Spanish-born Najat Kaanache, 32, is a woman on a mission to learn from the best chefs in the world. In just two years, Kaanache has apprenticed with chefs Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago, Thomas Keller at French Laundry in Yountville, and René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. The aspiring stagiere–or culinary apprentice–will soon spend one month in the kitchens of Keller's Per Se restaurant in New York and then fly to Spain to study for one year with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli.
Kaanache's love of food began in her home town of San Sebastian, Spain, where she grew up learning the value of simple ingredients from her Moroccan parents, who were farmers. As a young adult, Kaanache left Spain to study drama in London. She left behind a career as a Spanish soap opera actress, after she decided to pursue a career she truly loved: cooking.
Kaanache went to culinary school in Holland and began a catering company in 2006. Looking to improve her culinary skills, she took a job at Francois Geurds' Ivy Restaurant in Holland and, after a year as the Chef de Partie (line cook), left to begin this next phase of her life. We recently chatted with Najat Kaanache to find out how she decided to apprentice with the world's best chefs.
Squid Ink: How is it you decided to quit all your jobs and become a full-time apprentice?
Najat Kaanache: I wanted to learn. I was trying to connect to chefs that felt like I did about food. Who had respect for the ingredients. If you're so passionate and have respect for food you can deliver beautiful food. After working for Heston Blumenthal's former sous chef [Geurds] for almost a year, and saving everything I earned, I left. On my last day I went home and wrote a letter to 49 of the top 50 restaurants–asking them for a chance to become a great chef. In three days I got 27 answers. The first chef I work for was Chef Grant [Achatz].
SI: Do you get paid to stage?
NK: I always work for free. I never think “I don't get paid.” I get the chance to do this. When you are willing to do anything you achieve more. You grow more.
SI: The first kitchen you worked in was Alinea. What's it like working for Achatz?
NK: Chef Grant controls everything. He's in the kitchen before everyone and he's there until the last one goes. The first and last customer is the same. He knows everything what's going on.
NK: The first day or two I picked a lot of flowers. But after a few days I knew could offer so much more. I knew I had to work much harder until I found myself running from one section to the other. They said they never had a tournant stagiere [an apprentice who works every section of the kitchen] before. I knew an extra hand in every section is better than doing nothing. They gave me the feeling I was working there.
SI: After working at Alinea you apprenticed for Renee Redzepi at Noma–just named best restaurant in the world–in Copenhagen. How was that?
NK: I learned how to work in a chic, elegant way. How to put the plates out.
SI: Wasn't it around this time you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
NK: Yes. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was sick and very, very tired. When I found out I had cancer, I wanted to keep working. I didn't want to do chemo. I told Chef Grant and he just said “If you don't get treated, you can't come back into my kitchen.” So that was that.
SI: Most people would have called it quits, but after your operation and chemotherapy you went back to Alinea for a few more weeks as an apprentice.
NK: For me to stand next to Grant and be in the kitchen, I knew I was alive. I wasn't able to touch plates because my hands were shaking. I had to recuperate. A week passed and I said to the Chef de Cuisine, I'm ready. They trained me very hard. They let me do things no other stagieres would do. For me, Alinea is home for me. Wherever I go, I am so attached to Alinea.
SI: After Alinea you went to The French Laundry. How was that?
NK: Well, what can I say? They had told me that I wouldn't be able to do anything in the kitchen but my character tells me that if you tell me I can't do anything, I think I'm going to show you I can do it. I was going to make sure that I would be the first [stagiere] to work in the kitchen. I watched the kitchen every day. One day, pastry needed help. I jumped in. From that day I was on the line.
SI: Have you always had a connection to food?
NK: I grew up poor. I watched my parents harvest the wheat and pick the olives. To pick each seed. To know which olives are good and which ones are bad. Bread has so much value. I have so much respect for these ingredients. I know how hard it is to get a bottle of olive oil or a piece of bread on the table. Taking that olive oil home would make my whole family so happy. Now that's a different way of going to a culinary school and becoming a chef.
SI: So the idea of local ingredients and sustainable farming isn't a new idea to you.
NK: Looking back, all my feelings for vegetables, olive oil, bread, this is why I think food should be treated with respect. I go to these restaurants of Thomas Keller and Chef Grant and see that if you have respect for food, you have respect for yourself. That's a respect I see from all the top chefs. In other places, that's not normal. For me to be with Chef Grant Achatz and to see how passionate they are–I finally had peace in my heart.
SI: You're off to New York to stage at Per Se, next. How did that come about?
NK: When Chef Thomas Keller asks you to come to Per Se, you go! And after that I'll be at El Bulli for a year.
SI: I'd say good luck, but it sounds like you don't need it.
NK: In life some people are born stars and some they make themselves stars. I throw myself to the lions. No worries. This is my job. Test me. It's okay.
Brooke Burton is also the author of Foodwoolf.com.