"It was about 1981, 1982, and my mom had just bought the store," Van Aken recalls. "I was trying to help her out and make a few bucks so I could support my wife and year-old son and maybe open my own restaurant. I was supposed to mop the floors and stock the Wild Turkey bottles and sort of manage the place, but I got to spend a lot of time talking to wine purveyors, and I got to taste some stuff." He laughs as he remembers: "It was a small town, and in winter I'd have a customer maybe once every four hours, so I got to sit in the back reading Frank Prial's wine columns in The New York Times and Hugh Johnson's and Richard Olney's wine books, and I'd get really annoyed when a customer would actually come in in his snow-covered galoshes and mess up my floor and buy a six-pack of beer and grouse about how it cost him 50 cents more than he could have paid down the street."
Van Aken's mother had also been his first connection to the restaurant world. Divorced from his father, she supported the family as a waitress and hostess in various small-town Illinois restaurants, "dragging me in to help whenever the dishwasher or busboy didn't show up," Van Aken says. He started busing tables and washing dishes when he was 13 and got his first job as a short-order cook when he was 21, but cooking didn't interest him much. "I just had the physical skills," he says. "I could open a refrigerator door with one hand and stir the soup with the other, but I was much more interested in writing. I'd go to Colorado, say, and get a job painting houses and write in my spare time, and then when it got too cold to paint I'd get a job at a restaurant."
It wasn't until 1978, when he was working at a restaurant in Key West, that Van Aken "really got the cooking bug," and it wasn't until he went to work at the liquor store in Illinois that he got the wine bug. On his return to Key West, Van Aken worked in the kitchen of Louie's Backyard from 1985 to 1990, and it was there that he found his style: a combination of regional American and Caribbean with an overlay of Asian touches. "I wanted a style that reflected where I lived," Van Aken says. He calls it New World cuisine, and he describes it as "the food of immigrational experiences," with flavors that "break out of the culinary canvas as boldly as cubism poked a hole in the calm aesthetic of impressionism."
His next tour of duty was at the restaurant a Mano in the South Beach section of Miami. Van Aken had an epiphany about the wines for his then-nascent cuisine one day when Rudi Wiest, a Southern California wine importer, came to see him.
"I like to get German wines into good restaurants," Wiest says, "so whenever I hear of a talented chef, I pay him a visit. I'd heard a lot of good things about Norman, but when I showed up and introduced myself, he said, 'I'll give you two minutes to convince me I should carry any German wines.' I pulled out my wines, and we started tasting them at a table right there on the sidewalk while we sat and watched the pretty girls walk by. Fifteen wines and two and a half hours later, he was still sitting there, tasting and looking--and I was on his wine list."
Van Aken remembers being more open to the German experience, in part because when he'd worked at his mother's liquor store "there was one salesman who was nuts about German wines. He was as trapped and lonely and bored as I was in the snow country, so he spent a lot of time at our store, explaining to me the difference between Auslese and Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese."
In any case, "Rudi gave me the greatest wine-tasting lesson I've ever had," Van Aken says. "By the time we were done, I thought, wow, these will go very well with our food. Our dishes have a lot of spice and a lot of aroma, and while the aromatic characteristics of German wines complement the exotic characteristics of our food, their low alcohol content keeps the overall experience from being harsh."
When Van Aken opened Norman's in 1995, he sought out German wines for both the restaurant and his personal collection. Now he and Jeffrey Wolfe, his general manager and sommelier, sometimes taste wines together before the dinner service. They also have a blind tasting with the entire wait staff every Saturday to find the best wines for the day's specials and for the nightly wine package, a seven-course degustation menu that offers a different glass of wine for each course.
"Norman wants wines that can linger on the palate," Wolfe says, "so that people can experience the different layers of wine flavors that develop along with the different layers of the food flavors. That means we usually want wines with great acidity and very good fruit structure and good residual sugar to balance the heat in his food. Rieslings work well, and with some dishes so do Viognier, Syrah and Sangiovese. But the softer Merlots tend to be jammy and one-dimensional, and they don't make much sense here."
Van Aken now has between 400 and 500 bottles in his own collection. He's partial to the German wines of Reinhold Haart, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, von Hövel and Egon Müller, and he's developed a fondness for the Austrian and Alsatian cousins of the German Rieslings, the wines of Alois Kracher, Zind Humbrecht and Hugel. He has an eclectic palate, though, and when you ask him about the best wines he's ever tasted, he'll also mention everything from vintage Bordeaux--a 1978 Pichon Lalande and a 1978 Ducru-Beaucaillou--to a 1995 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand to one of the Kracher Trockenbeerenauslesen.
"I can't afford to buy full cases for my own drinking," he says. "So I'll buy a case of wine for the restaurant and keep a bottle or two for myself." Right now he particularly likes the American wines of Tony Soter (Etude, Araujo Estate, Viader), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) and Bruce Neyers (Neyers Vineyards). In time he hopes to build a wine cellar in the home he moved into last year, but for the moment his wine collection is divided between his house and the restaurant, and it's stored pretty casually.
"I think I have six bottles of Williams Selyem Rochioli at home in my closet," he says.
David Shaw, the Pulitzer prize-winning media critic for The Los Angeles Times, writes frequently about food and wine.