Interview – Chef Mourad Lahlou

Interview conducted & written by contributing writer Helena McMurdo

Photo courtesy of Deborah Jones

Mourad Lahlou is the Chef behind San Francisco’s Aziza, where his cuisine marries the traditions of Morocco with the fresh local ingredients of the Bay Area and the advanced culinary techniques employed by only the most modern of chefs.

Virtually self-taught, he learned to cook “accidentally” while at university, trying to recreate the dishes of his childhood Morocco and longing for a connection to home. Eventually abandoning his studies to open a restaurant with the support of friends and his former professors, his restaurant became a success almost overnight and took him from economics major to major chef. Today, he is known as the Chef behind the innovative cuisine at Aziza and has a Michelin Star to boot!

I spent an hour with Mourad recently when he stopped in Vancouver on a whirlwind trip to our beautiful city to talk about his first book; Mourad: New Moroccan. Nostalgic and passionate, he shared childhood memories of his upbringing and the place that food holds in his culture. Inquisitive and curious by nature, he also spoke about his somewhat trial-and-error process and new techniques he’s employing in his kitchen. It was a pretty inspiring conversation and I ran home to start my preserved lemons so I’d be ready to start cooking! I left feeling that even I could learn to hand-roll couscous and with a wonderful reminder of the very important role that food plays in all our lives.

What was the inspiration behind this book?
People write the same book (on Moroccan cooking) over and over again. Every book has the same table of contents, the same dishes, the same pictures. It’s stuck in people’s heads in the west that ‘that’s what it is’.  So I felt like, you know what, we’ve done some really amazing things here and we need to document it and share it with the world. We need to change this notion that Moroccan food does not evolve. If we can convey this knowledge that we’ve gathered over the years to somebody who can take it further then that would be awesome.

The book is stunning! It’s a beautiful story, visually beautiful and a wonderful read. How involved were you in the design and the day-to-day production of it?
There were five of us and we were all involved in every single aspect of the book for two years. So it literally took a total of 10 years – two years of five people’s lives. I came up with the recipes and when I wanted to write the book, Suzie Heller (the producer) said instead of thinking about two years from now (when the book was scheduled to come out), that we needed to take it back. People are not accustomed to seeing this kind of Moroccan food and they’ve been told that Moroccan food is what has been previously documented in other cookbooks so let’s bring them a little bit further. Crack open the door and let them see through it.

What is the biggest misconception about your book?
I think, and I never thought about this before doing the book, that one of the biggest misconceptions was that people assume that because I’m a Chef and I have a restaurant, that the recipes are going to be really hard. When we first started working on the book what we really wanted to do was to get home cooks inspired with Moroccan food. But, we wanted to do it from a different perspective. We didn’t want to ‘dumb’ down the recipes. I refuse to think that people are dumb when it comes to cooking, or that people are intimidated. I think that if people are given the right instructions, the right guidelines, they’ll be able to make some really amazing food.

I was really intrigued about the way you set up the book with the seven lessons at the beginning. It seems that would be a really great starting point to work through the book.
I felt like if somebody is going to cook Moroccan food for the first time, these are the things they need to know. If you read the first chapters, it’s basically like a lesson. It’s a guide for “what you need to know”. You need to build your pantry, you need to make the preserved lemons, make the Ras El Hanout. Once you have the pantry ready, then you have the tools and you can go to virtually any recipe and be able to do it a couple of hours.

I love that approach because it makes it easy for people in the long run.  What about making your own couscous? I read that and I thought WOW! Is that feasible for everyone?! What advice would you give to people who might be daunted by the thought of attempting something like making couscous from scratch?
Making couscous is something that people read about and it’s something that has become so romanticized. You know, it’s like this ‘mysterious thing’, it’s so ‘weird’, it’s so ‘hard’. And it’s true it’s really hard, but it’s just like riding a bicycle. Once you make that first turn and get going, there’s no stopping you. It’s the same with couscous.

You take semolina, you take flour and water, then you try to make a pasta basically. You’re rolling it and it’s all in the feel. It’s something that you have to do over and over and over again but it’s so rewarding and once you taste the difference there is no going back. I said in the book that the couscous you buy from a store (that is precooked) –  I compare that to those noodles, you know in the little boxes. It doesn’t compare to a nice bowl of fresh pasta.

That’s interesting. I feel like there are lots of things in your book that are really teaching people techniques. Like making cheese for instance – that would be attractive to a home cook to learn how to do.
You know, the purpose of the book is not to say “hey this is how you make Morroccan food.” At the end of the book, people will be better cooks. They will say “I made cheese in this Moroccan way. Why can’t I apply that to something else?” People will be more willing and inclined to do things. If we can achieve that, then it’s great! I want people to be able to shed those fears of “I can’t cook at home so now I’m going to order a pizza”. It’s so easy once you have the skills to cook at home.

