Moroccan Chef Mourad Lahlou: The Journey From Tradition to Modernity

Talking with San Francisco's self-taught recognized

The cuisine at Mourad reflects the homestyle cooking of the chef's childhood.

The world first heard about this chef from Morocco in the late ‘90s 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 foundation for his future career. To the consternation of his family, he then gave it all up to start cooking, 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 the most competent culinary talents in the country, but Lahlou dove in with a confidence fueled by a pure passion for cooking. 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 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, which holds answers to most cooking conundrums confronting chefs.

Courtesy of Chef Mourad Lahlou

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. His boundless energy was an asset in the Food Network's Iron Chef challenge in 2009’s Season 7 where he emerged victorious, beating reigning Iron Chef Cat Cora. That enthusiasm is also displayed in a 13-part series on PBS, as he has the ability to rope audiences into his world with colorful stories of his culture. Lahlou has shared his modern Moroccan outlook in his 2011 cookbook Mourad: New Moroccan. He is a member of the American Chef Corps of the State Department's Diplomatic Culinary Program along with other high profile chefs making significant contributions 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.

Chefs cooking ethnic cuisines have to justify their menus to diners with preconceived notions, which creates an uphill battle to put their own stamp on their traditional cuisines. Lahlou opened his first restaurant, Kasbah, in 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 interior renovations.) It has since been followed by Mourad, a contemporary restaurant on the street level of the Pacific Telephone building on San Francisco’s Montgomery Street. The upscale restaurant, opened 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 twists like clove and hibiscus or saffron and honey. As for the food, the moment the fresh-baked bread appears on the table, accompanied by vibrant dips, 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 Lahlou's expert remix of tradition and modernity, more stars are on the horizon. We spoke to him about what his future held.


The Daily Meal: Was it an impulsive move to give up a predictable career for cooking?


Mourad Lahlou: 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 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.