Moroccan Chef Mourad Lahlou: The Journey From Tradition to Modernity
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 tastes 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 chefs in Morocco are doing. Back home, chefs 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 chefs 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 its 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 chefs 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 chefs 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 rednecks, 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 chefs 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 has been around comparable to a sneeze in other cultures. It's still trying to find its 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.