What lessons can we learn as a society with regard to the way we eat in North America? Are there lessons we can take from your cuisine, but also from Moroccan cuisine and the way people eat in Morrocco that are helpful?
If you were to go to Morocco even today, lunch is huge. People go back home for lunch. Lunch does not start before everybody is there seated at the table. It breaks the day into two parts – you know, you go to work, you go back home, be with your family for two hours and then you go back to work. Here it is the other way around. Work takes you away form everything. You are continuously being yanked from your family. The kids are in day care, you don’t see your kids.

The way it’s looked at in North America, food is something that gives you fuel. The whole nurturing part of food is taken out of the equation. The Italians do that so well. The Moroccans do it. The Spanish do it. The French do it. It’s an emotional experience every single time. Food is what brings people together. Food is what allows people to tell stories. It allows them to gossip, it’s therapy. It’s your shrink. When I came here I was astounded about how many people go to shrinks. In Morocco people don’t go to therapy. In California, if you don’t have a shrink, there’s something wrong with you. You need a shrink for the fact that you don’t have a shrink.

Ha, ha! So you’re saying maybe if we just ate better…?
It’s not just about eating better. It’s about allowing food to do it’s job which is to bring people together. To bring the family together. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Morocco is better than the USA. But when it comes to food, I consider an approach similar to the Moroccan way to be critical to people’s lives.

Your book really speaks from the heart. What is it about Moroccan cuisine that has captured your heart?
It is typically food that is not put together quickly. It’s food that involves skill. It’s food that allows people within the family to have importance. Like in my case, my grandma was the master of the couscous. My mom, she made these pancakes. Nobody could make them. It gave her status in the family. My grandfather would make the Tangia. Nobody would make it but him. Each person had something important to do. People express their love through cooking, through what they make for you. If you go to somebody’s house, they could be a family that’s struggling to survive but they’ll somehow manage to provide lots of food. It’s just a way of expressing love. And that is unique. It’s refreshing.

How much of your book is inspired by your life in America?
Oh my life in America was a tremendous source of inspiration for my book! You know, some Moroccan people will come to the restaurant and I will serve them my food and their first reaction is “this is not how my grandma made it” and I will tell them “Do I look like your grandma? I’m not your grandma! She made it that way because she loved you and you made that connection with her but I’m here giving you an expression of what I think”.

I came here when I was 17 and I have lived in America for 25 years, so the majority of my adult life has been in America. And not just in America, in the Bay Area specifically, where it’s just the mecca of food right now. For me to say that I was not influenced by the Bay Area, and what’s happening there with the food world, would make me a hypocrite.

I felt like I was so dishonest when I first opened the restaurant in trying to convince people that I was making Moroccan food. Even when we were making the most traditional Moroccan food – because at the beginning I did not open with this idea of evolving Moroccan food – I just wanted to recreate the dishes that we had in Morocco and I did the best that I could. But I realized that it was wrong. I realized that the food that I was making did not have a sense of place. For that food to be enjoyed fully, it had to have the surroundings, it had to have the families, it had to have the stories. It had to have the smells, the sights, the noises. If you take a sandwich of Merguez and you eat it in the middle of Marrakesh with the smoke from all the stalls and the people walking by, there’s no traffic, and people are screaming, and the kids, and all the people – when you taste it, you are taking a bite of everything that’s around you. You see the light against the sun but it bounces off differently in Morocco. All of that plays a part in what we eat and how we taste. It’s a whole package. You can’t just take the sandwich and take it to San Francisco and give it to somebody in the middle of the Ferry Building and tell them to eat it and they are going to get the whole experience. So I felt I was being dishonest. I felt like what I needed to do is to be honest with myself and be honest with the people who are giving me their money every night. I’m going to make food that makes sense to this place, which is the Bay Area. I’m going to make food that has a connection with this place. That is the only way to be successful and to make a connection and to be direct and honest.

You’ve been quite a champion for local products haven’t you?
Yeah Yeah. We started out 10 years ago. We go to the farmer’s market four days a week. We have strong connections. That was so weird for me! We were not just this Moroccan restaurant, but we were this Moroccan restaurant that was doing all these things that American chefs were supposed to be doing. You know this vision… Alice Waters, David Kinch, Daniel Patterson. We became really at the forefront of this movement; slow food and sustainable food and relationships with growers and ranchers. And when the tide started to turn a little bit and molecular gastronomy started to come to the fore, we were at the forefront of that as well. So people started to think of us not as this Moroccan place, but as this Moroccan place that is doing really cool things. It was great! I wanted Moroccan food to be in the conversation. I didn’t want people to think of Moroccan food as something that they go eat every six months. I didn’t want people to go to a Moroccan restaurant and expect a belly dancing show, like they are on some desert island with Aladdin coming out as a server. That’s just gimmicky, it’s Disneyland. It’s not real. So I took away all those clichés.

