Ever since she was little, Naiara Sabandar has been passionate about food and its potential to make people happy. So it was just a matter of time for her to quit her job in the fashion industry and pursue her dream. She took courses, she travelled the world to learn and taste different cultures, ingredients and flavours. Back in her native Amsterdam, she launched Chef Nana, a culinary creative practice where she and her business partner Zana bring up new perspectives and experiences around art, food and nature.
We met them not long ago at Casa Balandra, where they created a fascinating dinner based on seasonal Majorcan herbs and showed us the magic of Japanese Hoshigaki, the delicate art of drying persimmons. Beautiful, clean, delicate, minimalistic recipes and conceptual installations where all kinds of seasonal plants and flowers simply shine at their most.
What do you love about feeding people?
I make people happy, take care of them and connect people through food. A meal is the moment of the day where people look most forward to. All senses are tied up to food, and memory is connected to the sense of smell, bringing up beautiful memories. It’s a way to communicate without using words.
How did you start cooking?
Since I was little, I have always been interested in food. The Basque side of my family being in the culinary industry, I was always curious to learn and explore more about food. I never thought it would become my profession: it was foremost a passion. I was studying fashion and ended up working in that industry for several years. Until I realized it was cooking that made me most happy. I gave it a try and followed my heart. Do what I love for a living.
You define yourself as a culinary artist. Is that more of a cook? More of an artist? Please, describe to us what you do.
I would say a bit of both. I really enjoy cooking family style meals on a daily basis, with beautiful seasonal ingredients. On the other hand, my business partner Zana and I also love to create more conceptual food-related moments.
Besides our soon-to-be-opened restaurant/canteen Oficina in Amsterdam, we offer food catering, as well as food & beverage and branding consulting. By combining these, we blend food, food culture and design to explore the unique relationship between people and what they eat.
You work exclusively with plants. What fascinates you about greens?
Plants are a gift from nature. First of all, they look beautiful, and they taste amazing. Next to that, they are an extremely powerful source of energy, nutrients and minerals. They adapt to seasons, and keep the earth’s ecosystem in balance. We have to take care of them and respect them. Plants are medicine for the soul.
How is the creative process behind a new recipe? Do you start working on concepts or do you focus the research on a particular ingredient?
It really depends on what the recipe is for. I try to cook with whatever is in season. Certain ingredients are then the basis for creating a new dish. Sometimes I research different ways to use a particular ingredient. Other times I feel like creating a flavour similar to one I might have experienced during one of my travels. I also love finding traditional recipes from all over the world and see how I can add my own twist.
Your father was half Dutch and half Indonesian, your mother is from Spain and you’ve been living in Hong Kong, Germany, Stockholm, California, and South Korea. How would you say these heritage and experiences have influenced your work?
I only realised a few years ago that growing up in this mix of cultures was quite special. Celebrating my birthday as a kid, half of the table was filled with Spanish tapas and the other half with Indonesian dishes: one big fiesta. I could tell everyone loved it, not just myself. I feel that having experienced different types of food from around the world has made me even more curious to explore and taste more. It made me interested in seeing what people in different countries create with the ingredients they have. It has influenced my work in a way that I mix dishes, techniques and flavours from different countries into one. When people ask me what kind of food I make, I find it difficult to answer.
How important is travelling for your work?
I would not cook without travelling.
What are your most memorable food experiences?
I have too many! The most recent ones would be during my trip in Oaxaca, Mexico especially eating at a very special restaurant called Alfonsina. The other one is from last year, when I lived and cooked with Buddhist chef Jeong Kwan in the mountains of South Korea for a couple of weeks. Another memory is much older: we ate with the whole family at my grandparent’s town in the Basque Country at a local sidreria, where they had the most delicious tortilla.
What are your favourite markets around the world?
The Santa Monica Farmers Market in L.A., Ohara market just outside of Kyoto, Gyeongdong Market in Seoul, and I actually love our little farmers market in Amsterdam, at the Noordermarkt.
You work closely with local farmers bringing back ‘forgotten vegetables’. Do you feel there’s a relevant mission behind it?
This was a project we started during the first Covid lockdown that closed restaurants’ doors in the Netherlands. We noticed that a lot of farmers were, and still are, struggling to sell their vegetables. Especially the farmer we worked with, Wim, who only works with restaurants in the city. We decided to help him and offer people a chance to cook with his amazing and unique ‘forgotten’ vegetables, that you usually couldn’t buy anywhere else. It was a great project, and I still feel we need to try to work directly with farmers, instead of having big corporations exploit the chain. I feel like the mission is to support local farmers, getting produce directly from the source, and to eat real vegetables.
How would you describe this ‘forgotten taste’?
The modern taste is oversimplified, the flavours of those vegetables are a reminder of how complex our food heritage is.
What are the ingredients you can’t live without?
Olive oil, shoyu and tea.
What is the most amazing plant you’ve cooked with?
The lotus, its root and flower. I have always loved the flavour and texture of roots, but being in South Korea I learned about the symbolism of the Lotus Flower from the monks. It’s a symbol of purity, enlightenment, self-generation and rebirth. It grows in dirty waters, deep in the mud and even far away from sunlight. But sooner or later the lotus blooms into the most beautiful flower. Drinking lotus flower tea reminds me of this.
This is your quote: “Always on a journey to discover the best things in life”. Could you let us know some of the things you’ve learned so far?
I’ve learned that you have to find joy in life through purpose, find something that gets you up every morning and keeps you going. Find a medium through which you can express your passion. Enjoy life and don’t worry too much!