail.
Michael Beltran: (40:30)
Yeah, for sure. Yeah. And conch chowder. That's a good topic. You know, I bust Matt's chops all the time because I worked grill and Matt worked sauté and the dishes that were on the sautée station where the ones, they were the bangers. They were the ones that Norman Van Aken paid rent on these dishes. I had like one, which was the chicken and the veal chop. Matt had like six: conch chowder, yellowtail. I had the foie too, but you know, foie is ... I mean, yeah, you put yellowtail on the menu and everyone's gonna order it. And Matt's making mashed potatoes to order. He's at the beurre blanc every day. I mean, it was ... I still talk to him about it now, you know ...
Norman Van Aken: (41:20)
I like to get into conversation with some of the people that were guests or worked in the kitchen and ask them their favorite dishes that they picked up or they were part of in the history of the various Norman's restaurants because the subject matter becomes animated very quickly. And it's like, it's a band talking about, you know, the best songs that they played on the road, you know, and where they were, depending upon where I was in my career at that time, which songs were on the set list. I mean, some things seem to go on the setlist and they were always there, like a Tom Petty set list. You know, there's certain things that are always going to be on that setlist. And I want to hear them if I go hear his band. God bless Tom Petty in heaven now, but, you know, his death has actually spurred me into making sure I hit the concerts more than I used to and not just go to work, only go to work; that was life forever. But, depends on which iteration of a Norman's restaurant that we had. Whether it was Louie's Backyard in Key West or whether it was the original Norman's in Coral Gables or it was Norman's 180, there were various things on that set list at that time that people who cooked in those stations ... Those dishes and those pickups are etched in their brains forever. And I love to hear them talk about it — sometimes even like argue and sort smack talk each other about who's got a harder pickup than the other one.
Michael Beltran: (42:46)
Matt won that. I wouldn't even fight with him. I probably wouldn't tell him this to his face, but he had a much harder time than I did. But, you know, that leads me to that conversation of ... Those dishes. I mean, those iconic dishes that ... The French toast, the foie French toast. I mean, that dish is... It's hard to talk about your career without talking about that dish.
Norman Van Aken: (43:18)
Charlie [Trotter] did a version in one of his books and Emiril [Lagasse] did a version in one of his books.
Michael Beltran: (43:23)
Yeah. I mean, that's cool. It's just, I picked up so many of those, foie gras dishes and I love it. I mean, it's still one of my favorites.
Norman Van Aken: (43:35)
You know why they're memorable, I think, Michael? And I think you do know why, but let's just talk about that for a moment. They encapsulate a story. They tell a story, and I think that's what is missing so oftentimes when Janet and I go to a restaurant, or you and I go to a restaurant, you can be fed, you can have a very good meal, a pleasant meal, a well-crafted, structurally correct meal. But are you going to remember it a week later?
Michael Beltran: (44:04)
Norman Van Aken: (44:05)
I had a woman come in and, she was a French woman, famous writer in her time. Colette Rossant was her name. And she was feared and admired equally in this particular period of time. One of the South Florida food historical people, Carol Kotkin, brought her to A Mano when I first came out of Key West and said, "I have Collette Rossant with me. She can't be here for dinner. Will you make her two dishes?" And I said, "Absolutely," you know? "Absolutely. Bring her by." It was like 3 clock. You know how hard it is to pick up a dish at 3 o'clock.
Michael Beltran: (44:45)
Oh, I'm very aware. I'm so aware.
Norman Van Aken: (44:46)
You're not set up at 3 o'clock to make those dishes yet. Everything is timed to be ready at opening.
Michael Beltran: (44:52)
And sadly, you're mad at your whole team. "Why don't you have this?" And in your head you're like, "Fuck, I know why they don't have it, but come on, help me out here."
Norman Van Aken: (44:58)
I made her dish. I thought it was a damn good dish. And she was an elderly lady and very, very put together. A very astute lady. And she said "It was very nice." And I was like, "Ugh, that is not gonna cut it!" And Carol's like nervous cause she could only take her to like one or two places because of the timeframe of Rossant. And I said, "Give me a moment. Can I put one more dish up for you?" And she said, "Yes, you can. I could see it's important to you, young man." I was a young man myself then. And um, and so I did the Down Island French Toast. Swear to God, Michael, it's like a tear was in her eye. She said, "Now you've done it. You've made a dish I will never forget." This is from a French person. I'm doing foie gras. So I was very, very jazzed to have our compliment that dish in that way. And that's exactly what I strive to do is I want people not to be fed, not to be comfortable. I want them to have memories and to feel like "I want to go back that restaurant as many times as I can in my life because they treated me with respect and dignity and they cherished my time."
Michael Beltran: (46:26)
That conversation... Food expression, food story. I believe so much in that. And so we're very lucky to have hired Devin Braddock as our corporate pastry chef and she's infinitely talented, super hardworking. She's very, like, cerebral. She'll go through the dish like 35 times and just like, "Take it easy, pump the brakes." So we're talking about like her first actual menu rollout and we tasted some dishes and you know, like, for the most part they were incredible and I loved them. And then a couple of dishes I think that they were forced because she was trying to be like the restaurant, not like herself. And I asked her, you know, "What is something that you really want to do? What is something that, like, if there was a dish that was like me having a conversation with you, what would it be?" And her response to me was "My grandmother's bread pudding." And I have been forever very adamant about never putting bread pudding on the menu ever. So I was like, you know, and I thought, and then I jostled with it and then we ended the day and I had too much sugar that day anyways. And I was like, "Alright, I'm done here." But that night I was actually smoking a cigar and I was thinking about it, you know, like I want people to end their meal here having a conversation with Devin, cause it's always a great conversation. So how can they best do that? And I was like, you know, if this bread pudding means so much to her, I want to know more about it. So then it was like a huge curveball to her because then I responded, I came back the next day, I was like, "Alright, let's do your bread pudding." And then she was like, "No, what do you mean? How are we going to do that? What do you mean? You said no?" And I was like, "Oh, okay." So now I know there's a whole other thing now. It's like putting that expression out there in that conversation with her is ... Not only is it important, but it's huge. And to me that is the biggest thing about someone who really loves food when they have to second... I mean, fuck. The first year of this menu in this restaurant was so difficult for me because I had no idea how to have that conversation with a guest through food. Now it's a little more natural and I feel more comfortable with it. Some people aren't comfortable with that yet.
Norman Van Aken: (48:52)
Babies don't run.
Michael Beltran: (48:54)
That's absolutely correct. That's 100 percent accurate, but like you said, that experience, you can go somewhere and you can eat and it's just food, but then you can go somewhere and it's like,"Wow." And the food could be very simple. You know, I go back to the meal I had at Avec in Chicago and that meal ... I would say that meal and the meal I had at Rustic Canyon in L.A. were like very important for me because they came from chefs that obviously had tons more experience. They were well versed in their food and they were confident. They knew who they were, they were okay being who they were and they weren't trying to be someone else. And that stuck out to me so much because it was like having a conversation with a very confident and well-versed person in food. You know what I mean? That thing means so much to me and I've learned here through lots of trials and tribulations that really this restaurant, whether you want to give it a label, Ariete, as it is, like the style of food ... All it really boils down to is you're coming into my house and you're having a conversation with me and we're going to talk.
Norman Van Aken: (50:22)
An edible conversation.
Michael Beltran: (50:22)
Right. And we're going to talk and you know what? You could not love it. And it's totally, because when people talk to me, they don't always love me and that's fine with me. But that comfort of being okay with that has been so important to like, not only my just being, but my mental health in this thing that is like daily judgement of our food. That, I don't know. It's huge. It's been a huge thing for me. So that's like ... Anyways, that's what I got there.
Norman Van Aken: (50:54)
I think it's so important that people understand that simple is that is articulate as anything. You know I happen to love crème brûlée and bread pudding. I like vanilla ice cream for that matter. People are always surprised. I have a radio show on WLRN and for my show, it's called A Word on Food, and it's all built around me experiencing an ingredient ... something. And I work that into a four-minute show — about four-minute show. It's just me. I write them, I record them with my editor. It's not like this kind of a show. But to do the show, I end up going to the neighborhood restaurants quite a lot because that to me is where that language exists. And so I'm forever trying to find places in the 305 of if I'm on the road, on the road. It doesn't matter, where I'm going to be exposed to ingredients or a dish that allows me to educate and inspire and hopefully entertain people about cuisine. And they'll see me in a restaurant that is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. They're like "You're Norman Van Aken, right?" "Yeah." "What are you doing here?" I go, "Eating real food." And they're like, "Holy shit." Well, I mean, I was at a gas station that serves Mexican food in Homestead the other day, and a surgeon in scrubs comes up to me. He goes, "Chef?" I go, "Hey." He goes, "I love that you're here." And I go, "Well, great, thanks. I love that you're here. What'd you have?" He said, "I had the menudo." I'm like, "Great, do you like it?" He goes, "I call ahead and make sure they're gonna have it on the menu." And he goes, "But you're here." I go, "Yeah, because it's just tasty. It's the real deal." So I think, you know, I mean, Bocuse said very well — Paul Bocuse, legendary chef if people don't know, from France, still considered among the greatest chefs in the 20th and 21st centuries — he said at one point something like this: The food will be so much better when chefs present the food, they themselves like to eat, not some tricked-out dish that's interesting. Oh, that's a word that just sends off an alarm in me. Interesting? You know, that's like an interesting date.
Michael Beltran: (53:22)
You never know how it's going to go.
