When I first meet Mica Najmanovich, we’re outside the nondescript-but-vaguely-fancy apartment building that houses her closed-door restaurant Anafe. Dressed in velvet culottes and maroon Doc Martens, she’s negotiating with her quail guy.
She accepts the man’s offering—a green-striped plastic bag of 14 quails, destined for that evening’s menu; it’s Valentine’s Day—and sends him down the block to her boyfriend and business partner Nico’s apartment. Mica’s responsible for Anafe’s design and communication, Nico the administration and money, including paying the vendors; they share responsibility for the menu, which changes every week. “I don’t know shit about numbers,” she explains to me. She’s designed a kitchen and a business where everyone does what they do best and has the space to experiment and explore.
That space is one centred very much around women’s empowerment because Mica and her staff—who either started out as or have by now become her friends—are feminists. She doesn’t tell her wait staff to put the bill down in the middle of the table, as opposed to giving it directly to the man—as is customary in Argentina and much of Latin America—but that’s how they do it.
Mica uses inclusive vocabulary in all of Anafe’s branding materials (Spanish defaults plural nouns to the masculine, as in amigos; she consciously chooses a neutral construction: amigues). This sometimes leads to aggressive Instagram comments on Anafe’s posts about how she’s destroying the Spanish language. “This woman felt like she could say this, apparently,” Mica says, pulling up one such exchange.
She then scrolls over to her direct messages and shows me how she flags messages from people who made reservations with her but were rude to her or her staff when they came in. “Our bottom line is—come and have a good time. Who you are, what you do, I don’t care.” She clarifies that she does care in the cases where guests treat her servers badly. “In that case, you’re just not going to come back. I don’t want you,” she explains.
That liberty to not accept customers back is one part of the appeal that led Mica to open Anafe as a puerta cerrada (closed door) restaurant. Cooking out of a fully-equipped private apartment on the 8th floor of a residential building, she doesn’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of the city. And she’s able to control every part of the experience.
Anafe’s décor is simple. It’s not where Mica and Nico have spent their money or time. It’s verdant, alive; plants hang from the corners, matching the green aborto legal (legalise abortion) handkerchief nestled around the neck a bottle of wine. The bottles are chalked with their prices and lined up neatly; the orderly stacks of plates on the table in front of them give off the vibes of a particularly well-designed yard sale or a Pinterest bistro board. The air conditioner on the terrace is festooned with strings of garlic, the counter separating the kitchen and the salón is cluttered with mismatched vases holding bright yellow flowers and tasting spoons, and a side shelf is lined with cookbooks in two languages.
Mica’s English is perfect; she studied in London and lived in Melbourne for two years. It’s Australia where she learned to be a pastry chef. (She recognizes the stereotype in that: “Pastry found me, I didn’t find pastry. Every time I went into a kitchen, they saw I was a girl and put me with pastries. When Nico started cooking, and he’d never worked in kitchens before, they put him on fire.”) She didn’t go to Australia for the job opportunities, though. She went because she was sure she’d burned her bridges in the Buenos Aires food scene.
Mica was a high-achieving child. After excelling in both a “hippy primary school” and an intense university-prep school for high school, she headed to university to study psychology. She thought she’d be a psychologist, like her mother; she was fascinated especially by children and their socialization and development.
Her passion dried up in the classroom. She didn’t enjoy the all-lecture, no-discussion environment she found there. She’d worked in catering before starting university, but it wasn’t until her older sister Gabriela sat her down and encouraged her to learn to be a chef that Mica left. “She told me, ‘You cook all the time. You love it. Just do it,’” quotes Mica, who took Gaba’s advice and enrolled in culinary school.
But she soon realised culinary school didn’t fire her up, either. “What they were teaching me—it wasn’t cooking. It was technique,” she explains. “So I left for an internship at a restaurant, which became my school.”
That didn’t work out, either; she quit the internship after two months. “The head chef was xenophobic and misogynistic. He’d yell at the Colombian cooks and ask them to think like human beings. A few days in, I used a spider to pull a piece of meat out of a water bath. He grabbed my hand, which was covered with cuts and burns after a few days in the kitchen, and put it in the hot water and yelled, ‘See, it doesn’t even burn.’ I cried that night and my mom said, ‘You need to tell him tonight you’re not going back.’” Mica quit, but the chef didn’t take it well. “He told me, ‘If you want to have a career here, you’re dead. You’re not going to make it.’ I was young and I believed him.”
