Moroccan blood and a Spanish passport. Her life is marked by two cultures. Najat Kaanache is a 21st-century Andalusí who runs an extraordinary restaurant in the heart of the medina in Fez.
Her parents moved to Orio (Guipúzcoa) in search of a better future. Najat was born and raised there – and thus speaks Euskera, in addition to five other languages. Hoping to be an actress, after being in a few roles in some Spanish series, she set off for Holland. To make ends meet, she began preparing cocktail food, and that’s how she discovered her passion for cooking. Luck and hard work in equal measure led her to some of the most important kitchens in the world: those of Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Rene Redzepi and Ferran Adrià, ‘I learned how to cook from all of them, but the most important thing was that they taught me to value my culture and to like myself as I was, as I am.’
In cooking, she found a way of expressing herself, of communicating with the world. It was also an instrument via which she could be committed, and fight. ‘Via cooking you can change many things. It can improve people’s lives, offer chances. I know, because it happened to me. You just have to keep your eyes open to make the most of the moment.’
She has travelled and cooked all over the world, opening her first restaurants in the United States. Then in Mexico. And finally! Fez. Nur was established in a mansion in the old medina. A space that is filled with light and energy. In the kitchen, wannabe chefs laugh and chat as they cook. ‘Cooking is, above all, magic. Ferran taught me that. Cooking should make us happy, that’s the secret. And happiness should be shared with one’s co-workers, with one’s diners...’
The pantry is stocked daily with ingredients Najat buys at the local market and with others brought from the mountains and coast from specific suppliers. In old Fez, nothing is simple. Entering the medina is like travelling back to the Middle Ages. There are no motorized vehicles, just donkeys and ‘carts’ pulled by men to transport food – and people – from one part of the medina to the other. ‘The logistics are crazy,’ Najat grumbles. But it’s also part of the charm.
On the table are the colours of Morocco. The same ones that Najat wears: fuchsia, orange, green, red, yellow, black... Vibrant, dynamic hues that spill over the tablecloth like an improvised landscape, overflowing with bygone and modern fragrances and flavours. Dishes that tell stories. Unusual combinations, new flavours. By dint of imagination, cooking becomes freer, more authentic. ‘I had to unlearn what I learned, and relearn by looking at cooking through different eyes. I immediately realized that the haute cuisine I had been cooking for years didn’t make sense in Fez. For the magic to flow, the essence of Morocco and its gastronomic culture must be the soul of what I cook. Anything else would be a deception. I’ve now found my true voice.’ It is Najat who is part of every dish. Half Spanish, half Moroccan. Najat, proud to be Najat, smiles at the world.
By Julia Pérez