The Story Behind the Ousting of Piripi Chef Najat Kaanache, Part 1

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This is the first of a two-part series cataloging the troubled runup to the opening of a sumptuous Coral Gables restaurant.  

By 6 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Piripi, the new Spanish/Basque restaurant in Coral Gables' Village of Merrick Park, is coming to life. Just inside the glass front door, two young, attractive hostesses smile as they ask arriving diners whether they prefer indoor or outdoor seating. Behind the sleek concrete bar, servers in crisp black dress shirts hustle to take drink orders. In the sun-drenched main dining room, in front of an expansive wine wall, a Spanish family of six talks loudly over half-full glasses of chilled white wine, oblivious to the other diners filing in.

But beneath the elegant veneer are hints that not all is well with the restaurant playfully named after a Spanish term for intoxication. "Dios mío," one exhausted employee sighs loudly in the men's room. In the dining room, a 20-something busboy lifts his head from clearing dishes when asked how the restaurant is doing. "Everything's good," he answers quickly, "except the main chef got fired... I just learned on Thursday that she was gone."

That chef is Najat Kaanache, a highly touted, quasi-celebrity who was widely promoted as the restaurant's genius. Her unlined, youthful face even fills a colorful billboard promoting Piripi just a few blocks away on South Dixie Highway. But after former staffers complained in early June of serial mistreatment by Kaanache, the restaurant's owners abruptly announced their star toque was out.

The story that emerged from behind the scenes — of ambitious young cooks' shattered kitchen dreams — offers insight into the cutthroat world of international restaurant work. More than a half-dozen former staffers have come forward to depict a made-in-Miami saga of immigrant exploitation and misrepresentation. They say they were promised visas, money, and experience with an internationally known chef; instead, they claim to have suffered psychological abuse, broken promises, and gross underpayment. Kaanache, they say, is a savvy self-marketer more competent in front of a camera than inside a kitchen. They claim the restaurant's two owners promised but never delivered visa help and failed to respond to complaints about low pay.

"Najat is not a star," says Paola Fernández, who spent nearly six months as Kaanache's apprentice and right-hand woman before a bitter falling-out. "Najat is a screen. Najat is fake."

In an interview with New Times, the ousted chef — who retains the support of some former staffers, including a half-dozen who quit alongside her in protest — denied many of the allegations and laid much of the blame on restaurant owners. "No one lived in bad conditions," she said. "We gave them free space to live." Piripi's two owners didn't respond to specific questions from New Times, instead issuing only a short statement. "Piripi regrets that accusations are being made against the restaurant's former Chef," they wrote. "To the extent this dispute might collaterally imply any wrongdoing by Piripi or its principals, such implications are misplaced."

Kaanache, a slim woman in her late 30s with striking raven curls, was born in San Sebastián, Spain's culinary-rich Basque region, to humble Moroccan immigrant parents. She grew up "picking and milling olives and wheat with my family between the Atlas and Pyrenees mountains," she says. As an adolescent, she appeared on Spanish daytime television, then later studied theater at the University of London before beginning a career in international nonprofits.

But she found her calling in 2008, after receiving a cooking certification from a Dutch college. It was then that Kaanache, who speaks seven languages, embarked on a global culinary odyssey as a stagiaire, or unpaid apprentice. First she worked at Alinea, a famed restaurant in Chicago with three Michelin stars and numerous international awards. Then she apprenticed at Noma, in Copenhagen. Next was the French Laundry, in California's Napa Valley, and Per Se, in New York — all widely recognized as among the world's top restaurants.

In 2010, she was taken on as a stagiaire at the pinnacle of modern global cuisine: El Bulli. The erstwhile restaurant founded by famed chef Ferran Adrià, on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, Spain, is credited as the birthplace of the modernist molecular gastronomy movement. During its six-month "seasons," more than a million hopeful diners typically vied for the restaurant's 8,000 meals. "I had to fly like the wind to be the fastest and prove why I deserved to be there," she told Ocean Drive earlier this year.

In early 2013, Kaanache was named executive chef at PS, a Dallas restaurant. She quickly instituted a modernist menu, with dishes such as the "Edible Dalí," a kind of plate-as-canvas left to be colored by the diner. But her sparkling resumé was soon tainted when Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner slammed the restaurant in late April. "Kaanache's presentations can be memorable," Brenner wrote, "but not necessarily in a good way." The critic suggested that during Kaanache's high-profile internships, the chef might have learned more about flashy modernist technique than basic food preparation; Brenner was also astounded by a tableside outburst from the chef during the critic's dinner. After the reviewer inquired with the server whether a dish listed as foie gras was really chicken liver mousse, the server returned to the table with an "angry" Kaanache, who was "really making a scene," Brenner wrote.

