Part of the fun in writing HR Bartender is not only sharing my passion for human resources, but my fascination with the culinary arts. I spent many years in the hospitality industry and am fortunate to have learned about food, wine, spirits and dining from some of the most creative and dedicated professionals in the world.
Along with my self-proclaimed foodie status lies my interest in celebrity chefs. And, one of my faves is Chef Norman Van Aken. Chef Van Aken is known as the “founding father of New World Cuisine.” This type of fusion cuisine gained prominence in the mid-80’s and incorporates Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African, and American flavors. He’s a winner of numerous awards including the prestigious James Beard Award, writer of many cookbooks and owner of several fabulous restaurants. I could literally spend days sharing his accolades.
I was honored to connect with Chef Van Aken on, of all places…Facebook! And, he agreed to spend a few moments with the Bartender.
1) I noticed you were just featured on Cookstr.com. How do you feel social media brings value to the culinary world?
Social media like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace etc. helps lay people have an insider’s feel into the workday world of Chefs and such. I have had the privilege of writing four cookbooks. In them I have tried to open up a dialog that takes the Chef past the largely wordless “shaman” image; a human that cooks amazing food without that aspect of getting to know a thing about him or her.
I am self-taught so I remember the dark days of not knowing how to make a proper stock, sauce or how to butcher for instance. The social media is a way a chef can be ‘right there’ with you as a coach and another “traveler on the road to good cooking, eating and drinking”.
2) You’ve launched several acclaimed restaurants including Louie’s Backyard, Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, and soon Norman’s 180. Can you share your philosophy of delivering not only great food but outstanding customer service?
I was so lucky to have chosen the Mother I did! But truly… I was lucky. My Mom taught us service as we grew up. It was an incidental apprenticeship. I had no clue about being a chef or being in the restaurant business at all growing up. But she was in the business. She loved it too. She eventually was joined by my older sister who became a waitress in high school. We did our geography lessons at the kitchen table while they counted the coins from their tips they’d earned. She would talk about who came in that day or night, what they were happy about, (or unhappy about) and what they all did to make the guest feel relaxed, well-fed and appreciated by the time the guest left. It was invaluable training for the life I eventually took up.
I am possibly going to shock you. As a Chef many would think that I believe food is the number one key to a successful restaurant. I have learned it is service. Many guests will not notice if a sauce has tarragon or thyme in it but they will nearly always note if a place isn’t friendly, clean, efficient, caring and engaged. It is ALL important but, if we don’t accomplish great service, all of the wonderful food in the world is unlikely to incline a guest to return to spend their hard-earned money.
3) As a human resources professional, I’m always interested to know – if I worked for you what would you expect from me?
If you worked for me I would expect your curiosity to be fully involved. I want our team not only to know how to do something but why they are asked to do it and what the longer term goals we have for their efforts. I would want you to then remember the why’s and put them into action. Almost all scenarios vary somewhat. Whether it’s cooking or serving. By understanding the whys, the worker has the best advantage to understand how to make the best out of every situation.
4) Here at HR Bartender, we do serious work but try not to take ourselves too seriously. So my last question is what’s your favorite drink (adult or not)?
I drink wine most of the time I’m dining, (craft beer is a new passion), but a few years ago I was with one of the leading sommeliers in the country. We were having lunch at “Spago” out in the beautiful courtyard. The world seemed filled with limitless possibilities that afternoon. I asked him what he was having and he answered, “a Negroni”. I hadn’t had one before and now, on special occasions, I have one and, if it is made correctly I am very happy…with the drink…and the memory.
Folks, trust the Bartender when I tell you . . there’s a reason this man is called a “culinary genius”. Chef Van Aken’s comments remind me that it’s not only important to work hard and take care of customers…it’s important to savor life. It also makes me want to try a Negroni. (smile.)