Some may be surprised to find ingredients such as xanthan gum, lecithin, in a book about Moroccan cuisine. Understanding that your cuisine is more modern, how did you come to use these things?
Basically it’s just the nature of how I taught myself to cook. I’m always curious. I’m friends with some of the best chefs in the USA and in Europe, and when I see what they can do and how they don’t limit themselves to traditional methods I ask why can’t I apply that to Moroccan food? That sauce would be so much better if we could manipulate it a little bit without sacrificing the taste.

In terms of using those emulsifiers and stabilizers, for some home cooks some of those ingredients are not familiar. What advice would you have for using these ingredients?
To look at them for what they are, that they are not chemicals. Xanthan gum is used in probably 90% of things you buy from stores. It’s everywhere. It’s a natural product. It’s an emulsifier. It allows you to do things, to have consistencies in sauces. Let’s say I’m making a sauce and it needs to be reduced so much that it would become gummy and sticky on your palate – if you use a little bit of xanthan gum, and you know how to use it, you can give it the consistency you want without having to reduce it so much. There’s a huge amount of trial and error. We failed many times. We fell over and over. You have to be cautious with those things. It shouldn’t become a habit. It’s not something to use whenever you want. You have to know which door to open and which to leave alone. Practice a lot of discipline.

What does the future of food hold for you?
I just want Moroccan food to be able to evolve, to have it be a circle where we could go through this whole process and get back to the source. Sometimes we feel that what we are doing is not as good as what has been done and we just try to go back and we have the discipline to do that. The future is for somebody to take what we are doing and to take it to the next level. Maybe five years from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe ten years from now, maybe 20. I have no idea who is going to get this book and be really inspired by this to the point that they’d be willing to do what we are doing now. That’s going to be beautiful. It will open a lot of doors. All the Moroccans that I know, and the reception that we had in Morocco because of the book, tell me that people are so hungry for it.

How do you see food in North America evolving? What trends do you see coming?
I think America is one of the best places to be right now when it comes to food. I think America allows people to think freely and it allows them to evolve in a way, that if you are doing something that makes sense, it’s embraced. Change is good. That doesn’t happen very often in a lot of places. We can see that in France, where the French are having a hard time breaking away from the sauces, the mother sauces and things like that. Denmark is doing a great job at evolving. Spain is doing a great job at evolving. Japan is doing a great job at evolving. But I think right now, America is really turning a lot of heads. You know, 20 years ago, if you were to tell someone outside of America that Thomas Keller is the best Chef in the world, they would laugh at you. But now nobody questions that fact. When you tell people that we have some of the best restaurants in the world, people don’t question that statement. They don’t say American doesn’t have a history, that it has only been around for less than 300 years. I think the trends now are for constant change.

Do you think that’s because Americans are not constrained by their past, like say the French may be?
Yes I think so. In America, this notion of innovation is embraced. That’s what’s keeping America at the forefront.

What other global cuisines influence you?
Right now it’s Japanese. And I’m not talking about sushi. I’m talking about the whole idea of how they eat. I started asking myself “Why are they using chopsticks? Why aren’t they using a spoon or a fork like the rest of the world?” And it makes a lot of sense for their food. Their palate is so clean. It’s so delicate that when they eat, they want to make sure that whatever utensils they are using are not so huge that they consume large amounts of food with each bite. They don’t pile their food on a spoon and shove it all in their mouths to the point where they can hardly tell what they’re tasting. There are so many components. When was the last time you heard of a Japanese person using salt? They use things that are better than salt. Things that have umami. I think Japanese cuisine will have the biggest influence on chefs in the next 5-10 years.

What’s the one thing that you want readers to take away from this book?
That food is about a lot more than just feeding yourself. It can feed a lot of things in you. It’s not just like “OK, I’m hungry – I’m going to eat”. Food evokes so many emotions in you. When you are cooking for somebody you love, it’s different. When you are cooking for your kids, it’s different. When you are in a hurry and are cooking just because you need to get some food so you don’t pass out, it’s different. Food is a language, it’s an art, it’s a science. It’s what keeps us going. We’d be nothing without food. And it’s just cool for people to become reacquainted with that, to the point where they make food a really important part of their lives. And the purpose of the book is to give people an alternative. To show them that this is something you can do. It doesn’t take much but if you get it planned right, it could dramatically change the way we eat.

Food can make the gulf between people smaller. It really brings people together. It goes beyond calories. It goes beyond how hard it is to make. I’m here because of food. And I’m talking to you because of food and that’s not a bad feeling.

For more information on this cookbook, please visit Thomas Allen & Sons

To read Helena’s cookbook review of Mourad: New Moroccan please click here