Food memoirs and biographies are one of my favorite genres, so I had high hopes for this book. Van Aken has an interesting story, but the book dragged. Some of his stories didn’t add much to his overall narrative, and could have easily been omitted without harming the storyline. (I was reminded of the quote, from The Memoir Project, that “just because it happened, doesn’t make it interesting.” In this case, “just because something makes for a good bar story, doesn’t mean it belongs in your book.”)
I would imagine that Van Aken would be hilarious if you were sharing a beer with him as he recounts some of his crazier adventures. (Just don’t make a move on his wife – you’ll find out why early in the book).
The book seems to be setting itself up for a sequel – it ended abruptly, long before the time he wrote it. I’ve read Ruth Reichl’s three memoirs, and don’t remember thinking any of them felt as jarring when they ended, despite there clearly being a lot more of her story left to tell. Van Aken needed to take some lessons from her as to how to set the stage more smoothly for an additional book.
Comparisons to Kitchen Confidential seem inevitable, but while Van Aken may be a much better chef, Bourdain is a much better memoir writer. It was disappointing, because Van Aken’s career path is fascinating, and he’s clearly got lots of material to use to shape the book.
Despite all those complaints, I didn’t dislike the book. Mostly it needed a tighter editing job to trim a lot of excess material. If you’re especially interested in chef stories or life in Key West (and don’t mind wading through lots of extraneous tales, profanity, and way more info than I wanted to know about his sex life), he really has had a fascinating life.
No Experience Necessary is Chef Norman Van Aken’s joyride of a memoir. In it he spans twenty-plus years and nearly as many jobs—including the fateful job advertisement in the local paper for a short-order cook with “no experience necessary.”
Long considered a culinary renegade and a pioneering chef, Van Aken is an American original who chopped and charred, sweated and seared his way to cooking stardom with no formal training, but with extra helpings of energy, creativity, and faith.
After landing on the deceptively breezy shores of Key West, Van Aken faced hurricanes, economic downturns, and mercurial moneymen during the decades when a restaurant could open and close faster than you can type haute cuisine. From a graveyard shift grunt at an all-night barbeque joint to a James Beard–award finalist for best restaurant in America, Van Aken put his trusting heart, poetic soul, natural talent, and ever-expanding experience into every venture—and helped transform the American culinary landscape along the way.
In the irreverent tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and populated by a rogues’ gallery of colorful characters—including movie stars, legendary musicians, and culinary giants Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse, and Charlie Trotter—No Experience Necessary offers a uniquely personal, highly-entertaining under-the-tablecloth view of the high-stakes world of American cuisine told with wit, insight, and great affection by a natural storyteller.
Title: No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken
Author: Norman Van Aken
Category: Nonfiction / Memoir
My Rating: 3 Stars
Disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley for review. I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!