Chefs Justin and Norman Van Aken Dish on Norman's 180

Categories: Chef Interviews
Norman3.jpg
Photo by Riki Altman
The threesome behind 180.
​When we hit up chef Norman Van Aken for an interview a few months ago, he mentioned he'd soon open a new restaurant in Miami, but he neglected to say his son, Justin, would fan the flames at his side. But there Justin was at the preview

Eventually, we learned there's a third chef in the 180 kitchen: Phillip Bryant, who has worked with Norman since 2005. The senior Van Aken claimed before the restaurant opened the other two had spent months in Orlando working with local purveyors. Over time, they compiled a list of sources including Palmetto Creek Ranch, Paradise Farms, Bee Heaven, Redland Mediterranean Organics, and Deep Creek Ranch. And in time, they found a wealth of suppliers providing a range of products -- from locally bred turkey, pork, and fish to honey, cheese, and wine. 

According to Justin, Bryant was just the right fit because he has a tie to the farm-to-table concept. "As kids, we used to pick vegetables," Bryant explains. "We didn't get raised on fast food. To me, it was weird it became this whole named thing. When I worked in Virginia, when Sysco reps came in, we would kick them out. We had a local mushroom forager. We had a farmers' market across the street we would hit."

Perhaps they'll all visit the Coral Gables farmers' market when it reopens in January, but until then, these three are working together at the Gables' much-ballyhooed new joint, bringing in the freshest, locally sourced eats they can find and bringing back what they hope will be the next generation of Van Aken success.

Here's what the father-and-son team had to say:

New Times: Did you always know you'd be a chef?

Norman Van Aken (NVA): No. Folks where I grew up didn't think that way back then. I had a crazy quilt collection of jobs. I was a factory worker, did a stint at a carnival, sold flowers, did some work spraying concrete in Kansas. I returned to my home area and got a job as a hot tar roofer and hated it. One day I answered an ad for a short order cook paying $3.25 an hour in Libertyville, Illinois.  It was in a diner called Tom and Jerry's Fireside, where not only was I introduced to the world of cooking by flippin' eggs and burgers, but I met my future wife and the person who I have shared all of this with, Janet.  

Were you the first chef in your family?

NVA: Yes. [But] my mother was a hostess and a manager in a variety of restaurants so I grew up listening to her talk to my older sister Jane about the restaurant life.

So you never went to culinary school?

NVA: No. By the time I even heard of that I was cooking about six years. Besides, who could afford that? I was living in rented apartments from Key West to Colorado and scraping by.

And Justin, did you always plan to follow in your father's footsteps?

Justin Van Aken (JVA): I didn't get into cooking until I was 22. I saw how hard Dad had to work and how little he got to be home. I swore up and down that the last thing I'd ever do was be a chef. I played viola in orchestras and chamber groups, drums in my high school's marching band, and guitar when I was 20. I was a barista--I was pretty good behind the coffee bar. 

NVA: That's when I saw how good you were at handling many things at one time and I told you, "You know you could cook for a living." We were opening up in Orlando and you were living in Boulder and I said, "Why don't you come down here and learn a trade?"

JVA: Reluctantly I gave in and apprenticed in the pastry department. It was a lot of intense learning. I'd go home and read his cookbooks. 

NVA: He was, like, afraid to catch the fire. I couldn't figure it out. My friends--Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse--were like, "Send him up to me!" He didn't want to take advantage of the family name. We respected the fact that he needed his own way. 

Was that your first time working with your dad?

JVA: I worked at Norman's when I was 14 or 15. On opening night I was handing out caviar. And at times I was a bar back, busboy, reservationist... and I did a brief stint in the prep department. 

And then Orlando?

JVA: In Orlando, I really completed my apprenticeship. It was the second half of a very intense year of immersion into the world of a professional kitchen.

So, then you came down to help with Mundo?

JVA: At Mundo I ran around like a crazy person. 

NVA: He handled the music, and did service, and even worked the dish pit on occasions.

JVA: I became an assistant manager at the front of the house. Then in 2006, I moved back to Key West to open Beachside with my folks. We opened a little restaurant (called Wreckers') down the street from where the resort was being built as a training ground. 

NVA: (laughing) This is where he got his ass handed to him.

JVA:  I started to wake up before my alarm feeling excited about the day ahead. That was new! I was really learning savory cooking: breaking down chickens, braising, working the grill and fryer stations, as well as making and plating all desserts. We were moving at a frenetic pace in an old, sweltering, Key West kitchen. It was there, at Wreckers', that I was truly forged a "cook."

But you never considered going to culinary school, either?

JVA: I knew [my dad] didn't go and it didn't seem it was harmful to him. I had worked with culinary cooking school students--they didn't know how to work or move. They had a completely distorted view of what it meant to work in a kitchen. I am very curious and like to understand the "whys" of what we do, so I do see the value in that kind of education. [However] cooking is something you learn best by just doing.

So you've always worked for your father?

JVA: No. I decided I wanted to take a learning journey. So I moved to Chicago to work in kitchens. Then I got a job as a cheese monger in Oak Park, Illinois. I knew eating and the food and culture of it was important to me, but I had to find out what really spoke to me. While I was there I got exposed to--and was inspired by--farm-to-table. I read Tom McNamee's Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Before I left Florida, I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. When I got back to Key West I gave a copy of Kingsolver's book to my Dad and said, "Let's talk about where we're going."

Tomorrow, we'll find out how connected Chef Norman is to the farm-to-table concept, why Norman's closed, and why no one should give a restaurateur $2 million.

Location Info

Norman's 180 - CLOSED

180 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL

Category: Restaurant


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