There have been a few points in chef Norman Van Aken’s life that felt “ordained.”
In 1982, a photo of Gordon Sinclair affected him in a strong way. Months later, Van Aken worked for the revered Chicago restaurateur and the experience transitioned Van Aken from a line cook to a chef.
He had a similar reaction after seeing a photo of a Miami restaurant. It later became the original Norman’s and he would go on to found another namesake restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes resort in Orlando.
Visiting Mount Dora for the first time in 2013 sparked that feeling again. His newest restaurant, 1921 by Norman Van Aken, opened Tuesday.
“Something about it felt comfortable,” he said of the small city in Lake County.
Van Aken took the building with dirt floors in some sections and developed it into an airy restaurant to show off not only his creations, but also the revolving lineup of works from the nearby Modernism Museum.
1921’s eclectic menu offers a mix of comfort food and fine dining. Hush puppies share space with wood-roasted oysters in the snack section, while the main plates consist of everything from the house burger to a rib-eye cap for two.
The “Korea Town” Fried Cornish Hen with Cola Collards and Mac n’Cheese ($24) caught my eye when I visited on opening night. My entree wasn’t spicy as much as perfect fried chicken: a crisp outer coating that breaks into juicy meat. I’m not usually a fan of collards, but those sweet greens disappeared from my plate.
Look for a full restaurant review soon.
1921 features recipes from Van Aken’s yet-to-be-released sixth cookbook, “Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen.”
Van Aken said he wants his life’s work to be about Florida. His experience with Florida began in Key West in the 1970s, but he wants his cooking to encompass Florida as a whole.
“It’s like you’re holding on to things that you love about the place but you’re also inspired by things that have not been know to exist before within the food culture,” he said.
Van Aken is known as a founding father of New American Cuisine, which creates a fusion (another word coined by Van Aken) of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors and techniques. He’s the only Floridian in the James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage.”
He’s also a James Beard semifinalist for “Best Chef in America” and Norman’s in Miami was nominated as a finalist for “Best Restaurant in America.”
Despite his prestigious background, Van Aken has a very down-to-earth food philosophy.
“You don’t have to have a degree or anything to enjoy food. I feel the same way about music and I feel the same way about great art,” Van Aken said, nodding to the modern artwork placed throughout 1921. “Any person at all can be moved by this art without knowing a thing about the artist or the genre.
“Delicious is immediately understandable. Pleasure is very immediately understandable.”
Van Aken sees 1921 as a fine-dining restaurant — but not a white-tablecloth restaurant. It’s not quite an everyday neighborhood restaurant either.
“It’s not the local pizza place. It’s not the local Chinese place. It’s not the local Mexican place,” Van Aken said.
“It’s the local Norman Van Aken place.”
1921 by Norman Van Aken
Where: 142 E. Fourth Ave. in Mount Dora
When: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Details: 1921nva.com or Facebook.
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