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. 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 hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen (Kyle Books), due out in fall 2012. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on twitter @normanvanaken.
When I was 19, I seemed to be on a yo-yo between my boyhood home in Northern Illinois and the place I was seeking…which almost always meant somewhere in the South. I wanted sunlight. I wanted warmth. I didn’t know that I wanted fried chicken too.
I rode a bus from central Illinois toward Jacksonville, Florida on one of those sojourns with a buddy of mine. The Greyhound we were on had to stop for gas in Macon, Georgia on the way and the driver announced that we would have one hour to “stretch, eat or shop.” We were young men and our noses led us to a soul food cafeteria, which one never finds on any interstate. We were smack in the middle of a part of town that we stood out in. But we were naïve and we headed through a heavy screened door into a large square room that smelled of fried chicken. Black women in matching service uniforms stood behind the long gleaming counter. They ladled, spooned, sliced and poured food and drink for a steady line of customers. We entered the queue and I know I felt some preternatural instinct for the absolute quality of what we were about to experience. When it was time to board the bus again I felt I had entered a state of grace and wasn’t sure Jacksonville could compete. But my buddy had a place near the ocean where we could crash for free for 10 days so we climbed aboard, watching that cafeteria as long as we could through the dusty windows.
We didn’t have the all-American classic at our home. It wasn’t in the repertoire of my mother’s dishes. I occasionally had it at the home of my best friend Wade, but it was only served cold.
In 1983, when I was now a chef instead of an unemployed dreamer, we traveled to New York City from Illinois; I’d been working there with Gordon Sinclair and Charlie Trotter. I barely knew Charlie then. He was just starting his journey in cooking and that was his first kitchen. We hit a bunch of restaurants that were in vogue or just outright classics at that time. One of them was a place called Texarkana. We’d already been to about six restaurants that day when we settled into the funky charm of that place. One dish on the menu that I actually missed that night (they’d run out) stayed with me as an idea. It was called “Fried Chicken Salad.” It spoke to me. I set out to work on it, only having the title to ignite my brain. For some odd reason I reached for sesame oil when making up the dressing part of the salad. I think it is the reason it became so popular.
How popular? Let’s fast forward two years. I got an offer to return to work in Florida.It was the biggest break of my career to date when I took on the job as Executive Chef of Louie’s Backyard in Key West in June of 1985. The ownership was divided and that is always tricky. The guy who hired me was at odds with one of the others. Let’s just leave it at that. Another owner insisted that I keep a salad that had been on the menu with the previous chef. It was called the “Steak Salad” and it was a big seller to be sure. I was not going to have some other chef’s dishes on my menu. So I presented a “Hot Fried Chicken Salad” the next night. Years passed and my career rolled into new places. After 17 years from that salad’s debut I went back to Key West to see the spot where I debuted this dish. The “Hot Fried” was still on the menu.
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my word on food.