Norman Van Aken knows how to throw a party. The veteran Florida chef (and Daily Meal Council member who contributes regularly to our site) was a close friend of the late Charlie Trotter — he calls him a brother — and on Saturday night, at his Norman's Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, he hosted a benefit for The Trotter Project.
The event marked the kickoff of a three-year capital campaign to fund the initiative, dedicated to "honoring the legacy of Chef Trotter through programs, services, and events promoting culinary and personal excellence." More specifically, the Project's goals include generating mentoring programs in high schools and community and technical colleges, developing internship programs with Trotter alumni, and purchase and refurbish Trotter's last restaurant as well as his restaurant studio and offices to serve as a center for mentorship programs and special events.
The kickoff party, thankfully, wasn't a sit-down, 10-wine-glass affair, but rather an informal reception offering a remarkable array of good food and drink, produced by Van Aken and a host of Orlando-area chefs. Magnums of Perrier-Jouët greeted guests as they arrived. Passed appetizers included barbecued pork belly with jalapeño jelly on buttermilk biscuits (from Greg Richie of Soco Thornton Park and Cityfish), stone crab and tobacco-cured mullet (Greg Baker, The Refinery), Florida day-boat spiny lobster with Siberian caviar and avocado (Tim Keating, The Flying Fish), red shrimp salad with green gnocchi in duck bolognese (Hari Pulapaka, Cress), and a knockout crispy veal sweetbread with morels (Jérôme Bocuse, Monsieur Paul — and, yes, he's Monsieur Paul's son).
Then there was the serious food, at stations around Norman's, each matched with something to drink. Among these were tables laden with three kinds of caviar (self-service!) with blinis and Russian Standard vodka; Cinco Jotas ibérico ham, Hudson Valley duck prosciutto, bresaola, various pâtés, and three kinds of cheese, with Columna albariño; stone crab claws, mussels, and oysters with Galerie Naissance sauvignon blanc; and roasted pig, from local barbecue king John Rivers of 4 Rivers Smokehouse (and others), with the wine of the evening, Clarendon Hills McLaren Vale grenache.
Macallan 15-year-old, Remy-Martin XO, Blanton's bourbon, Brugal rum, iced Patrón silver, and a long table laden with desserts prepared by the Ritz-Carlton pastry team were icing on the petits fours. It was an unusually delicious evening in all.
For more information on The Trotter Project, or to donate, visit www.thetrotterproject.org.