Celebrity chef Norman Van Aken was presented with the inaugural Torch Award Wednesday at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Show currently underway at the Orange County Convention Center. Ferdinand E. Metz, president emeritus of the Culinary Institute of America, presented the award on the stage of the Culinary Demonstration Theater on the convention’s show floor.
The award was initiated to “recognize an individual or group of individuals whose achievements have enhanced and brought innovation to the restaurant and foodservice community,” according to press materials from the show’s organizers. Metz said that Van Aken was chosen as the first recipient because he unselfishly helps guide other culinarians. "The sharing of knowledge and ideas is instrumental in preserving the culinary arts and ultimately leads to more creativity and innovation,” he said.
Van Aken is the chef and owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes Orlando. He recently revealed plans to open another Central Florida restaurant in Mount Dora, and on the stage Wednesday he announced that the chef de cuisine at the as yet unnamed restaurant will be Camilo Velasco. Velasco worked for Van Aken at Norman’s in Orlando and also in Miami. Most recently, however, he was the executive chef for Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen. Velasco and Andres Mendoza, chef de cuisine at Norman’s, joined Van Aken on the stage in a cooking demonstration.
After the ceremony, I spoke to Van Aken in a small portable room behind the stage that had been set up as a sort of green room for Metz. He said the Mount Dora restaurant will be in an old house and will be associated with an art museum. There will also be ample room for Velasco to have a small farm a short distance from the tables. The structure is being remodeled without a designer, Van Aken said. The kitchen has been plotted, but there is no menu as yet. Van Aken, whose next cookbook will focus solely on Florida cuisine, expects the menu to feature local foods.
In addition to the new restaurant, Van Aken is planning a cooking school in Miami to be called In the Kitchen with Norman Van Aken at the Vagabond. He said he hopes that will be the first of several schools, including, eventually, one in the Orlando area.