Ah, the life of a chef. It's all cussing on the line, plating delicious food and partying til dawn. At least, that's the mythology, and you know what? Sometimes there's some truth in it. For evidence, let's refer to No Experience Necessary, a tell-all memoir from acclaimed chef Norman Van Aken.
Van Aken, whose career always keeps taking him back to the booze-soaked streets of Key West, is one of the culinary world's most colorful characters. He's a chef's chef, and he formed "the Triangle" with his buddies Emeril Lagasse and the recently passed Charlie Trotter, who play supporting roles in No Experience Necessary. Also prominent are Van Aken's wife Janet, '70s and '80s celebrities, wayward line cooks and drinking partners. It's a great read from the man who's called "The Father of New World Cuisine," and a must-read for anybody with aspirations to not only work in a kitchen but to live the most romantic chef's life possible.
Here, in an interview completed just a few days before his good friend Trotter died, Van Aken tells us why he chose to spill all this now, and reflects on a life, so far, well-lived.
Why a memoir, and why now?
I think my age is the perfect age to do it. I can still remember it all…and it isn't yet delusional….
Your book has a lot of explicit details. Any fear of sharing the intimacy with the public? Any stories you left out because they were too revealing?
I have had some twinges about the things of an intimate nature I tell. Then I think… If folks didn't want me to write them down one day they should have realized I'm a writer too. Which leads to this… OF COURSE I left a few things out. But only a little bit. And once those folks pass this mortal coil… I will write a new chapter!
What memories came back while writing this that surprised you? Like, what had you forgotten and were surprised to rediscover?
So many memories came back in the process of writing the memoir:
- My ability to recall the many line cooks I sweated away with from clear back to the earliest days and nights in Key West come to mind… along with line cooks in Illinois, Colorado and Miami… We worked drunk. We worked savagely hungover. We worked stoned. But we always worked!
- Hitchhiking from Key West to Illinois in '73 with Janet when she was just 18 and I was just a bit older. She was innocent and not aware of the potential bad behavior of men yet… I held a knife under my "Clint Eastwood" vest for parts of that ride.
- Learning to make soups from the former Navy cook and shit kicker cowboy named Fred Boomer after he broke both of his arms when he fell down a flight of stairs in a Colorado bar and had to turn over the task to someone else.
- Busting very expensive chairs over an expensive bar in Florida with Emeril after a night we cooked for Julia Child. (We had good reason!)
- The night the bartender (at the tail end of a 4 day-to-night binge) at The Midget Bar in Key West told us of his night of cannibalism in Africa with a priest before passing out on the table we all sat at raptly listening.
- The elliptical times of cooking with Charlie (Trotter) from his first job cooking through him cooking with me in Key West…to the night during the South Beach Wine & Food Fest when he received his "Lifetime Achievement Award"…
- The fist fight I had on Miami Beach with the owner of the hotel I worked in officiated by Mickey Rourke the ended yet another job. 20 years, 20 restaurants, 10 states, 200 characters…
Did you run the Charlie and Emeril stories by them before including them or did they have to read the book to see what you included?
Charlie and Emeril receive the galleys but never an advance before them. They both wrote nice words about the book. Thank You Brothers!
What are three ingredients that you feel like you popularized through your trips through tropical kitchens?
Plantains, Guava and Scotch Bonnet chilies all come to mind.
You have some crazy mustaches in the photos that pepper the book. Any plans to bring back some of the facial hair you rocked through the years?
I might bring back the facial hair. It will go with the Harley I plan to get once the book sells a few thousand copies…