Interview with Najat Kaanache, The Pilgrim Chef from El Bulli
One Woman’s Tireless Pursuit of the Whimsical Spirit of Food: An Interview with Najat Kaanache
1. Do you remember the moment when you became interested in food?
I was just five years old and my grandma finally trusted me to help make the bread. Each grain was so precious and I was as focused in the kitchen then as I am now!
I remember making bread with my mother and the respect she taught me for the whole process of growing and cooking nutritious food for the family. Simple, natural food was the standard at home. We were so poor that a small piece of hard, crusty bread with a bowl of lentil soup was a luxury. We grew almost all of our food on our property and only went into town to buy flour.
2. Who influenced you most and did they teach you about cooking and food?
Ferran Adria taught me to give my brain and my hands the freedom to create magical dishes. At el Bulli, we practiced the “art of doing” and everything Ferran has achieved came from hard work; none of his innovations was accomplished by accident.
3. Do you think with your taste buds?
I feel with them…my hands, eyes, heart and soul all have taste buds!
4. Where did you start your culinary studies (a little history)?
My first technical training was at Culinary School in Rotterdam, but I’d been butchering, foraging, harvesting, processing and cooking daily since early childhood. Food has always been my way of life.
5. At what point did you become interested in molecular cuisine?
I was working in Rotterdam when I started reading about Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria. I set my intention to do my next training with them, and although I knew it would be next to impossible, I worked every day to make it happen. I dreamed of making crazy sexy food and these two chefs introduced me to a new paradigm of creativity, using science and technology in the kitchen.
6. There are those who say molecular cuisine is unhealthy. What are your thoughts on this?
Food can be prepared in so many ways. For me, it’s unhealthy to eat packaged and processed foods without regard for where they originate or what additives they contain. Molecular gastronomy is an experimental way of cooking, but master chefs use only the highest quality organic ingredients and utilize technology just to present the best of each product to the guest. This modern style of cooking really boils down to a measure of creativity, not health. The so-called “chemicals” used are very common, benign food-safe chemicals and only trace amounts are used. What worries me are all the “natural” blueberry products that contain absolutely no blueberries, just Modified Corn Starch, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Red #40, Blue #1 and Blue #2!
7. You often talk about your dreams and how you are in the process of making them into reality. You seem to have already realized many of your dreams. Which ones do you still have left to fulfill?
I haven’t even started, but I have just a few humble dreams. I would love to be able to offer a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato to every child in the world who’s never had the chance to taste something so vital and naturally delicious. I would also love to stop big multinational companies from mass-producing horrible GMO foods.
I dream of making “clean” food available for everyone, but for that to happen people have to take an active interest and demand to know how their food is made. People will pay so much for a pair of shoes, a car or a handbag, and then they give so little thought and attention to the most important thing in their life, which actually becomes a part of their body, FOOD !!
8. You once told me you’d always been a nomad, even with your parents. Can you talk to us a little about that?
My soul was born free and I remain a free spirit, home for me is everywhere. I live simply and make my home anywhere I am. I learn from people and I always need new people around me. I need to see, feel and experience in order to understand the world in which I live. I’m from the Atlas in Morocco and I grew up between there and San Sebastian. I feel so fortunate for the unique mix of cultures I was exposed to throughout my life; it was just amazing.
9. You’ve done internships with many famous chefs I believe? Can you tell us about your adventures?
Each of them gave me all I needed to become the best chef I could be. Grant Achatz made me believe that I was not crazy with my focus and intensity in the kitchen. Rene Redzepi made me believe that yes, I can create elegant, interesting dishes with just the products I had around in nature. I already knew that deep inside, but it was great to see it in the context of a three-star Michelin setting. Thomas Keller taught me that I was correct in having an insane sense of urgency, and being determined to execute perfection for each guest. And Ferran Adria gave me the chance to free my mind. I don’t have rules and regulations in my brain, only freedom. Everything I can visualize in my brain I can bring to life with my food. Once I’ve seen it in my brain, I just need to find the way to make it happen! That is the magic of creativity, freedom and hard work.
Another thing I achieved with Ferran Adria was to completely kill my ego. That’s perhaps the most special lesson he imparts on his chefs (we call them Los Chicos del Bulli – The Boys of el Bulli, most of whom started very young and spent over 20 years working side-by-side with him). These boys, now men, create magic with food and carry the “World’s Best” title, but they have absolutely no ego and nothing to prove; they simply are who they are…chefs.
The Pilgrim Chef at http://elbulli-arco.blogspot.com
Twitter: @ThePilgrimChef http://twitter.com/#%21/ThePilgrimChef