Chef Norman Van Aken, a pioneer in modern American cuisine, is being inducted into the Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters Hall of Fame.
Van Aken was an original member of the Mango Gang of the late 1980s and '90s, along with chefs Allen Susser, Mark Militello and Douglas Rodriguez, who developed what came to be known as Floribbean or “New World cuisine,” which combined and elevated local cuisines and products into an early version of what came to be known as fusion cuisine.
He will be fêted May 21 at the Menu Masters Awards, an invitation-only event at the Drake Hotel in Chicago presented by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods.
“This award celebrates innovative chefs who have been culinary trailblazers, creating new dining experiences for the consumer,” said Jim Goggin, senior vice president of Ventura Foods. Chef Norman’s New World Cuisine, for which he coined the name ‘Fusion Cuisine’ was a game-changer for the restaurant industry. Ventura Foods is proud to be a sponsor of this prestigious award, celebrating Chef Norman.”
Van Aken said: “There are times, if one is very, very lucky, when the world actually shocks you one day by recognizing the work you had only dreamed of being recognized for. My induction into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame is one of those rarest of times.
“I have learned to cook in great part by studying [previous winners Jacques] Pépin and [Paul] Prudhomme like Vedic texts. To be in such august company is a deeply amazing honor. This is also such sweet validation of my adopted region of America.”
Van Aken currently is the chef-owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes in Orlando, Fla., and is working on a new restaurant, 1921 by Norman Van Aken, in Mount Dora, Fla., slated to open later this year. He has written five cookbooks and has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.” His earlier restaurant, Norman’s, in Coral Gables, Fla., was inducted into NRN’s Fine Dining Hall of Fame in 1999.
“We are thrilled to be inducting Norman Van Aken into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame,” said Laura Viscusi, vice president and market leader for the Penton Food and Restaurant Group, which includes NRN. “Chef Van Aken was a pioneer in incorporating local cuisines into fine dining, and he continues to innovate with his newer restaurants."
NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn said Van Aken had extraordinary vision when thinking of the concept of fusion.
“These days when we think of fusion cuisine, we think of the sometimes clumsy melding of different cuisines. Norman had a different idea: He derived the term from fusion jazz, which sought to combine jazz with rock ’n’ roll and other newer musical genres,” he said. “He wasn’t looking to merge different cuisines, but to take the vibrant flavors he saw around him in South Florida and apply fine dining techniques to them.”
In a piece Van Aken wrote in the late 1980s as he was conceptualizing fusion, he wrote: “My interest and my intent is on diving deeply back down in time to salvage the golden treasures and vibrant calypso flavors of old Key West and fusing them with a contemporary sensibility and an individual personality. The foundation must be the bedrock honesty of Conch, Black, Spanish and Cuban regional cooking.”