Cookbook Dinner at Normans: An Exquisite Celebration of Food & Wine with Chef @normanvanaken!

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending The Cook Book Dinner with Chef Norman Van Aken, for a reception, dinner, book discussion, and after dinner party with live music at Norman’s, Ritz Carlton Orlando. Including a choice of Chef Norman’s newest cookbooks. The cookbook, “My Key West Kitchen” or the IACP award nominated memoir, “No Experience Necessary….the Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken”.

Unlike Chef Norman, whose arsenal now includes a pen as much as a pocketful of chef(‘s) knives all I am is a mere cook.  How do I indulge, describe what I consider a meeting of culinary gods?  I needed inspiration… so armed with a double single malt on the rocks and Chef’s Memoir “No Experience Necessary”, I dove right in, with each sip deeper into the chapters that tell a tale of achievement which most of us don’t dare walk let alone dream. His brilliant storytelling left me inspired and hungry for more of his penmanship, and of course ammunition to express that wonderful evening. Oscar Winner Ms. Lupita Nyong’o capture’s the sentiments so aptly with her quote “no matter where you’re from your dreams are valid”.

The Reception commenced with a signature “90 Miles to Cuba Rum Runner Cocktail, Sparkling, White, & Red Wine, Hors d’oeuvres of Gordon’s Artichoke Fritters with Aioli, Beef Tartare, and Foie Gra Mousse.  The entire menu was created from Chef Norman’s “My Key West Kitchen and No Experience Necessary Cookbook”.

Huge Shout-out to Julius Mayo of Droolius for sharing his mouth-watering photographs.



To my utter delight, when I spotted Mr. Brian Kozial, MS (Master Sommelier)  I knew I was in good hands.  With his exquisite palate and extensive knowledge of wine, I knew I was in for a treat with the perfect combination of food and wine pairings.  Ahhh! What an evening it turned out to be….

Dinner included a sit-down five-course meal with wine pairings.

Beer Steamed Key West Shrimp

Beer Steamed Key West Shrimp with Mojo Rojo:  Hearts of Palm, Florida, Citrus, & Avocado Salad paired with Weingut Robert Weil 2010 Traditional Riesling. Vibrant, fresh, and zesty, the Riesling paired beautifully with the citrus and shellfish.


Chez Nancy Spiny Lobster with Brown Butter, Capers, and Croutons Paired with Chateau Carbonnieux 2011 Blanc. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion, this white Bordeaux balanced the richness of the lobster.


Grill-Roasted Lake Meadow Farms Duck Breast, Brussel Sprouts, Sweet Potato Mash, Raisin-Pineapple Sauce paired with Domaine Tournon Shay’s Flat Shiraz 2011. Vibrant, spicy, and silky Shiraz with Duck, cooked to perfection, it was brilliant!

Tournedos of Beef “For a Mother”, Sunny side up Quail Eggs, Wild Mushrooms, Madeira Wine Reduction Paired with Turnbull Oakville 2010. I have to admit this was my favorite course. Perhaps because Chef Norman created this meal for Ms. Janet as sustenance after their first child Justin’s birth, “genesis of life with quail eggs”, the impeccable presentation, or the ideal pairing of a full-bodied well-crafted Californian Cabarnet with a chunk of beef, perhaps I was basking in the joy of dining on the Chef’s table with Chef Norman and the elegant Ms. Janet….There was many reasons this course commanded my foodie soul.

The wine flowed, the dishes were the appropriate temperature and each plate was a work of art, an experience to please the senses – sight, smell, taste, and touch. Hijacked by these senses I couldn’t help recall how Chef Norman introduced his book No Experience Necessary with “Celebration Dinner for food icon Ms. Julia Child and 350 of seated guests, co-produced with Chef Em (Emeril Lagasse) and Chef Charlie Trotter”. The cookbook dinner might not have had such an ambitious dinner plan but to me it still was the “perfect military drill and combination of synchronized symphony in the kitchen”.  YES! I did indeed have the pleasure of walking into the kitchen at Norman’s and catch a sneak preview of what was going to be an evening filled with mouthgasams.


Sunshine’s Key Lime Pie Paired with La Spinetta Moscato d’Asti Biancospino 2013. Irresistibly fresh Moscato paired with light and airy Key Lime Pie – vibrant ending to a fabulous evening filled with love, laughter, and deliciousness.

While chatting with my media pals at the Chef’s Table I casually mentioned that typically, I don’t get invited for dinner since people seem a tad bit intimidated cooking for me.  Ms. Janet nodded and quietly mentioned, “Same here”.

So here’s my open invitation to Chef Norman and his wonderful wife Janet!  I would be honored to host you for a dinner at my residence; it would be a matter of privilege for me.  I would know that I am doing something right if I were to see you wear a satisfied smile on your faces after the first bite.

I have dined and wined at Norman’s at the Ritz Carlton on a number of occasions. From the moment you step out of your car at the Ritz Carlton till you leave Norman’s – it’s a millage, smiling faces, impeccable service, perfect presentation, delicious food, stellar wines, and all in all an evening to remember. The service at Norman’s is incontestably one of the finest I have had the pleasure of experiencing.

Quoting Chef Charlie Trotter: “I know a lot of chefs, from all around the world. Many are disciplined and even brilliant, but some, and this is rare, are original. Norman Van Aken falls into the latter category. Above all, it is originality that sets us apart”.

After trying out few of his recipes from My Key West Kitchen and reading his memoir No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken, I couldn’t agree more. Click HERE to purchase your own copy to adorn your cookbook shelves.

Since this flawless event, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) has released its list of 2014 IACP Award Finalists. The IACP honors the best of food journalism, cookbooks and digital media and No Experience Necessary, The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken, Van Aken’s most recently published memoir has been nominated in the best “Literary Food Writing” category. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony in Chicago as part of IACP’s 35th annual conference, on March 15. You know who I will be rooting for!!

Here’s my humble attempt at re-creating recipes for Chef Norman and Justin Van Aken’s Cookbook “My Key West Kitchen”: Milk Braised Pork Tacos with Quick-Pickled Red Onions and Grilled Grouper with Mussel-Saffron Sauce.

My Key West Kitchen Cookbok Recipes

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