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.

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 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, D.C., and we work to reduce food waste in America. It turns out that 40 percent 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 per pound and was shocked.


Now the meat craze has gone further with the aged meats and on-display meat lockers in restaurants. Is this a positive change or negative?

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 the self-taught — like us — with his books. Has that helped mold your perspective on food?

I have known him for over 15 years. 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 is way cooler than any of the cool chefs out there. I don't care about cookbooks, but I stand by his book, as it's really valuable to me. 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.


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. 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 chefs 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. 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.