New Miami restaurant features award-winning chef Van Aken
Award-winning chef Norman Van Aken returns to Miami in an unusual partnership with Miami-Dade College’s new Miami Culinary Institute.
By Ana Veciana-Suarez / aveciana@MiamiHerald.com – One long look out the eighth-floor window of Miami-Dade College’s new building and award-winning chef Norman Van Aken knew this was the place. Stretching before him: the Freedom Tower, the Arsht Center, American Airlines Arena and the promising expanse of downtown skyline and blue Biscayne Bay.
“I saw the broader picture,” said Van Aken, a founding father of New World cuisine, the gastronomical fusion of Caribbean, Latin, Asian and American flavors. “Not only could I affect the people who come to eat but I could also affect the students who come to study here.”
Van Aken has returned to his old stomping grounds and, as executive chef, is once again presiding over what he hopes will be recognized as a world-class restaurant. The 60-seat Tuyo, which means “yours” in Spanish, opened in late October on the top floor of MDC’s new Miami Culinary Institute. Serving dinner and the occasional private lunch group, it hopes to “be the place you come for the night. The next big spot,” says Wolfson Campus President Madeline Pumariega.
Unlike Van Aken’s past Miami restaurants — his eponymous Norman’s and Norman’s 180 — Tuyo is more than a business or a cuisine philosophy. It’s a mission statement, as much Van Aken’s as it is the college’s.
“I want locals who bring visitors here to say, ‘This is what South Florida tastes like,’” Van Aken says.
Institute founding director andchef John Richards agrees: “We want to create an experience.”
Van Aken and Richards have kept Tuyo true to the institute’s message of local, sustainable cuisine. The décor is green — the floor, for instance, came from reclaimed lumber. The featured dishes carry Van Aken’s signature flair, what he calls the “patois of immigrant people.” And the ingredients are local, local, local, from South Florida fishermen and farmers, even the college’s organic garden. A peek at the menu: Brazilian creamy cracked conch chowder, hamachi tiradito, pan-cooked fillet of Key West yellowtail, pork Havana and guava cheesecake.
“What we’re about is soil to soil,” says Richards, referring to the emphasis on local and sustainable food that begins with an organic garden and ends with composting. “And in Miami we’re lucky enough to get an amazing array of products.”
Richards, Van Aken and MDC officials talk about Tuyo as the “crown jewel” of the Wolfson Campus’ new $22 million, eight-story complex. A café and bakery, run by students, occupies a corner of the first-floor lobby. A gleaming commercial kitchen, a food and wine theater and kitchens and baking labs fill the rest of the building.
Though there are several private culinary schools already in the area, MCI became the only public culinary program in South Florida when it opened early this year. More than 300 students, representing 38 countries, are currently enrolled. Richards says most, if not all, are likely to land a job when they graduate with an associate of science degree in culinary arts. The demand for trained cooks — and the interest in cooking schools — is high because of the popularity of TV cooking shows, Miami’s growing culinary scene and people switching careers because of the economy. (Most students are in their late 20s and 30s.)