Najat Kaanache was born in Orio (Guipúzcoa), but every year spent her holidays in Morocco, the country from which her family hails. This duality led her to love both worlds equally, to have a broader view of life, to travel all around the globe – she speaks seven languages – and make her dreams come true. A tenacious fighter and tireless worker, Najat has not needed a list of any kind to find her place on the culinary landscape. The several restaurants she runs, her conference tours and TV programmes attest to it.
After living in the Basque Country for many years, Najat closed the door on acting – her initial studies – in search of other environments: she went to Holland and, to survive, ended up preparing cocktail food to be served at art galleries. This seed grew into the Mesa María catering company that brought out the culinary tradition her mother had instilled in her as a child. One day, after being dazzled by ‘the magic of nitrogen and siphons’, when she saw what those who would be her future professional colleagues were doing, she decided she had to expand her horizons. So, she penned 49 letters to the best restaurants in the world offering herself as an apprentice. Of them, she received 27 replies, and she decided to embark on a work tour to learn all of the techniques and skills needed to create ‘that magic’.
The path was not an easy one, but she never took a ‘no’ for an answer. Her tenacity, her tireless ability to work, and her spirit to dream led her to meet, learn and work with the best. ‘At Alinea in Chicago, I learned how to try and be a champion, how to believe in yourself…they taught me that the world of cooking has no limits. At Noma, with René Redzepi, I learned to work with the produce around me…there was no need to make a phone call to suppliers. And Tomas Keller, at The French Laundry, taught me how to give value to a tomato, how such a simple food can tell so many stories… At The French Laundry I’d go out half an hour before service to pick the flowers and the vegetables from the garden opposite: I learned the varieties, their different levels of acidity, and also how to care for and work with such refined produce,’ states Najat.
She went all out and never gave up, and that absolute conviction led her to work at elBulli for two seasons, ‘I left everything, my job back then at The French Laundry, my family, my home, and I cancelled my stints at the next two restaurants…but I had been sending them letters for three years and when I found out it was going to close, I said to myself, “I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to go there.” So, when Marc Cuspineda contacted me and said yes, I could go, but I had to commit to working there for two seasons, I didn’t hesitate and I dropped everything,’ explains the chef.
Once in Catalonia, she would walk for two hours every morning to get to the restaurant; she did yoga on the beach and waited at the door to see Ferran Adrià arrive with his white folder, and every morning asked him to let her in before her assigned time. ‘For me it was a dream to be there, and even if it was just to put the salt and pepper, or the tablecloths, on the tables I knew that I wanted to make the most of my time there to learn,’ Kaanache points out. And she did. Her professionalism and personality grew in that kitchen to the point that, on 30 July 2011, it was she who closed the door of the restaurant, thus saying goodbye to the Bullinian legend in Roses.
At the end of her stint with Adrià, and without almost intending to do so, different restaurant projects emerged for her around the world. In fact, Dallas, Miami, Mexico City and Texas are some of the places where people have tried her cooking. However, the most personal one ‘with the most soul’ is Nur – named after her daughter – which opened in Fez (Morocco) a couple of years ago. ‘We have a produce-based cuisine in which we don’t use anything chemical, we work on the principle of the basis of what I learned of Moroccan cuisine when I lived in the Basque Country, combined with what I know of the mountain where I come from – 45 minutes from here – and from where I bring the produce for the restaurant. They are colourful, natural dishes, without any food colouring or any kind of preservative. It’s simply Mother Nature.’ As for the type of dishes, she says, ‘we do use non-local techniques, but they are not very obvious because we are situated in one of the oldest medinas in the world, with a unique architecture; it wouldn’t make sense to offer a cuisine that can be found in Madrid, Barcelona or in Paris. What we do is make the produce shine as if it were a diamond, and its history, too. Don’t forget that Morocco is a place where so much is reflected in our flavours: the Jewish influence, the mountains, the arrival of the Arabs, and even the Andalusí influence. We present all of this in a very refined way.’
In the land of her parents she discovered that the rest of the world was hugely ignorant about Moroccan cuisine and the great wealth of produce that the country has. ‘Morocco has an extraordinary level of agriculture, very impressive…we have strawberries, mushrooms, incredible white truffles…in fact, Adrià’s team was filming in the mountains and even they were surprised.’ She adds, ‘Morocco isn’t just couscous and tajines, that’s like saying that Spain is just potato tortillas. It’s a cuisine full of natural flavours, colours and smells. It’s a cuisine with a potential to reach the brain very quickly, to satisfy you in a unique way, and it’s very healthy. It’s a part of Africa where the produce is virgin.’
That same ignorance is what led her to rethink the goal of her work, ‘Morocco has extraordinary produce but somehow we’re not able to say Made in Morocco, and that has led me to the conclusion that rather than creating beautiful dishes, my role should be to give a voice to all that produce.’ For Najat, being on a list or not is irrelevant, ‘I don’t fight to get on a list because to do that I would have stayed anywhere in the world where they exist. There’s no Michelin or Fifty Best here, but there is a lot to say, a lot to express. There’s a whole culture, a continent full of such wealth that it’s important to make it known. We are the gateway to Europe but we haven’t been held in that esteem. I’ve worked in iconic places and it’s been a very important part of my life; I learned a lot, but now I live in a continent where we have people, produce and a cuisine to be discovered. And all this, just twenty minutes from Europe.’
There’s nothing else to say. Discovering everything that Najat – one of the most interesting female figures on today’s culinary scene – still has to say will be a pleasure to hear next 28 January, from 10:00 to 10:35, at Madrid Fusión.