Norman Van Aken isn't what you'd call a trendy chef, but for decades he has pretty much owned exciting, original modern American cuisine in southern Florida, and as an exponent of exotic raw materials and tropical cooking traditions, he has influenced chefs far beyond the Sunshine State. In the past, Van Aken has run restaurants in Key West, Coral Gables, and even, once and for too short a time, the far western Florida suburb of Los Angeles. Today, he has just a pair of places: Tuyo, at the Miami Culinary Institute, and Norman's Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the Orlando enclave of Grande Lakes.
The latter has been in business for 10 years this month, and Van Aken (who has a funny and evocative memoir coming out in December) decided to throw himself an anniversary party on Aug. 24 for about 200 guests, in a hotel banquet room, with the help of some friends. These included three chefs he has long cooked with in various contexts — Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and Dean Fearing — as well as a newer acquaintance, Jeremiah Tower, and a couple of local culinary stars, Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park and Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert's in the Disney-owned Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The group planned an eight-course dinner, accompanied by wines chosen by a group of Florida-based Master Sommeliers.
As it happened, Trotter was under the weather and couldn't make it, but his longtime number-two, Michael Rotondo (now cooking at Parallel 37 in San Francisco) subbed for him ably. No chef, no matter how skilled, can turn out the same level of food for 200 people in a strange kitchen that he could produce in his own restaurant for a few diners at a time. That's a given. But these guys came pretty close. There may have been a piece of overcooked fish, a presentation that was a little twee, but overall the food was superb. Lagasse offered an inelegant-looking but irresistibly delicious boned-out quail stuffed with Florida shrimp and mirliton (chayote) over a grilled chanterelle salad; McGlamery crafted veal casoncelli (twisted pasta stuffed with sweetbreads) with summer truffles and smoked corn; Van Aken's own dish, made with his chef Juan Rendón, was a piece of wreckfish with butifarra sausage, caramelized cured foie gras, and a reduction of veal jus and port; Fearing killed it with a maple-soaked bison tenderloin, charred and rare, alongside an enchilada filled with chile-braised rabbit.
The wines were exceptional, from the elegant Taittinger 2005 poured generously at the stand-up reception before dinner to the amber-hued sweet Domaine Philippe Delesvaux Saint Aubin Coteaux du Layon served with Ritz-Carlton pastry chef Stephane Chéramy's jewel-like dessert assortment. (Galerie Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Château Beaucastel Finca Sandoval Signo 2009, and Rudd Winery Samantha's Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 were among the other highlights).
Timing is everything in serving a multicourse banquet on this scale, and The Ritz-Carlton staff paced the presentation of the courses perfectly. The whole affair was an illustration of what real professionals can accomplish, and as such was a fitting tribute to Van Aken and his restaurant.