Moroccan Chef Mourad Lahlou: The Journey From Tradition to Modernity
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 has a lot of color, 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 [because] 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.
Chefs and restaurants are stressing use of locally produced ingredients. Where do you stand on that?
Alice Waters is perceived as the voice of modern American 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 chefs. 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. 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 focused on resume building flit 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.
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 U.S. 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 a.m. 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 is my own. When we first opened our restaurant in 1996, my obsession and fascination was with creating the dishes from Morocco in the U.S. 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 it 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.