Norman Van Aken: (53:24)
Yeah, I want something that is going to be, "How fucking delicious was that?" That's what I'm going for. And sometimes "How delicious was that?" is something that your grandmother did make or could make. I love a good chicken noodle soup. Believe me, the truth to the food is not found in complexity. I oftentimes will metaphorically speak about music. You know that. When Clapton was considered the guitar god that he was, he was playing in bands like Cream and Blind Faith and he was playing at warp speed. All the notes in the world. I was in a frame of mind like that when I was younger and like a person like Clapton, I found that I could express myself also doing it in a lot less notes. And so I did. I'm not so known for that. People typically, more often, think of the complex dishes that I've done, especially those of you who have prepped my dishes.
Michael Beltran: (54:25)
Duck Bang Bang. Three pages long.
Norman Van Aken: (54:30)
The recipe starts off, "Day One..." That's how the recipe starts.
Michael Beltran: (54:34)
We'll end the first part of the show with ... We were at Tuyo ... Ah this is such a great story. I still talk shit about this story all the time. We're at Tuyo and Jeffrey walks into the kitchen and was like ... I don't remember what we were doing. It was for something. But he had in his hand the recipe for Duck Bang, Bang. And he walks in and there was only two guys in that whole kitchen that had not worked for you previously. And he raises his hand. He goes, "I have the Duck Bang Bang recipe. Who wants to volunteer to do it? Me, Matt and Gio run to the back of the kitchen. Like, "We've got to get something in the oven." And then the first guy, Mike is like, "I'll do it, I'll do it." And we're like, "Yeah, you will. Yeah, you absolutely will." So midway through he's like, "How come nobody told me about this?" They're like, "I don't know what you're talking about." I'd never done it before. Yeah, that was, it was a good time. So cool. So that's the first part of this show.
Nicolás Jiménez: (55:34)
Yeah. So this has been Pan Con Podcast. Part one of our conversation with chef Norman van Aken. We're here with Mike Beltran, obviously Norman van Aken, Carlos "Carluba" Rodriguez ...
Carlos Rodriguez: (55:49)
and Nick "Nicolas" Jimenez.
Nicolás Jiménez: (55:51)
There you go. We have been off here silent in the background. Uh, we will wrap this up with our usual shameless plugging things before we come back and pretend ...
Michael Beltran: (56:03)
We're going to shameless plug? Man, that means we're going to plug twice today.
Nicolás Jiménez: (56:05)
You know what we'll do? I will copy and paste this shameless plugging into the second episode. The second episode's shameless plugging will sound super bootleg.
Michael Beltran: (56:16)
Nicolás Jiménez: (56:16)
So you can find Pan Con Podcast on all the social media things at @panconpodcast, like a podcast sandwich. You can find past episodes at dademag.com/panconpodcast. You will find links to all of our things, past episodes. Also a link to contribute on Patreon. If you're into what we're doing, you can for as little as a buck a month be a supporter of this thing and get some exclusive perks. I think we're going to be making stickers. We'll probably be doing some t-shirt giveaway stuff. It's going to be crazy.
Michael Beltran: (56:54)
Who's paying for that anyway?
Nicolás Jiménez: (56:56)
DADEmag.com will pay for all that. Just like we paid for the Cubayashi Cup.
Michael Beltran: (56:59)
It's true! It's sad, but it's true.
Nicolás Jiménez: (57:03)
It's not sad. I went way out of my way to make sure that Cubayashi Cup happened.
Michael Beltran: (57:08)
You didn't see this trophy. It was like three feet tall. It was incredible.
Nicolás Jiménez: (57:09)
You can find Ariete at @arietemiami...
Michael Beltran: (57:09)
@Arietemiami, @chugsdiner and @navemiami. That's supposed to open soon... @timeout_lena. I am @piginc.
Nicolás Jiménez: (57:34)
And then Norman, do you have anything you want to plug here? Maybe in a slightly more articulate way than we just did our stuff? Or not. You can be totally inarticulate. That's fine.
Norman Van Aken: (57:47)
I'd love them to listen to A Word on Food on WLRN and listen to the show. Saturday morning, around 8:30 is when it airs live. Live in the sense that it's been recorded, but it comes out at around 8:30, 8:32 a.m., depending upon the day. But it's always available online at the WLRN website. Just either Googled me or "A Word on Food" and it's going to come up. And I've done 350 shows, so there's a lot of material there.
Nicolás Jiménez: (58:14)
So get cracking. Get get to listening. You'll be quizzed on the next episode of OPan Con Podcast. So with that we are gonna wrap this one. Thanks. Bye.
[This transcript is being worked on and will be updated here over time until it’s complete.]
Nicolás Antonio Jiménez is the founder of DADE. When he's not working on this site, he's the senior editor of Cigar Snob Magazine, an internationally distributed lifestyle magazine.
Nick is also a Miami native, Cuban-American, and graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.