Pan-cooked fillet of Key West yellowtail

If you’re looking for fine dining in Orlando, there’s no question that Norman’s at The Ritz-Carlton must be on your list.

Dubbed the “Father of New World cuisine,” Chef Norman Van Aken blazed his own trail in the 1980s by being the first to incorporate Latin, Caribbean, Asian and African flavors and ingredients with American ones. In other words, Van Aken is whom we can all thank for introducing the “fusion” concept to the culinary world. For his contributions, he’s been given a number of awards and recognitions, including induction into the James Beard Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage (he’s the only Floridian to receive this honor to date).

In this “My Famous Five” interview, Chef Van Aken talks about the preparation and different elements that go into five popular New World dishes at his restaurant.

Creamy cracked conch chowder with saffron, citrus and star anise

Conch chowder

“When I was asked to cook for the James Beard Foundation’s Gala in New York City for the award ceremony, we served this dish to 1,000 guests. The flavor is a ‘roller coaster’ between the savory powers of the ‘liquor’ obtained by steaming many clams and mussels over a lot of vegetables with fresh orange juice, star anise and saffron. We reduce that and then add coconut milk. That liquid is reduced to concentrate it and eventually strained and paired with cooked ‘chowder vegetables’ (potatoes, sautéed red onion, sweet bell peppers, celery, carrots). Conch meat is pounded and coated with breadcrumbs, sautéed and sliced and served on top of the creamy soup. The soup is topped with orange fillets and toasted baby coconut and a ‘cloud’ made with coconut milk.”

Yuca stuffed crispy shrimp with sour orange mojo, Scotch bonnet, tartar salsa and Nicaraguan slaw

Yuca Stuffed Crispy Shrimp
Photo credit: Damon Tucci

“I wanted to find a way to present the Latin people’s beloved ‘yuca con mojo’ in a way that would show an elegant luxury with shrimp taking the starring role. Cooked mashed yuca is placed in the butterfly section of shrimp and then in turn are floured, egg-washed and breadcrumb-crusted. They are crisped to order and served hot on top of a homemade habanero tartar salsa. The Nicaraguan slaw is made with finely shredded white cabbage in a herbed vinaigrette.”

My “Down Island” French toast with Curaçao scented foie gras on griddled brioche with a passion fruit savory caramel and confit of ginger and lime 

Down Island French Toast
Photo credit: Birch Mangus

“This dish is a marriage between my mother’s French toast and that very gourmand-adored duck liver known as foie gras. The foie gras is marinated 12 hours in Curaçao, zest of orange, vanilla bean, nutmeg and mace. Homemade brioche is sliced and put into a custard mixture of beaten eggs, half and half, vanilla beans, nutmeg and mace. The brioche is cooked to order and served with the seared wafers of foie gras. The wafers are stacked and served with a savory passion fruit caramel sauce, a dice of exotic tropical and subtropical fruits and a confiture of ginger and lime zest.”

Pan-cooked fillet of Key West yellowtail with asparagus, citrus butter and a “belly” of mashed potatoes

Yellowtail snapper

“This has become the all-time most ordered dish I have created so it has to be on the list. It is a simple dish that is the hit it is due to the universal love of mashed potatoes. A fillet of Florida Keys line-caught yellowtail snapper is dipped in a light egg wash and pan-cooked. It is served draped over those mashed potatoes and served with grilled asparagus spears and citrus butter sauce. This is a featured dish in my (and Justin Van Aken’s) cookbook, My Key West Kitchen.”

“Mongolian” marinated and grilled veal chop with grilled Chinese eggplant and Thai fried rice

Veal chop

“This dish illustrates our love of Asian influences and flavors. Veal chops are marinated in a ‘Mongolian’ marinade, which contains plum sauce, hoisin, salsa sriracha, soy, cilantro, ginger and garlic. A drizzle of tamarind soy sauce paint is also presented on the dish. The chop is topped with Chinese eggplant that is char-grilled and a handful of Asian greens, totsoi and mizuna, dressed in rice wine vinaigrette.”

The 411:

Norman’s, The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, 4012 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando, FL; New World, dinner only daily.