Ousted Piripi Chef Sues Coral Gables Restaurant

Najat Kaanache told New Times she learned she was fired from her high-profile chef gig at Merrick Park's Piripi after inquiries on social media began pouring in.

Now she has fired back at the restaurant's owners — Gus Abalo and Teo Arranz's Piripi Vmp LLC and AKA Hospitality LLC — in a lawsuit filed last week in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. In the suit, Kaanache seeks at least $15,000 and claims she was wrongfully terminated following allegations by restaurant employees of mistreatment and underpayment. 

The suit hinges on Kaanache's claim that the restaurant had an obligation to notify her of an early termination at least 45 days prior to her contract's first anniversary, when she was to receive up to a 20 percent stake in the restaurant. Kaanache's lawyer couldn't be reached for comment; a spokesman from the restaurant's public relations firm declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"Her allegations are going to be vehemently contested," said Alexis Gonzalez, who is representing the restaurant.

Kaanache's termination came after a scathing eight-page letter, written by Juan José Saber Durán, the restaurant's former bartender, accusing the chef 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 Durán claimed, 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 on employees' outside activity and at the home where employees lived. "It all seemed to be taken out of a movie about slavery," Saber Durán wrote in Spanish, "without physical mistreatment but with psychological."

Kaanache's suit doesn't address those claims but demands the Coral Gables restaurant's owners pay her the balance of the remaining money she says she's owed now that she's a partner. Among the back wages are the remainder of her $95,000 annual salary, 1.33 percent of total food and beverage sales, living expenses of $6,000 monthly, and $800 a month for healthcare expenses.

"The defendants' compensation payments to the plaintiff were inconsistent, frequently delinquent, and were never sufficient to bring fully current payment of the compensation benefits to which the plaintiff was entitled under the employment agreement," her attorneys write in the lawsuit.

Kaanache also seeks to lift the contract's noncompete clause, which prevents her from running kitchens in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

One central question that remains unanswered: Who was responsible for paying and securing visas for the handful of employees who relocated from Spain and elsewhere to Miami to work under Kaanache?

During a two-hour June interview with New Times in which the Spanish-Moroccan chef broke into tears, she placed blame on the restaurant's owners.

"They're the ones who had the attorneys," she said. "I don’t have the power to do that, not even if I dreamt of it.”

Yet according to the contract, the responsibility for hiring and training staff fell to Kaanache, but she could terminate it if the restaurant failed to pay her or employees their agreed salaries.

For more, follow Zach on Twitter or Instagram.

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