The Story Behind the Ousting of Piripi Chef Najat Kaanache, Part 2

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The way Paola Fernández remembers it, she arrived in Miami from Argentina last fall after being promised work alongside famous chef Najat Kaanache in preparation for the opening of a high-end Coral Gables restaurant. Instead, she was forced to iron, prepare home meals, and care for a difficult 8-year-old.

"For a few hundred dollars per month, I was [Kaanache's] personal secretary and the nanny for her daughter and the cook for her house," Fernández says. "She wasn't paying me for that."

The 30-year-old Panama native claims she was tempted to travel here, along with nearly two dozen other young cooks from around the world, to live in a designated "chef house" in Dadeland. The head of the house was Kaanache, who had worked at some of the world's most famous restaurants before opening Piripi in Coral Gables' swanky Merrick Park.

But Fernández and several others complain Kaanache enforced militaristic rules and often became angry and verbally abusive. "Each [cook] has a story," Fernández says. "Each person suffered psychological trauma."

After the matter became public, Kaanache was ousted from the restaurant. Most of the cooks have returned home. But their story, which New Times is telling in a two-part series, provides a look into the often-unseemly world of Miami's hyper-international restaurant scene.

For her part, Kaanache denies she abused employees and lays the blame for broken promises of work visas — another chief complaint — with the restaurant's two owners. "No one lived in bad conditions," she maintains, adding she "didn't have the power" to process the visas. The restaurant owners declined to answer New Times' questions, instead issuing only a short statement regretting the complaints against Kaanache and denying wrongdoing by "Piripi or its principals."

(Read Part 1 of the Piripi saga.)

Eric Ochoa, a 23-year-old Spaniard who was the first cook contacted by Kaanache, says that initially things went well enough. But the first time he was paid, the amount was only half of what he and Kaanache had agreed upon. Other cooks also contend they were paid far less than they expected, but their complaints went nowhere.

The restaurant opening was originally scheduled for this past December. In January, with no opening in sight and still no work visas, Ochoa emailed Kaanache to address the broken promises. The next night, he says, Kaanache and the owners confronted him and two others in the kitchen of the chef house. One owner opened the conversation by sarcastically asking, "On which airline do you plan to leave?"

In the tense meeting that followed, the three cooks complained they were owed between $1,750 and $3,000 each. The owners, Ochoa says, offered less. Then they told the cooks to "take it or leave it" and threatened to call police if they didn't leave the house immediately. It was after midnight, and the cooks had nowhere to go. "We're there without papers, without anything," Ochoa tells New Times. "What do you do?"

He says the group slept several nights at the airport before catching flights out.

Soon, other team members left because their tourist visas were expiring or because they were simply fed up.

Fernández ended up staying nearly six months. With Kaanache's original team members fleeing, Fernández says, the chef hired some locals and, before a chaotic restaurant pre-opening, forced the staff to work furiously for up to 15 hours straight. "We practically had to steal food in order to eat," she says. Sick and tired of the mistreatment, Fernández walked out of the kitchen. On March 23, just a week before Piripi's grand opening, she wrote a letter to the two restaurant owners on Facebook. "I never thought I would have to write to you, but after not receiving any response to various messages left for the Chef... I'll dare to explain my situation," Fernández wrote before decrying the labor conditions and abuse.

Then she pleaded for her outstanding wages. Her first month, she had been paid nothing, she wrote. She received $225 the second month and $325 the third. The fourth month, when Kaanache had promised a "normal salary," Fernández was paid $600. "This is not normal in this country," she wrote. "I just need that you please pay me so... I can go [back] to my country."

When the owners didn't respond to the letter, Fernández forwarded it to Kaanache. The same day, the chef wrote back. "I'll pay you today, and tomorrow you'll leave the house," Kaanache barked.

Fernández wouldn't wait until the next day: She told Kaanache she would leave as soon as she packed her things and the chef gave her the money. "I don't feel comfortable here," she told Kaanache. "I don't feel good in your house."

The argument escalated. "You don't even know how to fry an egg!" Kaanache snapped.

"You're a marketing chef," Fernández replied. "You're not a real chef."

When Fernández went to Kaanache's bedroom to collect the remaining $600, she found it in an envelope outside the door. The chef wouldn't be saying goodbye.

Piripi opened March 30. In early June, a Miami Herald reviewer recounted her immense disappointment after visiting what had promised to be an exciting addition to the Miami food scene. "If this were a game of Clue, I'd have plenty of suspects for the crime that is happening at the fancy new Piripi," Victoria Pesce Elliott wrote. One cod dish was too salty to eat. The paella was bland. Another dish showed up with a metal wire inside. And the restroom was a disaster. "I thought I stumbled into a frat house on Sunday morning," she wrote.

Around the same time, an eight-page letter, written by ousted staffer Juan José Saber Durán, was leaked to New Times and other media outlets. Titled "The Truncated American Dream," the letter railed against what it characterized as the serial deception and exploitation suffered by the team members. It also accused Kaanache of exaggerating her credentials and struggling to cook even some basic dishes, terming her "the supposed Chef."

"It seems like in the country of opportunities," Saber Durán wrote, "there's also an opportunity for people who aren't who they'd have you believe."

On June 10, after the letter was out, Piripi released a statement: Kaanache and the restaurant had parted ways. "The restaurant's owners became aware of ex-employees' complaints today for the first time," a spokesperson told New Times. "They are looking into these claims and talking to various parties that have firsthand knowledge of the situation."

In a two-hour interview with New Times, Kaanache was soft-spoken and emotional, sometimes seeming on the verge of tears. She brought along her boyfriend; the restaurant sommelier who had served as her right-hand man; and two young women who said they had quit in protest once she was dismissed.

Kaanache first implied she might have been ousted because of sinister business calculus: Her shares in the company were scheduled to vest in mid-July, she said, so her dismissal meant she would be conveniently cut out of future earnings. "It seems suspicious, no?"

The chef acknowledged she required Fernández to do some domestic work but said the responsibilities were shared. She added that the two owners, Teo Arranz and Gus Abalo, were responsible for the visa paperwork and that she couldn't remember details of the financial agreements she had made with cooks. The house rules were indeed strict, she said, but she defended the regimen as "a way to keep people focused."

Kaanache suggested Fernández was bitter partly because a pastry position had been given to another cook. The home meals the young woman prepared were assigned "as a test," Kaanache said, adding that she and the owners "did everything [they] could to make her happy."

Through a spokesperson, Arranz and Abalo initially agreed to an interview with New Times but later canceled. Despite the scathing Herald review and Kaanache's exit, the restaurant seems to be finding its feet. On a recent evening, diners filed in, waiters scurried to take orders, and wine glasses were filled. Piripi, the owners vow, is "focused on the future."

But many former employees are still coming to grips with the recent past. Since they departed, Ochoa and some other cooks have struggled to find work back in Spain, where the economy remains dismal. Fernández, who went to Panama after leaving Miami, is headed back to Argentina, where the culinary scene is better. She's speaking out, she says, because she doesn't want others to have to experience what she endured. Last month, when the two owners professed they hadn't known about the complaints against Kaanache, Fernández blasted Arranz in a letter for "washing [his] hands as if [he] never knew anything about this woman."

Now, Fernández says, she knows too much about her. "This woman didn't teach me anything," she says. "This woman exploited me."

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