For Chef Norman Van Aken, growing up in a small town north of Chicago instilled two life-changing traits in his young mind: an interest in cooking and a desire to live somewhere warm!
“My mom was a Girl Scout leader, she planted gardens, canned vegetables, cooked at home, and taught these values to us… she instilled a passion for reading and learning.” Chef Norman’s mom and grandmother both loved to cook, and he learned at an early age that cooking was not only a means to an end, but also a way of communicating with others, sharing your love and passion with them. “Many of my early childhood memories are of food in the kitchen; I enjoyed being in the kitchen with my mom, my two sisters, and my grandmom, especially when it was freezing and snowy outside! I loved helping, the smell of the food, the transformation of ingredients into dishes, just being around it all, learning and making things in a warm, friendly environment… even today, that Proustian Effect hits when I am at work in the kitchen, it just feels like home.”
When asked what qualities are needed to become a good chef, Chef Norman is very direct in his response, “It takes curiosity, discipline, patience, teamwork, and a willingness to put the mission first, ahead of your own needs. Being a good chef is a very exacting profession, you work untold hours, on weekends and holidays, when most have off-time, and you have to be okay with that. It requires hard work, a lot of it, and sacrifice… which means you have to love it, or you will end up resenting it all.”
“Many aspiring young chef’s view themselves as ’artists’ and yet no one is an artist every minute of every day… you attain artistic levels during your day, during your life, but those artistic moments have to be supported by your management of it all to get to that place. Being a competent manager is an important part of being a successful chef, you cannot survive simply by being an ‘artist,’ you have to be a director as well as an artist.”
Having many accolades, several cookbooks, successful restaurants, a cooking school, and, perhaps most importantly, the respect and adulation of his peers, Chef Norman is definitely at the pinnacle of his profession. With so many accomplishments and opportunities on his plate, the primary focus has always remained on his guests. “Guests should expect to be treated well, as beautifully and humanely as possible, that has to be our ultimate goal. You can be as fancy and ‘artsy’ as you’d like, but if you do not connect with people on a deep emotional level, then you really are not part of the hospitality business. How your guests are treated, how they feel when they walk in, when they order, when they are served, when they leave… that creates a long-term memory for them, and we want to make it the best memory possible. We seek to make really relevant and delicious food, provided as locally as possible, and served with a gentle graciousness… this requires a nurturing environment in the kitchen, and it starts from the top, from me, so I hire the best, the most energetic, yet gentle and beautiful people, and I teach then what they need to know, but I allow them to be who they are, to be themselves, and to treat each guest as a family member… that makes it all relevant, makes it all personal, and it makes it a very special long-term memory for both of us!”
Whether trail blazing or mentoring, Chef Norman Van Aken has definitely mastered the ability to be relevant, to be artistic, and to be direct, and he seeks to pass those same qualities on to the young cooks and chefs who will be the future of the Culinary World… not bad for a kid who just loved to be in the kitchen with his family on a cold winter day!
Produced by: Irina Pabis
Photo/Video by: Richard Pabis
Written by: David Morizot