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FE&SEditorial Archives2005 — November — Feature Story

Norman’s, West Hollywood, Calif.
A European-style kitchen with a French cooking suite and custom-designed work places is encased in glass so customers can observe this culinary theater throughout their dining experience.

Persimmon-colored, Italian leather banquettes add a bright emphasis of warmth to the earthtone-designed dining room.

As customers look into the glass-enclosed kitchen, they watch as cooks prepare an ambitious new-world cuisine menu on the piece de resistance, the European-style cooking suite.

Surrounding the suite are refrigerated counters for preparation of cold dishes and mise en place. Hoods above are controlled with variable-speed fans to conserve energy.

A black and titanium-surfaced European-style cooking suite includes three salamanders, as well as two undercounter convection ovens on each side. Behind the suite, along the tiled walls, is the pizza oven. Pot rails on hoods are functional, while also adding to the sleek kitchen décor.

An ultra-high powered wok, which sits in a water bath to keep the metal from warping, is essential to the menu preparation at Norman’s. Adjacent to the wok is the plancha, one of Chef Van Aken’s favorite pieces of equipment.

Photos by Art Grey

BOH photos by Adam Maros

For much of his career, Norman Van Aken has worked in theater kitchens. When he opened his own restaurant, Norman’s, in Coral Gables, a historic section of Miami, in 1995, he insisted on interacting with his guests, hearing their comments and watching their reactions when their food was presented. “For the first years, I cooked and talked to guests,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be divorced from seeing and being a part of the guests’ experience.”

His third restaurant, which opened in April 2004 in West Hollywood, Calif., on Sunset Boulevard, is the most elaborate incarnation of his theater kitchens. It combines the sophistication of the East Coast restaurants and eclectic design to be “hip” enough for Southern California. “In addition to the beauty of California all around us, we were very serious and passionate about our cuisine,” he says. “We developed the restaurant to bring our creative, new-world cuisine into the literal heart of the process and make the kitchen the soul of the floorplan.”

Van Aken, a self-made chef who has earned countless awards and honors from newspapers, magazines and associations, was one of five chefs in South Florida who popularized what was once called “new Florida cooking” by naming it “New-World Cuisine” to illustrate the treasures of a broader aspect of his cooking. Norman’s in Coral Gables became a showcase for the cuisine. In 2003, another Norman’s opened in The Ritz Carlton in Orlando, once again earning accolades and tributes, including his being one of the most innovative chefs in America.

“Chef Norman has spent decades traveling, studying, writing about and refining the craft of inventing cuisine,” says Michael Guthrie, principal of the architectural firm Michael Guthrie & Co. of San Francisco, who designed the West Hollywood restaurant. “Our intention was to create an environment to showcase Norman’s passion for cooking by placing him, his sous chefs and their appliances within a glass box in the center of the restaurant.”

“This steel and glass ‘box’ in the middle of the 5,800-square-foot restaurant is an 1,800-square-foot kitchen in which the focal point is a French-made cooking suite surrounded by custom-designed work spaces,” explains Mark Stech-Novak of Mark Stech-Novak Restaurant Consultation & Design in Oakland, Calif., who himself is a trained chef and former restaurant owner. This cuisine d’envoie, or finishing kitchen, is a classic T-formation with granite pass counters heated from below and above. The equipment investment for this project totaled $600,000.

Also inside the kitchen is a chef’s table for 12 customers who want literally to be a part of the cooking experience. The wine collection is encased in a wall of cool blue-green colored glass tiles.

In contrast to the modern glass and steel enclosure, the dining room space is designed in warm colors and textures. A custom-weave carpet blankets the floor that supports persimmon-colored, Italian leather banquettes in the upper and lower dining rooms. Other tables are covered in cloth and accompanied by fabric-backed chairs. Acoustic panels of stretched fabric comprise the textured ceiling plane in a subdued straw color that has the look of woven grasses. Hovering below the ceiling panels are custom silk ceiling fixtures, which seem to float in the space. For those wanting privacy, a “back door” access leads to three booths that can be curtained off from the public. In the lounge and kitchen, a golden terrazzo floor inlaid with Turkish onyx provides a striking, solid base.

Customers can select from an la carte or a prefixed tasting menu created by Van Aken and Craig Petrella, chef de cuisine. The duo has worked together for eight years. The menu changes frequently to incorporate seasonal products. Changes also reflect culinary adventures, such as a recent trip Van Aken took n Spain.

After staff receive food at the loading dock, which is three floors above the parking complex, they store it in the walk-in cooler or freezer or dry storage. When needed, they take it to various prep stations. On the hot prep line from right to left are a 40-quart mixer, a gas-fired combi oven, blast chiller, steamer, braising pan, 40-quart kettle, tilting kettle and an exhaust hood. Here, staff prepare bases for the continually changing menu.

To the north of the prep area is a pastry station, where staff use a 20-quart mixer, ingredient bins, prep tables and convection ovens to prepare bittersweet chocolate-topped cappuccino flan with dulce de leche foam and cocoa nib tuile, and white chocolate-wrapped teardrop cheesecake with cupuaçu coulis, rhum-flamed pineapple.

In the center of the glass-enclosed cooking space is the piece de resistance, the stark black European-style cooking suite. The suite contains a self-filling bain marie where sauces stay warm. To the north and south is a hot, flat titanium-alloy surface kept warm by the adjacent French tops. Two staff perform dressage in this area.


