At the end of the 19th century, Key West, Fla., was the richest community per capita in the United States. The wealth poured in from the sea, and the people who settled the island developed businesses that related to the ocean. By the 1930s, the free-wheeling town had become notorious, and it began to attract literary folk (Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Robert Frost were part of the famous first wave). Today, fishing and writing remain major interests to Key Westers, and their visitors.
When I first got to Key West it was much of a working fishing town than it is today. The real estate boom had something to do with that. In the 1970s, the shrimp boats still worked the harbor at Land’s End Village. The bars and small restaurants across the street were amazing places to hear the stories of what was going out on the waters just outside our small island. I had not known the fish of this place but soon I was becoming a rapt fan. My cooking career was non-existent when I arrived. The first place I cooked in Key West was a BBQ place that about ruled out seafood. But in very little time I started to move up and with each restaurant I cooked in, my repertoire began to expand "fish by fish."
I was taught by Bahamian and "Conch" cooks. (Folks born on Key West are affectionately known as "Conchs.") The preferred methods of those men and women were steeped in tradition and time-tested. There was a time of wild experimentation during the '80s in some of the restaurants but it didn’t hold. In fact, the really old recipes are coming back as people have learned to honor the roots of American food, particularly in the South. And have no doubt about it: We in Key West are in the South. Our birth date confirms a long habitation here. It is interesting to visit "Key West’s Oldest House" (originally located on Whitehead Street before being moved to Duval where it still stands), which goes back to 1829, and visit the Cook House, which is a separate building behind the main house, and see the symmetry that exists in just the same way that it did in the old homes of Charleston, S.C., and other coastal cities of the Southeast.
The Overseas Highway that spans the 100-odd miles down to Key West could probably be considered the world’s longest fishing pier. The range of fish available to the anglers on the edge of U.S. 1 is staggering! Each year more people come to the Keys to participate in the sport of fishing. They vary in ability and interest but they all have one thing in common; an appetite for seafood.
It is a real inspiration to cook with fish of the superb quality available here. On any given day I can obtain the freshest shrimp ("Key West gold"), snapper, yellowtail, grouper, tuna, dolphin, spiny lobsters, stone crab, and swordfish. Over the years I have developed a coterie of dedicated professionals who know who how to take care of their catch and bring me their best.
If you want to get a real taste of what a Key West seafood dish is, you might want to look on menus for one of the most basic of our dishes: authentic Bahamian conch chowder, made with a mollusk that is equally popular in the Bahamas and Key West. It certainly started me on my now never-ending love of what can be cooked or consumed in Key West. Because fresh conch is hard to find away from Key West and vicinity, the recipe can be adapted to use any flavorful white-fleshed ocean fish.
Chef-restaurateur Van Aken's latest book is a memoir, 'No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken.'