Being More… Najat Kaanache
In the first of a series of inspiring Epic ‘be more’ stories, we are talking to Najat Kaanache, the shining star of Moroccan cuisine and internationally acclaimed chef, Najat is also a TV personality, lecturer, entrepreneur and owner of Nur restaurant, which has been a popular spot for Epic clients staying in Fez since it opened.
Spanish born to Moroccan parents originally from Taza in Northern Morocco, her father travelled many miles barefoot and hungry to start a new life in the Basque region where she was born. This story has been a large part of her inspiration, giving her a sense that anything can be achieved with will and tenacity.
Najat has been a fighter and fearless explorer throughout her career. She studied theatre and film in Madrid and London for two and a half years, before moving to the Netherlands to pursue her dream as a chef. She started out cooking Pintxos for art galleries in The Hague, later moving to Rotterdam where she opened her first catering business delivering food by bike. When a new ‘Heston Blumenthal’ inspired restaurant opened in the city by one of his Alumni, she became struck by the possibilities to combine theatre and science to create new food experiences.
Then began a tireless and targeted campaign to work in some of the finest restaurants in the World and learn the culinary craft, at low pay at first but with maximum opportunity for learning. She moved to the US and then back to Europe to follow her ambitions. She now has an illustrious CV which includes; The French Laundry, Alinea and Per Se in the US, Noma and El Bulli with many famous mentors collected along the way. The stint at El Bulli was particularly a hard win, nonetheless very formative both personally and professionally.
Najat is a natural coach something that comes through in our interview, she is founder of “Six Ingredients”, a global solutions-based organization centred around the philosophy that almost every challenge can be overcome by utilizing six main ingredients which are the five chemical senses plus mindfulness. She is also a lecturer and TV personality having partnered with Obamas chef to give lecture on the science of food at Harvard, and hosting AMC networks’ highest rated cooking series throughout the Latin world; ‘Cocina Marroqui’
In 2016 she achieved her dream to open her first restaurant, Nur in Fez, with a mission to represent the past, present and future of Moroccan cuisine on the plate. She learned from her grandfather and the indigenous people of Morocco and presented a refreshed version of Moroccan cuisine inspired also by her international culinary experience. This year Najat opened a new restaurant, Ikatza, within the Marriott in Rabat something we wanted to know more about, alongside her wider inspiration and advice on making it in food.
How were you inspired to become a chef? When did it start?
I was inspired to become a chef because it gave me a way of expressing art, and also doing politics, harnessing a truth or expressing a feeling, a culture, talent and also heritage.
I started very young with my mum, Aunties and Grandma they would cook things from scratch like pies, cookies, soups and it was magical
What made it possible to have your first restaurant? Was it difficult to achieve as a woman in this world at the time?
To dream and think that nothing was impossible, to believe that I could do it, to have the courage, discipline and determination and the willingness and desire to become the best version of myself. I was willing to risk all to try a way of sharing my soul and my culture.
It’s complicated when you start a business, it’s difficult and you’re scared but if you don’t try, you stay thinking ‘if I’d tried’, ‘If I could’ and IF is not a good word in my vocabulary, I don’t use it. You must try, you must execute the art of doing, you must fail, you must rise, you must stand up and continue. We need to feel all our emotions; laughing, crying; suffering they all exist for a reason, they make us better, they make us bigger, they make us more important for ourselves not for others.
What food inspires you – where do you get your influences from?
For me food inspires me within culture, with history, food can awaken my senses and make me super happy and the culture of food is extraordinary, it has to feed your soul.
Everyday I get new influences; from an action, a human, a new discovery by science and technology but never losing the guidance and focus of being a human being with a great connection to the land.
How do the food influences differ across Morocco?
Food all across Morocco is important; we have beautiful agriculture one of the best soils in the world, and we are Mediterranean. I think this part of the world is very good there is no hunger and food is very important on the table. You will find the best eggplant, the best tomato, the best zucchini and artichoke on any Moroccan table, you will find women who can’t read or write can turn an artichoke into something you might taste in Paris.
What is the signature ‘must try’ dish at your restaurant?
A taster menu that starts with salty, acid, lemony and citrus and then continues the menu depending on what you like if you are vegetarian or pescatarian we work on what you don’t like and make you happy with what you will like.
What are your future plans – tell us about your new opening.
I just opened a new restaurant in the new Marriot in Agdal in Raba, it’s a Basque restaurant called ‘Ikatza’ I brought half of the team from Fez, we are in the pool area, we have Spanish music many nights in the week, we worked together with the designer and architect to create a lovely magical place, which is colourful and goes with my style, we created the atmosphere and food together.
I’m also opening in Spain, and I’m on my third book now signed with Phaidon one of the best publishers in the world, I’m happy and very proud, I’m actually living my dream.
What would your advice be to women who have a similar dream?
Dreams you have to work towards them to execute them, to make them real, that’s why to many young people (men and women (I don’t like to differentiate them) have to dream big or small depending on how they feel, but the most important thing is that they have to work at them, because dreams don’t come to you, they come in a glimpse and then the next day you need to stand-up in reality and work hard towards them; work and work and work, and continue growing and learning. And you don’t need to forget where you came from – you don’t need to change who you are, as long as you are happy with where you come from, never forget that.
For me it’s very important to tell people around the world that religion, culture and heritage are very important subjects, we shouldn’t mix them up or misunderstand them, when you mix people get confused from outside. One of the truths is that in Morocco, Muslims, Jewish and Christian communities live together in peace, use the same local ovens and share many meals, music and books and extraordinary moments in history.
Watch out for Najat’s next book, her third, which will be published by Phaidon, for more information on Nur, Ikatza and booking other culinary experiences in Morocco, as part of a custom travel itinerary contact epic.travel.