The 5,800-square-foot Norman’s West Hollywood is located on Sunset Boulevard in California.

The $3.5 million project, which includes a $600,000 equipment budget, features an 1,800-square-foot open kitchen that sits in a glass enclosure. A chef’s table for 12 in the kitchen allows guests to experience the preparation up-close and personal. Other guests sit in an elegant 135-seat dining room that reflects chef-owner Norman Van Aken’s Latin, Caribbean and Pan-American roots.

Co-Owners: Norman Van Aken and Carl A. Bruggemeier, president and COO for NRV/CAB Management Inc. They also own Norman’s in Coral Gables, Fla., and Norman’s in The Ritz Carlton, Grande Lakes, Fla.
Chef de Cuisine: Craig Petrella
Pastry Chef: Sam Christopher
Sous Chef: Mike Bryant
Service/Dining Room Director: Kevin Kane
Special Events Director: Bonnie Beck
Sommelier: Peter Birmingham
Architect and Interior Designer: Michael Gutherie & Co., San Francisco; Michael Gutherie, principal and project designer, and Melanie Pfenninger, project designer
Foodservice Consultant and Designer:
Mark Stech-Novak, Mark Stech-Novak Restaurant Consultation & Design, Oakland, Calif.
Building Owner: Richard Ackerman; building
representative, Leigh Gove
Contractor: Matt Construction Corp., Westlake Village, Calif.
Kitchen Equipment Dealer:
Baring Industries, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Next to the flat surface are a French top with a bull’s-eye and removable rings, a small fryer for garnishes and plantain fritters, and another French top. At the corner is a plancha for preparing dishes such as Alaskan Bay cod and other fish specialties.

The plancha is one of Van Aken’s favorite pieces of equipment. Having just returned from Spain, he is already planning to add new menu items that will reflect that country’s age-old cooking traditions using such ingredients as cigalas, olive oil, sea salt and passion fruit.

Built into the rear corner of the cooking suite is an ultra-high-powered gas wok that sits in a water bath to keep the metal from warping, another piece of equipment that Van Aken claims is essential for his cuisine. “The firepower is at least 10 times what we can get off the sauté range,” says Van Aken, noting that high-powered woks are found in many of the restaurants owned by acclaimed chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter and Jean Georges Vongerichten. Cooks use the wok for preparing dishes such as shrimp pad Thai and lacquered duck with stir fry and soba noodles.

Next, an electric grill is in place for menu items such as filet mignon and New York strip steak. Another French top is next to the grill. In addition, two conventional ovens are situated under the counters on each side of the suite.

The suite also contains three salamanders, two in the front for finishing and one above the plancha. “American-made salamanders are pushed up from the bottom,” says Stech-Novak. “These European-style pieces are moved from the top down. This is logical for fine dining because chefs don’t disturb the plates when they move them.”

Behind the range are a gas-fired “wood-burning” pizza oven and two half-sized convection ovens for slow-cooking. For instance, a chicken breast crisped on the plancha is finished in the convection oven. Refrigerated counters where cold prep for peeky-toe crab cocktail, Spanish mackeral with fennel, citrus and spiced almonds, and various salads is performed surround the perimeter on two sides. At one end is a granite-topped counter heated from below and from heat lamps above, with refrigeration beneath. This pass counter has cubbies to either side for kitchen printers and plate covers, so the expediter can work either side of the counter, depending on personal preference.

The pot- and dishwashing areas are in separate areas toward the back of the kitchen. These aren’t visible to customers. “There’s a window between the soiled landing and the pot-wash area that opens to the cuisine d’envoie, allowing cooks to pass pans back and forth. This cuts down on noise and clutter,” explains Stech-Novak.

The scraper and dishwashing area sits across from cold storage. The dishmachine itself can handle 248 racks per hour. Pots hang on rails from the hoods.

The space presented many architectural and kitchen design challenges. “Because the property is on a hillside slope, the kitchen had to be floated up about 10 inches into the higher level with concrete,” says Stech-Novak. “A ramp was placed where the drop-off is on the side of the bar. The bartenders stand 10 inches below patrons they are serving. Also, cocktail seats rather than high stools were used.”

Energy conservation received considerable consideration. “We combined the hoods with a system that controls the variable-speed fans so the fans only work as hard as needed,” Stech-Novak explains. “We realized we could save about $10,000 a year by changing the way the extraction canopies worked. All six hoods interact and each will speed up or slow down depending on usage. The savings are considerable, especially where air conditioning is needed all the time.”

Another challenge was how to design the space ergonomically given the relatively small size of the area and the large amount of equipment needed for the ambitious menu. “We placed undercounter refrigeration wherever we could at workstations, so chefs would have easy access to ingredients,” says Stech-Novak. “The refrigerators are also maximized for their utility using energy-efficient coils and removable sheet-pan slides to maximize storage capacity. Everything is remoted so we don’t waste space for compressors. Also, every shelf has electrical connections so we could use task lighting.”

As Van Aken’s vision of uniting the restaurant theater’s actors — the guests with the cooks — continues to evolve, staff will continue to need extensive training for proper equipment maintenance and efficient menu choreography. But that, too, fits with Van Aken’s vision to elevate the level of restaurant professionalism while enhancing the quality of customers’ experience.

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