Here’s another one to watch while peeking in the Juicery kitchen. She is melting the concept of being a chef into being an artist - and back. We’re having a chat with Naiara Sabandar, known to you and me as chef Nana.
So how do you become a culinary artist? For Naiara, it's a bit of both. “Food has been a big part of my life since I was little. My father was half Dutch and half Indonesian, my mother is from Spain, and this side of the family is actually in the culinary business. I learned a lot from my visits to Spain, having family meals and helping out in the kitchen.”
Alongside this more traditional background in food, there’s another ingredient to her success. One that helped develop this unique and inventive creative vision she has. It has to do with the fact that Naiara started out in fashion, studying at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. After that she moved to Stockholm to work for Acne Studios. A dream job, but filled with long days and lots of travel. "I did enjoy my time there, especially the travel part, but it could also get so stressful. I missed the creative part of my job. Besides work, I always had my mind on what to cook and where to eat”. A year before, she had found out about a culinary school called Plant Lab, with one of their schools located in Los Angeles. "I thought it was super special what they were doing with plant based-cuisine, but I saw it as something for in the future, when I was older and done with working in fashion." When she saw the chance of gaining a scholarship however, she thought she might as well give it a go now.
“I didn’t expect much of it. My work days started early and finished late. When I got home I would just eat something and go to bed. So when I had to create a dish for the assignment, it so happened that I only had four ingredients in my fridge. I don’t even remember what I managed to whip up, but it was a kind of salad, with a black sesame dressing. Apparently there wasn’t much need to be complicated, because I got accepted and a few weeks later flew in to start the course”.
By then, she knew that she wanted a change in her life. Her head joined the place where her heart had been all along; the kitchen. When she got back to Europe, she resigned from her job and moved back to Amsterdam. Her friends had already nicknamed her chef Nana, so that was her starting point. Her chief vehicle was the Instagram account she set up, creating a space not only for pictures of her creations, but all kinds of inspiration. From flowers, plants and Mediterranean landscape, to inspiring art, photographs and design objects.
“That’s where I try to be different than other chefs. I want to connect in different ways, to different fields. I started to collaborate with artists. For example, I worked on this project in Paris called Vivant, on a photo series of installations by florist NUE, inspired by my dishes. Another project was an exhibition opening in a gallery in Los Angeles where art existed out of potatoes. One of the things I made, to go alongside a golden potato necklace, was a chocolate truffle, with inside a tiny amount of potato, and dipped in edible gold. That’s where I try to take it a step further. I want to create different food experiences, and afterwards surprise people by the fact that it was mostly plant based.”
That conceptual vision shows that she has walked a different path than just the culinary. Apart from being inspired by nature and the arts (which to her seem to be the same thing), she takes a lot from the places she has lived in, all around the world. There is minimalism from Scandinavia, the clean and pure simplicity of the Japanese cuisine, and inevitable traces of open-minded California, a place that is always a few steps ahead in the health and nutrition game.
When you travel this much, you find your ways to keep your peace. For her, the secret is to touch base in homely atmospheres, so not staying at hotels, but staying with friends or booking an Airbnb. Anywhere where she can sometimes cook her own food too. Also, she avoids airplane food. What would be her toolbox when she’s on long flights;
Hydration. “I just take lots of herbal teabags, along with my water bottle, and ask for hot water to keep filling it up on board. Flying is super dehydrating, so I make sure I drink more than enough.”
Snacks. “I love the organic seaweed sheets from the brand Clearspring. I also like to bring crackers, some fruit, and small packs of almond butter I stock up on in the States.”
Meals. “I usually bring a bowl of rice or other grains mixed with some cooked veggies. You want foods that are easy to digest, so no beans or a lot of raw veggies. Bringing a pack of miso, which you only need to add water to, works really well too. "
Even though she likes to be challenged, she also loves her food to be simple and approachable. "I don't want to focus too much on the fact that it is mostly plant-based either. I want people to first notice how a dish tastes and looks. Yes this could be the future, and it’s super cool, it's better for nature and better for your body, but I never want to induce any kind of diet or lifestyle to anyone. I just choose to cook this way myself, and I want to show you how good it can be."
"What I do think is really important, is to know where your food is coming from. What do you really know about the products you buy? I always make sure I get high quality, local, seasonal ingredients. Right now, I love cooking with mushrooms and pumpkins. They are so good during this time of the year.”
So next to this artistic side of her work, there's the other side of her realm, the one that feeds and inspires people on the daily, and we at the Juicery are lucky enough to get to experience it every day. “That's what I love about working with the Juicery. I think, especially with plant based food, there's a gap between high class restaurants, and low key food. I love to provide a bridge between those two. When I approached Nathalie (founder), it just seemed to be the right place at the right time for both of us. The Juicery was just looking to not only expend horizontally, but also in depth, by creating new and more diverse products, that did not exist here in Amsterdam yet.”
Lucky for us, to Naiara Amsterdam feels like home, so that is where she'll be. This winter, you can find her watching a movie at The Movies, having ethiopian food at Addis Ababa, buying wine at Vleck, doing Hot Yoga at Absolute, or just cooking at home.
And now you know a bit more about the creatress behind a few of your favourite options on the menu. A little bird told us that you may find her in her own little kitchen in the city, accesible to all, within the very, very foreseeable future. We wish her all the luck in the world. We remain obsessed. Nana, thank you, more please.