On The Wonders Of Aïoli

When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence on chefs in Florida and beyond.

Now the chef/owner of Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is also hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen (Kyle Books), due out in fall 2012. In the meantime, he'll contribute to Food Republic with his "Word On Food."

The first time I made an aïoli I was in Key West, not sunny Provence from whence she shone first. But the sun did connect us...through the gypsy medium of garlic!

I was working at a little restaurant called The Port of Call, there in the port town of Key West. I was making my first wave of seafood soups, following the recipes of Point, Escoffier, Carême and an upstart named Jacques Pepin. They had names: some old, some new. Bouillabaisse, cotriade, bourride and the like. Bouillabaisse called for aïoli's cousin, rouille, but the bourride and cotriade were compatible with aïoli. I bought my first mortar and pestle and got to work.

My most cherished experience with aïoli came in the divine presence of Lulu Peyraud in the French town of Bandol, a port halfway between Marseilles and Toulon. There, at her vineyard home, the famous octogenarian by then, who was the muse to folks like the late, esteemed food and wine writer Richard Olney, (who wrote Lulu's Provencal Table) and Alice Waters.

"Lulu" (as she insisted we call her) served us a simple broth soup for the first course. It was much like a bouillabaisse with a small bowl of aïoli on the side for each of us. We drank the wines her family made, Domaine Tempier. She sat next to me and flirted. I was as speechless as I'd ever been in my life.

Marcel Boulestin said, "It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking." If a little garlic makes you happy, aïoli will have you on the way to delirious, my friends. And speaking of friends, collect only those who love garlic. Who needs the reproach of those whose vapors are so dully uncharged by the magic of garlic?

Aïoli is the conjoining of two words, ail meaning "garlic" and oli representing the olive oil. Egg yolks and a splash of lemon juice complete this sauce.

With aïoli we enter a land that the writer John Lanchester describes as one that evokes: "A widening of life's sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one's emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one's sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind, and spirit; that land which is also an idea, a medium, a métier, a program, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence."

We cannot deny that Provence is the birthplace of aïoli. But it travels well. Bring on the aïoli and get in a garlicky good mood. Lulu would want it so.

More recipes featuring aïoli on Food Republic: