After hitchhiking cross-country, Illinois-native Van Aken landed in Key West in its pretourist days, where the island's "acceptance of artists, hippies, adventurers, drifters, and scammers" brought out the spiritual side of him. The convergence of cultures in the Florida Keys became the defining theme of Van Aken's cooking. As much a philosopher of gastronomy as a practicing cook, Van Aken says, "New World cuisine is at the nexus of North America and the Caribbean, drawing influences from Cuba, the Florida Keys, the Yucatán, the West Indies, the Bahamas, and South America." Dishes such as Van Aken's Down Island French Toast, made with curaçao-scented fois gras on brioche, or his grouper "painted" with Caribbean rum and pepper, are perfect examples.

Van Aken is also a prolific cookbook author. His recently published New World Kitchen explores the vibrant Latin American and Caribbean cuisines that have had such a significant influence on his own style. As part of the KitchenAid Dinner Series, Van Aken's food will be included at the Beringer Blass Wine Estates dinner at the Miami Ritz-Carlton during the South Beach Festival.

Allen Susser

Chef and co-owner
Chef Allen's
19088 N.E. 29th Ave., Aventura, Florida, (305) 935-2900

Allen Susser - better known to most of his fans simply as Chef Allen - was born in Brooklyn but wound up at hospitality management school in Florida by the late 1970s. After stints in the kitchens of the Bristol Hotel in Paris and Le Cirque in New York, he returned to Miami and adopted the region as his own culinary turf. The rich gastronomic resources of coastal Florida, matched with Susser's natural talent, made him one of the rising stars of New World cuisine, and netted him a James Beard Award in 1994 as Best New Chef in the Southeast.