"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."