Norman Van Aken: Reminiscing on the Mango Gang
Editor's note: Norman Van Aken, chef, restaurateur (Norman's Orlando and 1921 NVA in Mount Dora) and author, shared this story of the beginnings of the Mango Gang, the chefs who defined and celebrated South Florida's dining scene.
In 1991 I was working at "a Mano" at The Betsy Ross Hotel on Ocean Drive.
I went for a run on the beautiful beach one morning and along the way somewhere I was struck with a thought.
In the recent press, a few of us in Miami had been written about often in terms of the "refreshing/startling/tropical" you-name-it cuisine we were doing. I had written my first book and none of the others had. I reasoned that if we banded together and wrote one, we could sidestep some "journalist" doing it with us and taking the lion's share of monies to be had. I also figured that instead of being in competition in such a way, it would make us "glad for one another's fortunes" since we would be selling the collaborative book in all of our respective restaurants.
There was a "Share Our Strength" fundraiser at Turnberry that fall. At one point, as fate would have it, I was in the chef's office with Mark Militello, Douglas Rodriguez and Allen Susser. I proposed the idea that we do a book. I suggested we invite Turnberry chef Robbin Haas in to the group as well. Robbin was as creative as Allen or Mark in my mind. Plus he had Turnberry. To my surprise, every chef in the small office jumped at the chance, including the famously prickly-natured Mark. But Mark had one caveat. He would not go for Robbin's inclusion.
We determined to divide up the deal equally. To make things easier, I allowed for each to bring in his or her "helper." Mark had a relationship with agent John Harrison out of Santa Fe. Allen had an accountant he liked and Doug had a lawyer he liked. Since I'd been through the process of authorship I was fine going solo.
We met in Doug's lawyer's office in November of 1991. His name was George Pincus. We met somewhere downtown. The energy was high. George informed us we would need a ‘corporate name’ for the entity. A few were tossed around. Then Doug kind of snapped his head up, laughing and came up with "Mango Mafia." George about passed out at that notion. After a few minutes, "Mango Gang" came up – I don't recall by whom. It wasn’t me, I know. So we incorporated under that moniker. We set our publishing plans into motion. Over the next months, we met at each other's respective restaurants. Agent John Harrison was contracted and making excellent traction in New York City for a deal. It was all coming together … or so it seemed. Then Mark pulled out. I would not have minded so much, but he didn't have the grace to do it himself, and instead had his lawyer do it. There was no smoking gun any of us knew about and none was ever mentioned. He was just "too busy." His loss. But the name Mango Gang got into the press. And that was not all she wrote.
Over the years, I have thought about revisiting the notion of doing a book with myself and then some of the younger chefs. Kind of like a ‘Duets’ album that Tony Bennett did, I suppose. But other projects have kept coming along and I’ve not done it … yet.