Chef Najat Kaanache, Piripi Restaurant Part Ways Over Alleged Employee Mistreatment

Piripi's chef Najat Kaanache is out.
Piripi's chef Najat Kaanache is out.
Photo by Carla Torres

Moroccan chef Najat Kaanache, who until today helmed the widely publicized, big-budget Merrick Park restaurant Piripi, has left over accusations of unfair labor practices.

A scathing eight-page letter, written by Juan Jose Saber Duran, the restaurant's former bartender, accuses Kaanache of offering false promises to lure 15 workers to Miami from around the world and then badly mistreating them. Besides failing to process employees' work visas, Saber Duran claims, Kaanache paid employees significantly less than what was agreed, exaggerated her own credentials and connection to superstar chef Ferrán Adrià, was woefully unprepared for the restaurant's opening, and enforced harsh, irrational conditions at the group home where employees lived and on employees' outside activity. "It all seemed to be taken out of a movie about slavery," Saber Duran wrote in Spanish, "without physical mistreatment but with psychological."

“The restaurant’s owners became aware of ex-employees’ complaints today for the first time," a restaurant spokeswoman wrote in an email. "They are looking into these claims and talking to various parties that have firsthand knowledge of the situation and have taken action."

The Spanish small-plates concepts recently received a scathing review from Miami Herald critic Victoria Pesce Elliott.

Kaanache was promoted by the restaurant long before its opening two months ago. She’s featured in a colorful billboard ad visible to motorists driving southbound on South Dixie Highway before they reach the upscale Coral Gables mall. No word yet whether the home in Coral Gables where Kanaache asked her staff to live was the subject of some ex-employees' complaints.

Born in Spain’s San Sebastian, she was a Spanish TV star before embarking on a career in cooking that took her from the kitchens of Adrià’s El Bulli, Grant Achatz’s Alinea, and Thomas Keller’s Per Se.

Despite her pedigree, it appears the social-media-savvy toque was unable to replicate the cuisine of the Michelin-starred kitchens in which she trained.

The menu — grouped into sections that concentrate on breads, vegetables, and proteins from the land and sea — will remain the same, a spokeswoman said. The restaurant has yet to name an executive chef to replace Kaanache.

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