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, due out in fall 2012. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.
I might have first thought Black Bean Soup was an All-American “respected” soup when I read about it in one of James Beard’s cookbooks. I read that he advised the owners of the venerated Coach House in New York City back in the 1950’s to feature it. Mr. Beard had become a respected cookbook author and restaurant consultant by that time. But even more than James Beard memories I cannot think about black bean soup without thinking about the woman who taught me how to make it. She was 180 pounds of soul in her shiny combat boots 20 years before Dr. Martens adorned the more slight-of-foot creatures that track South Beach. Her name was Betty Howard. She was the breakfast cook at The Pier House Restaurant in 1978 when I was brought in to assist her. It was like having a female Lou Gossett Jr. as your unofficial tour guide to hell’s kitchen.
When you are a breakfast cook your day starts out with a sense of sheer panic. The alarm clock seems to gyrate directly against your aortic valve. You fear every minute you delay getting set up will multiply the number of eggs you will be ordered to make by a factor of at least 500. The palsy begins early and promises to never fucking end. But like everything in life, it does. And I was always massively, joyously, incandescently relieved when breakfast finally ended. Of course that actually also meant it was time to make the lunch menu come together. It also meant that Betty would get her allotment of two 16-ounce Busch beers, which had an ability to reverse the string of colorfully graphic instructions she would have directed at me for the previous four hours into a comically sweet, mischievous flirtation. And one of my jobs regarding lunch prep was to make the Black Bean Soup.
The way Betty taught me to make black bean soup dramatically affected my cooking. At the time I was reading French classical recipes. It was while at the Pier House, after all, when I first started to work with “chefs.” The years before that were filled with short order cooks whose reading more often was confined to a racetrack or ballpark program. The young and older cooks meshed into a kind of unit where the level of conversation moved up from “pussy and money” to “liaisons…and money.” At least it was partly elevated in terms of professionalism. From the books, I learned you often started a sauce with a mirepoix of leeks, carrots, celery and white onions. But with Betty some of the Caribbean history was still in the DNA of our cooking. That mirepoix was dainty and delicate in contrast to what was essentially a sofrito that contained bacon, garlic, bell peppers, red onions, spices and chilies. That was the foundation of our black bean soup. Sofrito was not emphasized in American cooking schools back then. Fortunately there is a much more global approach and appreciations to many cultures in the institutions of higher culinary learning now. I realize that working with Betty and several others of the cooks of that time I had a head start that some of my more formally trained cohorts lacked. Thanks, Betty. I owe you a beer. Honestly, I owe you an entire brewery!