Najat Kaanache: The girl who dreamed of the aroma and flavor of the vanilla

She landed in Miami six months ago. Her ambitious restaurant project, Piripi, has not yet opened its doors in the upscale Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables. But Najat Kaanache, a 5-feet tall hurricane, with glowing olive skin, wide forehead and fire in her eyes, is not new to the restaurant business.

Iconic chef Ferran Adrià, with whom Kaanache worked during the two final and crucial seasons of elBulli (three Michelin stars), said: “Chef Najat Kaanache is four times better than I was when I became chef of elBulli." Chapeau.

She was among the chefs at elBulli on July 30, 2011, the day the arguable best restaurant in history closed its doors, forever... And two and a half years later, Adrià was referring about her in those terms during the 2013 G9 Gastronomy Summit at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York.
This woman has something. From her lips, made of cinnamon, words fly everywhere, fluttering, like butterflies. Born and raised in the Pyrenees just outside San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque country, where "you eat the best food in the World," she has a Moroccan bloodline. A deep, noble bloodline she represents proudly through her cooking.

She has something. Two weeks ago a panel of esteemed culinary judges conferred upon her First Prize for the Inaugural 2015 National Pork Board Critics' Choice Award. Juan Mari Arzak, one of the greatest Basque chefs, Raúl de Molina, and Iron Chef Marc Forgione were part of the panel.
Gilligan’s Swineland 
Kaanache landed in Miami through the front door and on the right foot. It was in Goya's Swine & Wine event in the Grand Ballroom of the iconic The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, where Miami said good-bye to the 14th edition of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. She competed against 21 other chefs and she won.

She won and she’s a woman. She won and she’s a woman and her restaurant has not yet opened. She won and yes she believes it. She doesn’t say it, but she knows she can touch the stars with her hands. And this is possible only because she’s a star herself.
Piripi's  billboard, Coral Gables
The Moroccan girl
In 1975, being barely teenagers, after the fall of Francisco Franco’s regime, her parents ventured up into Spain from Morocco. Her father, barefoot, used to forage for discarded orange peels when he was hungry and there was nothing to eat.

Little Najat grew up going from the Pyrenees to the Atlas Mountains, where every summer the family harvested wheat and pressed olives to make oil, something that "cannot be learned in any school."

They returned to Spain each fall with a 100-pound flour sack, made with the wheat they had harvested. At her home in Aia Orio, close to the Bay of Biscay, butter was made and bread was baked in their wood oven, three times a week.

Poor as they were, she never got a donut from the store. Instead, she ate everything that came out of that precious oven that perfumed her childhood. At that time, she watched the other children from her village indulging in ice cream and dreamed of the aroma and flavor of vanilla.  
Chef Kaanache and her brother Hossain
She and her two brothers grew up listening to their father telling sternly that they would all be champions, no matter what, they would all become champions.

She performed in theater in Barcelona and Madrid, then matriculated to London’s Surrey University to formally study acting and five years later, degree in hand, she returned to Spain. 

On her first audition she landed a starring role on a popular daytime TV series and tasted the sweetness of fame. Years later, she quit, tired of performing as "the Moroccan girl." She wanted to fly free, and had become a prisoner of the character that made her famous in the land where she was born.

The magic of the kitchen
She traveled far and wide to live with street children and women in the downtrodden districts of Iran, Afghanistan, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and Nicaragua, determined to show those dispossessed of all rights, that beyond survival there is a life and most important that "the impossible just takes a little longer".

She is the one who believes that everyone is born with a star. And she’s committed to find hers: in the kitchen. Fate brought her to The Hague, in The Netherlands.  There she began immediately catering gallery events with the tapas of her past.  

She rented a kitchen in Rotterdam and nine months later had a prosperous catering business. Tired of las tortillas y los champiñones she struck out to try her hand at running one restaurant kitchen, and then another.

She studied Culinary Arts at Albeda College in Rotterdam and did in one year what in normal conditions would have taken three years. One day she saw a TV documentary about the British chef Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck (three Michelin stars) and Dinner (one Michelin star). Blumenthal is one of the precursors of the so-called molecular cuisine. She was fascinated with the alchemy behind the kitchen.

Such was her good star that two weeks after she watched the documentary, chef Francois Geurds, who was Blumenthal’s sous chef, opened his famous Ivy then FG (two Michelin stars) in Rotterdam. Every Friday, she used to ride her bicycle and stop there until they finally let her work in the Ivy kitchen.

The Pilgrim Chef
Pollo Mulato
The magic of the science behind the kitchen had already invaded her soul. And the girl who dreamed with the aroma of vanilla took the chance of her life. She wrote 49 emails, to the 49 best restaurants in the world. They weren’t 50 because the list didn’t include The Fat Duck. After all, by working with Geurds in a way she inherited Blumenthal’s secrets.

In every email she asked for the same: to let her go as an apprentice in their kitchens. There must have been the strength and passion printed in those emails, that in three days she got 27 responses. And suddenly, the girl who never tasted a donut from the shop on the corner created the opportunity for herself to choose which kitchens to go and learn the secrets that would make her great among the greatest.
elBulli, her top choice, was among the few who did not give her an affirmative response. But she did not give up. She spent four years learning from the best chefs in the world. In Chicago, she worked with Grant Achatz at Alinea (three Michelin stars). In Copenhagen, she worked with René Redzepi at Noma (one Michelin star). In Napa Valley, she worked with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry (three Michelin stars) and then in New York at Per Se (three Michelin stars).

