The Art and Science of Cooking Seafood

An interview with James Beard Award—winning chef Norman Van Aken

An exceptional fish dish starts with the quality of fish and can be finished with simply butter and lemon.

If you’ve invested in a proper fish spatula, you have probably realized that cooking seafood at home is easier than you think — and can result in some of the best fish that you’ve ever tasted. An exceptional fish dish starts with the quality of fish and can be finished simply with butter and lemon. To get some pro tips on how to cook the perfect seafood and tips on finding the freshest fish, we spoke with chef Norman Van Aken, a James Beard Award winning chef, owner of Normans restaurant in Orlando, and author of six cookbooks and  most recently, his memoir No Experience Necessary.

Interview with Chef Norman Van Aken

Emily Jacobs: What are your pro-tips to cooking perfect seafood and fish?

Norman Van Aken: The Zen is to cook fish with utmost respect…but not to be afraid to cook fish! The topic of fish cookery is vast. A.J. McClane’s Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery is my all-time favorite book on the subject. I actually have two copies just in case! There are many different things to consider such as whole fish or fillet, grilling or pan-cooking. Things that have to do both with the cook and the species play into it. Of course many fish can be cooked in about every way there is to cook. And some are good both raw, (or nearly so) and cooked. The “pro tip” of all time is to get to know both the fish and learn how to cook it to suit your tastes!

EJ: What types of fish do you cook with most often and why?

NVA: We live in Southern Florida where there is an amazing diversity of fish. Even so, we have favorites. Key West shrimp are second to none in the world as far as we are concerned. Stone Crabs are a luxury but they come cooked so that is less relevant for our purposes here. Spiny Lobsters are native to Florida so we cook them…never, ever comparing them to the butter-rich “Maine Lobster.” Grouper and dolphin are heavy favorites but the all-time best-seller in our restaurants is the Key West yellowtail. It is not at all like the Japanese “yellowtail” just to be clear. It is an extremely delicate fish akin to a snapper. And while we are touching on that, hog snapper is an even more prized catch due to its inherent sweetness. Swordfish has come back due to intelligent monitoring and I love it grilled. We see less pompano than I used to, but it is another Florida native that is superb to cook.

EJ: How can you choose the right type of seafood and fish?

NVA:  Stop trying to buy fish in most grocery stores. I am frankly horrified when I see folks buying sushi in a grocery store. Don’t get me started on that! So, that being said, the most important relationship you can cultivate is with a great fish market. They are a nearly dying breed but, like the fish themselves have shown, can come back. They need shoppers! Do an engine search if you don’t already have a favorite one in your area. Don’t trust that 100 percent, of course. You still need to use your common sense AND sense of smell. A good fish house smells clean! It looks clean too. Not plastic wrapped to death clean… but icy, bright, sanitary, and the workers should look you in the eye and be happy to have you check the fish out. The very best fish markets I have seen are happy to have engaged customers. To choose a fish, you probably have heard the most common tips before but the fish cannot smell. Its eyes should be clear. The gills should be bright. Talk with the counterperson. If they don’t speak your language try to go with a bilingual friend. Odds are that friend will also know a good deal about fish.

EJ: What are some sauces and different toppings for seafood and fish?

NVA:  Again we get into encyclopedia range with a question like this. But ultimately there are broad families of sauces. Fried fish is always popular. Emulsified sauces from the “mayo” family abound and rightly so.

The “‘vinaigrette” type sauces are legion. But a simple, warm vinaigrette with a more dominant olive oil than vinegar construction works beautifully on a broad range of sea creatures.

We make a red wine and stock reduction sauce that allows us to serve our fish WITH red wine…and for an adult supper, there are few nicer or more elegant repasts.

EJ: Do you have any other cooking secrets or tips to share with readers?

NVA:  The best tip is to keep it simple. Seafood is all about purity and elegance. Fish have different textures as do land-based meats. The “doneness” issue varies with the various species. Texture is really more important than if a fish is too raw and thus… “dangerous.” [The reason] we don’t eat certain fish for sashimi [has] more to do with texture than “blood” etc. Find what you like. Keep cooking because our tastes become more refined with each pass. And when it comes to a sauce… if you are still a bit lost… lemon and butter have been around for eons. There’s a good reason for that.


Emily Jacobs is the Recipe editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyRecipes.