It is a true test of a chef’s skill if the mere mention of their name has guests salivating for another taste of their food. Mourad Lahlou is definitely serious about the business of creating such food memories with his contemporary Moroccan food. In our conversation he shares the journey of an ethnic chef, doing away with pre-conceptions to bring his flavors into the world of haute cuisine. Warm, hospitable, kind with an infectious good humor, he stands out among his contemporaries.
An edited version of this interview was published in The Daily Meal.
Moroccan Chef Mourad Lahlou: The Journey from Tradition to Modernity
by Geeta Bansal
The world first heard about this chef from Morocco in the late nineties when he began unleashing his bold flavors on diners at his restaurant in the Bay Area. The Marrakesh native first came to the US as a student of macroeconomics aiming to establish a career foundation for his future. To the consternation of his family he then gave it all up to start cooking food relying solely on his food memories, a very intuitive palate and nonexistent professional training.
The San Francisco restaurant industry is challenging at best with its concentration of some of the most competent culinary talents in the country but Lahlou dived in with a confidence fueled by a pure passion for cooking. Acquiring most of his skill on the job he has been fortunate to draw on an invaluable resource, his friend Harold McGee. The American author on the subject of food science, McGee has a Demigod status with cooks around the world for his book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen”, that holds answers to most cooking conundrums confronting cooks. The self-taught chef has acquired more than tattoos up his arms since, now his flavor bombs implode on diner’s palates, never overwhelming with spices but deftly piling subtle layers of flavors that leave them craving more.
Lahlou’s food has a unique soul reflective of this very down to earth and friendly man who epitomizes hospitality. When he speaks about his work it is apparent that it all comes from a deep-seated desire to share his passion and much more. His boundless energy was an asset in the Food Network’s Iron Chef challenge in Season 7 in 2009 where he emerged victorious, beating chef Iron Chef Cat Cora. The enthusiasm also witnessed on a 13-part series on PBS is catching, as he has the ability to rope in audiences into his world with colorful stories of his culture. Lahlou has shared his modern Moroccan outlook in his cookbook “Mourad: New Moroccan” published in 2011. He is a member of the American Chef Corps of the State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Program along with other high profile chef’s making significant contribution to the American dining scene. As an ardent supporter of the Bocuse d’ Or team USA he is part of the screening process for candidates representing the team and fundraising events for its mentor programs.
Chef’s cooking ethnic cuisines have to justify their cooking to diners arriving with preconceived notions making it an uphill battle to put their own stamp on their traditional cuisines. Lahlou opened his first restaurant Kasbah 1998, closing it to open the ground-breaking Aziza in 2001 which racked up the first Michelin star for a Moroccan restaurant (Aziza is currently closed for extensive renovations to the interior). It has since been followed by Mourad a contemporary restaurant on the street level of the Pacific Telephone building on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. The upscale restaurant that opened its doors in early 2015 is a vast open space with a suspended wine cellar befitting its extensive wine collection and a bar that serves up cocktails with a twist like Clove and Hibiscus or Saffron and Honey. As for the food, the moment the fresh baked bread accompanied by vibrant dips appear on the table and the flavors of steaming couscous, lamb shoulder, roast meats and spices waft around the room guests are already making plans for the next visit. Within a few months of its opening the restaurant earned its first Michelin star and with Chef Lahlou’s expert remix of tradition and modernity more stars are on the horizon.
Was it an impulsive move to give up a predictable career for cooking?
My family did not understand why I would come all the way across the world to cook for other people. For me it was a choice of staying in a field or a miserable job that would not give me any joy. It was never my intent to go into this industry and in a way, I just stumbled upon it. I had never worked for a chef and I remember the first time I ordered a fish in to the restaurant and didn’t even know where to order it from. I thought I would have to go to the market in the morning to pick it up but was told that I didn’t have to and they would just bring it in to me. That was the first phase and then breaking down the fish when it arrived was a revelation.
Is that when you develop your own methodology and style?
Yes, because it all has to make sense to you and then you have to believe in yourself and the way you do things. At the end of the day it was about re-inventing the wheel but at the same time it was re-inventing your own wheel. Breaking down the fish took was a process and I eventually made sense out of it and became convinced that was the right way for me. I also became very aware of not wasting any part of it and where I come from in our culture we don’t waste anything.
You have now become active in this area?
Yes, I am now part of an organization called FPA (Food Positive Action) in Washington DC and we work to reduce food waste in America.it turns out that 40% of food produced in the country goes to waste every day. It does happen elsewhere too wherever there is money and people have options. I remember growing up in Morocco when we would buy a kilo of lamb to feed 12 people. Here a kilo which is little over two pounds is enough for two or three people. You look at any plate and it features a big chunk of meat and that is unfortunate.
Is that why ethnic cuisines are more creative, enhancing flavors with spices because such abundance does not exist in those parts of the world?
Absolutely! When we present a dish in Morocco a big platter is placed in the middle of the table and it’s usually the tougher cuts like shoulder and leg, stuff that takes a lot of time to cook are used. We don’t care about the rack of lamb and don’t even care to buy it because it has no flavor for us.
We take the shoulder and braise it for three hours and most of the flavor goes into the sauce. Then we plate it with the meat in the middle and a pile of vegetables on top and then a lot of sauce around it. It is not considered polite to go into the middle of the platter first but you have to work your way in by first eating the bread with the sauces and then the vegetables before finally going to the meat. By then you are pretty much full so you don’t eat a lot of protein in the meal since for us the sauce is the most import part of the meal. That is how we could feed a lot of people with small portion of meat. If you go to Morocco you will find that the shoulder is more expensive than the rack of lamb. When I came here I found it cost $30/lb and was shocked.
Now the meat craze has gone further with the aged meats and on display meat lockers in restaurants and is this a positive change or negative?
No I believe we should work on concentrating the flavor. We have to understand the cut of meat that we are using, as the fat, the sinew, the connective tissues, the bone structure, and that every piece is different. Then we have to comprehend how to get the flavor out of that product.
You have a close relationship with Harold Mcgee who is a mentor for self-taught like us with his books. Has that helped mold your perspective on food?
I have known him for over 15 years and he often came to my other restaurant Aziza and I would cook for him and have the most amazing conversations. That man’s perspective on food is so fresh and so cool, in fact he way is cooler than any of the cool chefs out there. I don’t care about cook books but I stand by his book as it’s really valuable to me. As you said when you come from a background that has nothing to do with food it’s a valuable resource. I had never cooked before I opened my restaurant and literally started cooking when we opened the doors. He was a very valuable asset for me and we became close friends over time.
I have so many conversations with him and call in him whenever I have a question about something. He knows I am a coffee fanatic and I became such a snob when it came to coffee. Once he came by the restaurant and at the end of the meal I asked if he would like some coffee and offered all the choices we had. His response was that he was not in on this new trend for coffee saying that he still liked the old-fashioned coffee. I asked if it was the kind that sits in a pot for two hours and tastes stale and burnt. He said he liked it that way and I thought it was phenomenal.
Is it because when he was growing up this trendiness did not exist?
I feel that it’s about a memory. To me food is all about a memory like in Morocco a great chef is not necessarily one who can take a piece of squash and make something utterly different or unique. It is rather someone who can make food which the second you smell it or look at it or put it in your mouth it transports you into the past. If a chef can make you relate to your past then he or she has done a good job. In Morocco, we don’t think of chef’s as people who are experimental. For us they are preservers of tradition.
Are cooks and chefs relating their own memories and stories through their food?
Yes, and when I came here it was the opposite. The best chefs are the ones who can take a piece of cauliflower and marry it with chocolate or confit it in duck fat or do this and that to it. For me I have never tasted that and it might taste great but I cannot relate to it. I want to feel that when I eat something it reminds me of the way my grandmother made it or that is the best couscous that I have ever had. In Morocco for our meal on Friday my great grandmother used to roll couscous on Tuesday, dry it on Wednesday, steam and serve it to us on Friday. Those are the memories I want to preserve. A lot of people say my mom used to make the best lasagna, or meatballs or something else because it’s the connection you have with your past or rather the special person at that time in your life. Those are beautiful memories and now when I go back home fortunately some of my aunts are still around to help bring back those memories.
Have those taste memories stood the test of time?
When I first came here I didn’t go back home for seven years since I was in school. I remember telling people about such and such aunt who made the best this or that. Now when I go now have to admit that some of those dishes are mediocre at best. Sometimes I take people with me and build up this experience for them and then it turns out that it’s not that great anymore.
I remember one time I was telling a writer friend about we how cherish food in Morocco, it’s such an essential part of our existence and how we respect animals and all that. I took him to the meat market and it’s not like here with food in pretty packages it’s all in its natural state with live chickens, rabbits and all other kinds of meat. You pick your chicken and they kill it right there with flies and dogs running around. Then I realized it is us and this is what we do there and at that time my perspective was different and I never thought it was abusive or anything. Sometimes the memory is stronger than the actual facts around it or whether the food is fundamentally solid, delicious or tasty. Memories are sometimes tastier than reality.
Can we can revisit them time and again to relive experiences?
Yes of course and even a certain smell like that of bread being baked at the bakery sets off nostalgia. Every morning before I left for school the dough was dropped off with the baker who knew everyone by their trays of dough. I remember getting out of high school at noon to pick up the bread and taking it home for lunch. It was a daily routine but I distinctly remember that smell.
Moroccan food not only has taste but also a lot of color as well, but are the flavors always bold?
Moroccan food is not meant to be subtle where you have to look for flavor. I feel these days food is becoming very intellectualized. People talk more about the idea but I want to taste it. We Moroccans are wired that way since before you put something in your mouth you are supposed to touch it with your fingers, you feel the heat, the texture. You feel if it’s soft, or slippery, or crispy and all this before you even put it into your mouth. You have a connection with it and when you bring it closer to your mouth you smell it and once you put it in your mouth you have all these sensations going on. Food is becoming more of an intellectual process whereas I feel you have to know the story before you can even experience it.
Are chefs overthinking food and paying more attention to presentation and plating?
I do because the most important thing is to bring out the flavor. From experience with other chefs, some of whom are close friends they usually start with an idea in their head. Like they want to make a dessert that looks like a lemon but is actually not a lemon so they will make it out of blown sugar and it’s filled with lemon mousse inside so when you break it you taste the lemon. I hired a chef once who bought mandarins from a dedicated farmer at the market, juiced them and went through all these manipulations to make a mandarin. He put it on the menu and it looked exactly like a mandarin but the original mandarin had tasted way better than what he made. I though why are we destroying a beautiful fruit that I could eat and enjoy more in its natural state. The trickery in there had nothing to do with taste.
Isn’t all this part of the competitive atmosphere in the restaurant business where people are vying to one-up the other?
It’s actually product differentiation so that they can make themselves so different from the others. It’s not based on flavor but merely on aesthetics. That, I feel, is really dangerous.
Chefs and restaurants are stressing use of locally produced ingredients s. Where do you stand on that?
Alice Waters is perceived as the voice of modern America cuisine and the proponent of the concept of local which is a beautiful concept. If you visit her restaurant a large proportion of her menu and wine list is from places like Italy or France. Even the sparkling water is from Europe, anchovies from Spain and so is the olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Molasses from Greece, capers from Italy but the carrots are local so does that qualify as local.
We are in a position where we can make food tasty while supporting the local products. However we need to improve other things so show me one producer who can make Parmesan better locally. I am doing a disservice to my customers by using an inferior product that probably costs more just because it is local.
Is American food culture becoming more homogeneous even regionally even with their food sources listed on the menus these days?
There are many factors contributing to that and it’s not just the chef’s. One of them is the ideology of buying food from certain farmers. This become so powerful after the Chez Panisse movement to a point where if you were not buying your beets from such and such producer, or your broccoli or strawberries from a specific farmer, then something was amiss. It became almost an obligation to justify the value of the beets.
All this focus was on just these few selected farms who were struggling to sell earlier but now they were pressured to produce more to keep up with the demand. Then over time the taste was lost and before you knew it people were listing the source of produce on their menus just as a PR sell. It became so silly that everywhere you went the same farms were listed.
The second issue is labor and even if you went to really good restaurants they could not afford to have such leveraged food and they simultaneously needed to rely on simplicity. In San Francisco, we don’t have a lot of cooks anymore and the margins are so slim anyway, so if you lose a person in the kitchen you can’t afford to train a new one who you might have to pay more to put in their place. They come in and are not so skilled to begin with making it necessary to make the food simple. It takes three months to get them up to the standard of your kitchen.
