At The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival: Hero Worship

Todd Coleman

I've been to Atlanta many times: to visit my Uncle Dutch (whose cherished sparkplug tie clip I still have); to watch the Braves battle the Dodgers (during the languid Dale Murphy days); and, most memorably, to eat at the gargantuan hotdog emporium The Varsity, home of the chilled frosted orange (which my brother famously spilled on our new car stereo) and chili-laden wieners with mustard. This time I'm here for the inaugural Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. And today, something wonderful just happened — I got to meet one of my heroes, Chef Norman Van Aken.

Back when I was sixteen and cooking such antiquated continental specialties as veal Oscar and chicken marsala at Restaurante La Fontana in the town of Niceville, Florida (yes, it's very nice there), I was mesmerized by tales of what Van Aken was doing further south with Latin and tropical flavors at Louie's Backyard in Key West. He became famous for such dishes as his now-signature rum and pepper-painted fish with mango and habanero mojo. I lived vicariously through his recipes, cooking up chock-full-of-flavor Floribbean dishes: tamarind catsup; conch fritters with passion fruit chutney; grouper with black bean and mango salsa. This was trailblazing stuff back in the late 1980s.

Lucky for me, Van Aken is here at the festival now to teach a few seminars. I attended his class on exotic fruit and peppered him with questions. What had moved him to cook that lush, spicy, and bright cuisine back in the dark, dreary food days? Turns out that Florida itself had done him in. "I was drinking a cup of coffee at Louie's, poring over French cookbooks, trying to figure out that night's specials, when I fell into a kind of trance," said Van Aken. Looking out over the water he spotted a fishing boat and began to daydream about where they were going and what they were going to catch and eat. Having just moved to Key West, this dreamy moment turned into an illuminating realization — he knew nothing of the local cuisine and ingredients. So Norman went on a tear. A mission. A journey. He ate at every local eatery, and it rocked him. "I decided that I had to drill down on these joints and distill and transpose this food so that it could be served at a white tablecloth restaurant — without apology," said Van Aken. What he started was a food revolution — one that we are still feeling the reverberations of over 25 years later.

Thanks, Norman. You made me tear down my Charles Barkley poster and replace it with one displaying exotic fruit.

For more information on the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival go to atlfoodandwinefestival.com.