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TURNING THE BOAT

When I eventually decided to become a professional chef, however, I naturally gravitated to classic French cuisine -- that was what one did.  Back in the Seventies regional American cooking had few proponents. (It would be ten years before Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme kindled that fire.) While I didn't have the money to attend cooking school I did have the will to teach myself.  One by one I bought the books that would form the foundation of my education. I read them like a jailhouse lawyer, sensing they were my only hope of escaping the rough lives of the cooks I encountered during the wild and wooly days and nights in the first kitchens I knew.

Originally, I was deeply influenced by France's "Three-Star Chefs" -- Roger Vergé, Alain Chapel, Alain Senderens, the Troisgros brothers. Yet my day-to-day eating experience was of vibrant New World flavors -- West Indian chutneys and Central American plantains, Bahamian conch salad and Cuban steak a la parrilla -- in the cafés and open-air market restaurants of Old Key West. Slowly but surely the magic of those foods and their special language came to define me as a chef.

There was, in fact, a defining moment in my decision to become the chef that I am today; it was one morning in 1987, as I sat on the deck behind ‘Louie's Backyard’ where I’d been the Chef for two years by then.  At this point I'd cooked in a lot of joints, and I use that word purposefully. I'd been frying eggs and barbecuing ribs even as I was venturing into the Cuban and Bahamian shacks and cafés around Key West for lunch or a café con leche. By the Eighties I had become a chef and I was running ‘Louie's’, considered one of the best restaurants in Key West.  ‘Louie's’ is situated directly on the water…where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean. I was studying a stack of cookbooks that morning -- French, Middle Eastern, Southwestern, Italian -- in pursuit of dishes for my menus, when I looked up to see a sailboat drifting southward. I too drifted with it for some time, wondering where it might be going and what the sailors would see, touch, and taste when they got there.

And just like that, I realized that it was time for me to put away my books on the dishes of other places. It was one of those moments of complete clarity: As much as I had drawn from the wisdom and artistry of hundreds of years of European cuisine, it was now time for me to express where and what I was living, and that was Florida; South Florida, in particular.

     --- NORMAN VAN AKEN