Young cooks focus on resume building had them flitting from place to place and in this process, does training fall by the wayside?
The craftsmanship in this industry is diminishing day by day. Nobody has the patience, will or the desire to perfect something as basic as trimming asparagus. There are not many such people out there though I have a few that will come up and say that they really want to perfect this skill. However it costs money to train somebody up to the skill level that we don’t even need every day. I tend to look at it as an investment and it’s hard though because you don’t know if they are going to stay on even six months.
We have had people present us with resumes with so many places on it that we don’t even touch them. The first thing people say when they come to interview is that they are looking for a home but in reality, they are looking for a book of recipes and to observe what we do with no intentions of staying on. If all they want are recipes then the Internet has billions of them even for mac n cheese there are about 1.7 billion recipes out there. I want someone who knows the intricate balance between well done and perfectly done food and not many people have that.
Is your food your own version of Moroccan cuisine and different from the traditional version?
When I first came here I had no idea how far Morocco was even geographically from the US. I happened to also pick a place that was on the farthest side of America from Morocco. I was so homesick and missed everything that had made my life so joyful in Morocco but I had no idea what brought me that joy. The picking up the bread at noon after dropping it off in the morning, the snacks in the afternoon or the dinner was all about food. Daily breakfast was at 7:30 and the same characters in my family would be arguing about the lunch menu. My grandpa would be sitting quietly while the women would argue over the menu choices and I would be so annoyed by these daily conversations. I realized later that it was what kept us all together and it was the glue that made us stick together.
Nowadays you see people on the phone while they are eating, no hugs, no looking at each other. When I first arrived I missed not just the voices but the smells, the light, the flavors and tastes. That is when I started cooking from those memories and would try to recollect if when my mom made meatballs how did she chop the onions or the sizzle when she dropped them in the pot. I didn’t know what spices she used but would recreate from my memories of the taste. Eventually it became my version of what I remembered eating. Initially it was a disastrous process lacking flavor, not balanced or lacking acid and I would repeat the process till I got it right.
Even if I could call my mother she would not have had a recipe to give me since she did it by instinct and her own vision. To feed myself I would work to get it right according my sensibility and eventually would come up with something which my own. When we first opened our restaurant in 1996 my obsession and fascination was with creating the dishes from Morocco in the US. I was very rigid about what was appropriate and what was not and I did a decent job at that and people loved it. It was different and tasty, profound, layered but at one time I tried to replicate a very simple sandwich I ate back home. It was a bread bun with cream cheese, hard boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, cumin, salt, and harissa drizzled over it. It used to make me so happy to get one for 25 cents and the vendor would make right there at his stall and it was so satisfying to eat.
I tried to make it here with the best products using the same ingredients but it would not taste the same and I couldn’t figure out why. It dawned on me when I went back home and to the same guy and ordered one. When I took a bite it was mesmerizing again and I realized it was not just the sandwich but everything around me, the sounds, the smoke in the air, the smells, and the fact that I could sit down on the sun warmed ground at night. I realized that the food I was making in America had no soul and people were eating it because it was different.
I came back and said the food we are making has no sense of place in the middle of the Bay Area. We were busy and doing well so everyone said why do you want to mess with a good thing. I said it didn’t make any sense for us as cooks to keep doing it and so we are going to change things around. It was 2001 and we decided to cook from our own perspective from then on.
Was it challenging?
It was really hard but once we decided all these doors opened up and we could use all these ingredients that were around us but we never used earlier because we didn’t have them in Morocco. We could use a green strawberry to bring acid to a dish or even pickle it instead of a conventional ripe strawberry. It opened our horizons and we have never looked back since.
Is it more satisfying for you as a cook to have that freedom?
It is more honest for sure. I came to this country when I was seventeen and I am 49 now so I have lived over three decades here. Of the time I lived in Morocco I probably don’t even remember half of it, so for me to say that I am going to make traditional Moroccan food is a lie. What I am cooking right now is the food that I like to eat for example the roast chicken on the menu is like the roast chicken that I had when I first came here. It blew me away with its simplicity and taste where you could actually taste the chicken. In Morocco, the whole chicken with all its parts goes in a pot with spices to make a stew. That one chicken with the taste mostly in the sauce will feed so many with taste of preserved lemon, cracked olives, saffron, cumin, and other spices. I used to love it but hated eating the breast because it was cooked for two and half hours and was tough. The meat is tougher and leaner back to here anyway, more like heritage chickens. So what I have tried to do is marry the two and now I break it down, brine it in the same spices as used in the tagine, then we air chill it and then we roast it. In it I can taste the flavors from the tagine but have a juicy chicken in the end. I feel if I had never allowed myself to think outside the box I would never have been able to make a dish like that.