"It is not a chicken liver mousse," Brenner says the chef fumed. "That is insulting!"

"I couldn't help but wonder whether her guests are often treated to such abuse," Brenner wrote, "or is it reserved for one recognized as a critic?"

PS closed that July, but by September, Kaanache had a new venture — as head chef and co-owner of Souk, a new Moroccan bistro, also in Dallas. She lasted less than six months before it was announced that she and the restaurant had parted ways. "The word on the street is Kaanache is a control freak and difficult to work with," Nancy Nichols wrote on D Magazine's food blog. One commenter, identifying herself as the restaurant's former lead server, called the characterization an understatement: Kaanache was "a nasty person," she wrote, who was so controlling that she refused to let servers sample menu items.

Kaanache, who dubbed herself "The Pilgrim Chef" on social media and in self-produced YouTube videos, would soon move again. In May 2014, less than three months after the split with Souk, she was contacted by an intermediary who put her in touch with Gus Abalo, a Cuban businessman. Together with Teo Arranz, another partner, they founded a company called AKA — for the first letter of their last names — with the aim of opening a new Miami restaurant. Kaanache would be the executive chef. "Gus called me 85 times," Kaanache told New Times of her initial business relationship with Abalo. "He understood me, the culture, the food."

Beginning early last fall, Kaanache and Charles Accivatti, her romantic and business partner, began assembling the team that would open Piripi — young, ambitious, talented cooks from around the world who were eager to travel to America to open a restaurant with Michelin aspirations. Kaanache contacted the managers of Tickets, the famous Barcelona tapas bar founded by superstar Adrià after he closed El Bulli, who helped her connect with the cooks.

In September, Kaanache called Eric Ochoa, a gregarious 23-year-old phenom who says he designed many of Tickets' recipes. In phone conversations, Ochoa says, Kaanache was friendly and offered a dream: a chance to come to America and help engineer more new dishes. A work visa would be processed and housing would be provided, along with a $3,000 monthly salary. "Everything was very, very appealing," Ochoa told New Times.

Ochoa says he paid for his own flight and arrived in Miami the next month. He immediately moved into what was billed as the "chef house" — an enormous, secluded residence with a backyard pool and vegetable garden near Dadeland Mall. The home, Kaanache explained, would serve as a kind of experimental living and working space for the entire kitchen team, including the chef and Accivatti.

Over the next several weeks, Kaanache brought in more team members from northern Spain, including a bartender named Juan José Saber Durán and a rice specialist named David Pérez. Others came from France, Greece, Portugal, Mexico, and Dubai. Eventually, there were 21, although most wouldn't stay long.

Paola Fernández, now 30, was another of the imported cooks. She's Panamanian but was living in Buenos Aires and studying gastronomy when Kaanache reached out to her last fall. She had big dreams of becoming a top pastry chef but had never worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Hoping for connections, Fernández sent Facebook friend requests to a number of well-known chefs, including Kaanache. When Kaanache accepted, Fernández was thrilled. "Dónde estás?" Kaanache wrote to her.

After talking on Skype about the Miami project and learning Fernández's background, Kaanache made a proposal: Fernández could be part of the team, she says the chef told her, but because she didn't have Michelin-level experience like many of the others, she would be a stagiaire — unpaid for three months but with a regular salary after that.

Fernández says she told Kaanache she didn't have the means to support herself in another country. "That's when she told me that I shouldn't worry — that after the second month, she'd pay a small salary... I never imagined she would pay me so little."

Ochoa, Fernández, and others contend that over the next few months, they were exploited and forced to live by irrational and harsh rules. Shoes were not allowed inside the home, they say. Sofa pillows were to be fluffed after use. Alcohol was strictly forbidden, and a security camera was placed in the living room. Everyone was made to clean together Sundays at 9 a.m., and cooks were often directed to tend the outdoor vegetable garden, even under hot sun.

If someone came home late, cooked at night, or otherwise wasn't sufficiently subordinate, they say, the chef became irascible and often yelled. Kaanache once dismissed a cook only to rehire him shortly thereafter, one of the cooks claimed, as nothing more than a power demonstration. "It all seemed to be taken out of a movie about slavery — without physical mistreatment but with psychological."

Kaanache admits the rules were strict but says she treated the young cooks humanely and did everything possible to help them. "It was a gift to be in a place like that," she said during a two-hour interview with New Times. "For them, it was like the American dream."

But according to the cooks, the dream was more like a nightmare.

Read Part 2, the conflict comes to a head, and the chef departs.

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