“It taught me everything I didn’t want to be,” she says of the experience. She left Argentina for Australia, and when she came back, she kept cooking, but she started small. She worked for a bistro in Buenos Aires with a much more supportive team environment. She reconnected with Nico, who she knew from high school and had recently come back from his own travels in Spain, and they planned a pop-up in a friend’s kitchen.
She runs through the menu from that night two years ago. “That was the first time we did the ricotta, which is still on the menu today. I did some complicated ‘milk and honey’ dessert with a honey cake, milk mousse, and a honey shard. I don’t make food like that anymore. I want to keep it simple. Simple and delicious.”
The pop-up was a success, and they kept growing. They rented space from friends whose restaurants weren’t open Monday nights. They’d prep all day at Nico’s house, then serve at night. “He had an oven from the 70s that had three burners that didn’t really work and a fridge that went down twice a day, and we did it. We started to think that if we had a good kitchen, we could nail it.” So they invested in renting and remodeling a space, and Anafe was born.
All of Mica’s experiences, good and bad, poured into the team she was creating. “[Nico and I] don’t believe in shouting or being angry chefs. We believe that if you’re happy in your work, you want to come in. We ask the team what they want to put on the menu. We don’t really believe in a vertical structure—it’s more horizontal,” she explains of Anafe’s work environment. “If someone fucks up, my job isn’t to yell. It’s to fix it and to teach.”
Mica’s goal for her restaurant was simple: “We wanted to have an open space, an amazing, comfortable place where people would come, eat delicious food, drink delicious wine, and have a good time.” Since Anafe opened for its first dinner service on April 20, 2018, that goal has been met.
Four days after our interview, I go back to Anafe. This time, I’m there not for an interview on a sleepy Thursday morning before a big rain. It’s dinner service, and the restaurant is humming. Mica’s behind the counter, piping or cutting or plating something, and my table on the balcony looks in on the whole world she’s created.
Our plates come out, one by one: the ricotta, impossibly soft and creamy, almost like a savory ice cream, served with thick, flavorful homemade sourdough; ceviche built on a bed of cool gazpacho; a fried egg yolk running into crisp, spicy kimchi; tender roast beef with creamy potatoes and a zingy salsa verde; sweet, round profiteroles filled with praline semifredo and swimming in chocolate. It’s all exactly as Mica told me it would be: simple and delicious.
I watch Mica move throughout the dining room, laughing with friends, greeting new diners, and ushering back a dish to the kitchen and discussing it with her team when the Australian couple next to me sent it back. She’s the only female chef in the kitchen; three male chefs flit around the open space, occasionally becoming four when Nico steps in to join them. I think about what we discussed in our interview about gender in kitchens.
“Isn’t it interesting,” Mica told me, “how in private houses, it’s meant for women to be cooking, and in public spaces, men? Why would you prefer to hire a male chef over a woman when normally the woman should have been cooking all her life?” Mica has a female apprentice training with her—in pastry—but she’s not there that night.
As I watch Mica move around the space she’s created, I think back on something else she told me: “It’s up to my generation of chef to build the future kitchens that we want. And stop with the myth of ‘kitchens are violent, they’re hard.’ I love kitchens. They’re super fun. I’m laughing and cooking delicious food. I’m fucking up some recipes and trying and failing until I nail it. I just do it.”
And here, in this quiet corner where Colegiales meets Chacarita, where the dining room is full for three weeks out, she is doing it. One plate at a time.
What book, music, or movie do you keep going back to?
Zoolander. (Laughs.) And Bistronomy [by Jane Sigal], which is really inspiring. Anafe’s inspired by it. It’s this new way to do bistros—young, no tablecloths, fresh ingredients, a changing menu written by hand.
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, it would be…
French fries with ketchup.
“Amo cocinar”—“I love cooking.” It’s what my head chef used to tell me during busy services. “I love cooking, I love cooking.”
Three things you can’t live without?
Avocado, coffee, and tomatoes. And lemon!
When you wake up in the morning, you…
Call the dog, Julio, to come to bed. That’s a new thing, Nico just adopted him.
Five words to describe you?
Funny, exigent, big personality, cares about family & friends. Is that more than five?
Katherine is an American writer, reader, and full-time traveler who has spent the last year exploring South America and writing about it. Her site, Kath Meets World, focuses on food, feminism, slow travel, and books, and if she's not hiking or drafting an article, she's probably eating carrot cake.