During these important years of her life, while she was working in Noma’s kitchen with Redzepi in Copenhagen, she had fallen ill with cancer. Then, the voice of Grant Achatz, who had survived his own bout with mouth cancer, was decisive: if she didn’t get treatment and cure herself, she could never go back to Alinea, or make it all the way to elBulli, her ultimate goal. So she had no choice but to be healthy to fulfill her pilgrim dream.
In all these restaurants, that most mortals do not even dream to step inside, she began peeling eggs and potatoes, picking flowers. Her daily routine ended before she could even see the food that was going to be served.

She felt like a caged lion. She wanted to cook, to execute what she learned. Instead, she practiced patience as an exercise of faith and humility that would make her grow. She won the confidence of the culinary hierarchy. A hierarchy that is so fierce, it seems military. She waited and found her opportunities to climb ahead, while the phrase "the impossible just takes longer," rumbled in her soul.

The Star of elBulli
Pulpo Paul (Paul The Octopus)
Until finally, there was a fated call from elBulli. Marc Cuspinera, Adrià’s right hand, wrote to her saying that they had decided to have her for two full seasons. Directly departing from Per Se in New York, she went to Barcelona, and from there to Girona, Roses, to finally land in the apartments that the genius of food deconstruction had prepared for his team.

When she arrived in Cala Montjoi, on the Mediterranean, she felt “like a star when it falls into the sea". Adrià was everything she had dreamed. She had all his videos. She knew how he breathed and how he blinked. She knew how the wine he drank tasted. She knew the smell of his starched cotton uniforms.

At elBulli she spent two whole years, crucial to her formation. She awoke each morning at 4 am and did yoga on the beach and then walked the winding path straight up to the mountaintop where elBulli was perched.  

At 9 am, she went, religiously to what was considered the best restaurant in the world, of all time. With her immaculate starched and ironed to perfection uniform, she waited, standing, to be permitted to enter into the kitchen.
Chilean Seabass
She prayed that Adrià would see her. More than one would have thought that she was crazy, because she didn’t go out, drink or even socialize. She did nothing but wait, patiently and gaining confident in her star. One day chef Mateu Casañas asked if she was okay. 

Her time came when one day she was told "come tomorrow at 10 am." That morning  she could see Adrià working at the table where he painted and made sketches of the dishes. She went to work at the pastry section. 

It is known that many chefs move from the hot kitchen (salty side) to pass to the pastry (sweet side). But rarely does a pastry chef goes to the hot (savory) kitchen. She was one of the latter, at elBulli no less!
The last day at elBulli
In that kitchen there was plenty of testosterone. There were 51 chefs. There were 51 lions and there was the Moroccan girl who dreamed of the aroma and flavor of vanilla. Adrià painting, chef Oriol Castro doing dishes and she, right there, next to them: learning, absorbing  and taking forever in her heart, the science and magic behind the kitchen.

The day the most acclaimed restaurants closed its doors, with Adrià were the most important chefs in the world: Massimo Bottura, René Redzepi, Grant Achatz, Joan Roca, Andoni Aduriz, José Andrés, among others. Throughout their careers all of them made the pilgrimage to the laboratory of culinary creation that was elBulli, to learn.

That very day Adrià said, "Najat, teach Grant (Achatz)," the Alinea chef, the one with the three Michelin stars in Chicago, her teacher and the one who, like her, beat cancer. And that day the apprentice became a master.

Not surprisingly Adrià said of this girl turned into a kitchen alchemist: "Chef Najat Kaanache represents the soul of Morocco through the language of the kitchen and her passion for creativity and innovation are an exemplary reference for us all".
Dalí Lobster
Welcome to Miami!
After training and learning from the best, and chasing the whimsical spirit of food to the corners of the globe, convinced that food is the most important connection that we human beings have with this Earth, chef Kaanache lectured on the science of cooking at Harvard University and NYU, at Institute Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia (with 500 chefs attending), and at World Science Fairs from New York and Beijing.

Having fascinated Dallas, Texas, with her gourmet Moroccan restaurant Souk (named after the markets where everything is bought and sold throughout the Middle East), the Pilgrim Chef has landed in Miami to fly a Basque flag.

So far, every wish the Moroccan girl, who once dreamed of the aroma and flavor of vanilla, has asked for from God and the universe, has been granted. Piripi, her ultimate dream is about to come true, thanks to AKA Hospitality, named after the initials of her surname, Kaanache, and those of her partners, Teo Arranz and Gus Abalo.
Piripi's hadmade tableware
She’s coined a new word to describe the modern dining style of Spain, pikoteo, and at Piripi the snack offerings are called Piripikoteo. Kaanache has designed all of her own handmade tableware, and Piripi boasts an immaculate open kitchen passers-by can see all the way from posh Ponce de León Boulevard along Aurora Avenue in the Village of Merrick Park. 

About the Basque influence in Piripi's menu; the wine list, created by renown master sommelier, Ferran Centelles, elBulli's sommelier for over 14 years and crowned the best sommelier in Spain; or the Lola's Room, a glass box within Piripi’s kitchen and dining room where 10 lucky diners can enjoy a unique tasting menu; of all that and more, we'll talk another time.
A star is born

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