Is that how your food is different from typical Moroccan food?
Yes it is, because we are allowing that evolution to take place as opposed to looking at what chef’s in Morocco are doing. Back home chef’s will have an apprentice work alongside with them, usually the daughter or son and they beat into them day in and out as to how to even roll couscous. They never allow them the freedom to do it themselves until after that person is gone. It’s a different perspective. I want to be able to share myself with people and this is the food that I like to eat.
What’s the best appreciation for your food and by whom?
When I go to Morocco I don’t try to impose my style on people and the biggest compliment I have ever had was from my mother. The first time she came I served her a meal at Aziza and she said she could taste every dish. She commented that while it was reminiscent of what she cooked back home she could taste the ingredients in the meat and not just the sauce. It was heartening to know that I had maintained that integrity.
When you change a traditional cuisine you also get a lot of negative comments. Do you still experience that? What is your opinion of fusion in cuisine.
There is a huge problem regarding this as I discovered in America. When chef’s like David Kinch or Daniel Patterson both white American chefs, and good friends of mine, cook food heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine they are perceived as visionaries for using cross cultural influences. A whole meal at many fine restaurants can feel like you are in Japan with the ingredients, treatment but we never question it because the flavors are there.
If an ethnic chef does that, for example if I use soy sauce, I am a sellout. So, we ethnic chefs are not allowed to expand our field. We are supposed to be doing buffet style food that costs $9.95 and where people can pile on food on the plates with a huge metal spoon and then go back for another round. I say that is racist and not representative of that cuisine. They are passing judgement on a culture and it’s cuisine based on a buffet experience. When I started, people had a perception of what I am supposed to be doing and I obliged initially. I had the belly dancer, the hand washing at the table and all that while I had never seen a belly dancer while dining at home. They only exist in hotels and places catering to tourists so I decided I was not doing this anymore.
American chefs are allowed a lot of leeway with experimentation like using black garlic, bonito, XO sauce, or whatever and are considered geniuses for doing so. When ethnic chef’s do so we are believed to be ruining the culture. Why are the same rules and standards not applied to us? It makes sense to incorporate influences from outside at times for any chef regardless of the type of cuisine.
Is it also a time and a phase in American kitchens and now are we are stepping into a new era with this fusion?
It’s totally trendy now and it’s something new coming up now but when I eat the food of chef’s who are cooking this way I don’t end up craving it. I eat it and it’s fascinating, surprising but the experience does not take you back again. For me that is a problem as for one there is no soul in that food. I am serving couscous from my kitchen while working with serious red necks, wonderful people, who when they first taste it literally melt away. When they taste the layers of flavor, like the savory aspect, the spice and the sweetness of harissa reminds them of the soul food that they eat in the south and it resonates with them. This is because in the south they have a similar philosophy about food.
How can ethnic chef’s break through these barriers?
We ethnic chefs are at a disadvantage for sure. To change this I feel we need be true to ourselves. We should cook the food that we want to cook and eat ourselves. It doesn’t have to be done just to be cool or as an obligation. You don’t need to emulate what your colleagues are doing or what Joan Roca is doing. You should not be forced to go into that either or even take your cuisine and culinary treasures and force them into a mold that doesn’t fit. That leads to the worst kind of cooking but instead you can take what you do and your inclination and blend them into a new way of cooking. If it speaks to you in a certain way you should be allowed to do that.
Our cuisine is ancient and has evolved over a time period two thousand times longer than other cuisines and goes in a circle. America is brand new and been around comparable to a sneeze in other cultures. It’s still trying to find it’s true legs compared to the Egyptian, Indian or Chinese cultures. It’s more of a chaos with all these cultures coming together and may take 500 or 1000 years to have a culinary voice. Right now, that voice is a combination of sounds from everywhere.