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Book Review – NO Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken by Norman Van Aken

Synopsis:  Long considered a culinary renegade and pioneering chef, Van Aken is an American original who chopped and charred, sweated and seared his way to cooking stardom with no formal training, but with extra helpings of energy, creativity, and faith.

After landing on the breezy but not-always-easy shores of Key West, Van Aken faced hurricanes, economic downturns, and mercurial moneymen during the decades when a restaurant could open and close faster than you can type haute cuisine. From the graveyard shift at an all-night barbeque joint to a James Beard award finalist for best restaurant in America, Van Aken put his trusting heart, poetic soul, natural talent, and ever-expanding experience into every ventureand helped transform the American culinary landscape along the way.

Random Quote:  Here’s where my real working life began.  I mean the cook’s side of my working life.  And it is a world unto itself, a world that conned me first with the smell of food.  It is hunger that makes you crazy, whether it’s one appetite or another.  And I was hungry for a lot of things.  Later in my life people would often ask me how I came up with so many crazy-delicious dishes.  I told them the truth.  “I was hungry.”  They almost always think I’m just being facetious.  But I’m not.

Review:  I wanted to like NO Experience Necessary a lot more than I did.  It was definitely fun – chock full of stories and recipes.  The book feels like you’re hanging out on a bar stool listening to Mr. Van Aken tells stories on a long summer night and this is a plus, but much of the book rambles about and many tales seem somewhat superfluous to Mr. Van Aken’s journey with food.  Maybe my problem with the book is related to my problem with much of the New American cooking so popular in the eighties and nineties with its over-reliance on Southwestern flavors.  Much of this cooking trend feels like jalapenos added to everything (cheese bread – check, chicken stew – check, rice – check, pasties – check) and, while I love Southwestern flavors and chiles I much prefer the exploration of local foodways filtered through various personal sensibilities and New American cooking just never hit the right note for me.

While it’s interesting to read the stories of Mr. Van Aken’s journey up the line to chef and interesting to read about the business side of things as he opens restaurants with various partners and they fail for various reasons, worst of all is that the memoir stops abruptly – leaving out the opening of Norman’s, Mr. Van Aken’s eponymous restaurant, and all of the events that have led to his current success.  All flaws aside I enjoyed the story and was particularly touched by his friendship with Charlie Trotter, a protege and food legend whose recent death was a shock to the culinary world.

FTC Disclosure:  Advance copy from publisher for review

Publishing Information:  Taylor Trade Publishing – December 2, 2013

Format:  Kindle


Reading Challenges:  Foodies Read 2013 Reading Challenge

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