Questions for Mourad Lahlou, modern Moroccan chef
Tonight the Bristol holds the first of what will be a series of Chef Dinners—dinners where out-of-town chefs, such as Thomas Keller and Kevin Gillespie, collaborate with Chris Pandel to put out a lavish meal (and usually a book signing, too). The series starts with chef Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco's Aziza. Lahlou was raised in Morocco, but he doesn't feel compelled to serve the same food he ate growing up. In fact, his is perhaps the most progressive Moroccan food served in the country. I called him as he was boarding his plane to Chicago to ask him about the (sad? happy?) state of Moroccan food in the States.
A few months ago, you released a cookbook. Concurrently, Paula Wolfert also released a Moroccan cookbook. So it could be said that Moroccan cuisine is having its moment. Yet at the same time, in Chicago at least, Moroccan food doesn’t get the love it deserves. Where do you think Moroccan food stands in this country right now?
I think it has been completely overlooked, but for good reasons. The people who were supposed to be representing good Moroccan food basically dropped the ball and what they have been doing is very gimmicky crap. They’ve been doing a lot of gimmicky settings where you have the pants, the sitting on the floor, the washing of the hands and all that stuff. People have come to expect a Disneyland idea—the carpets and all that crap. And basically it’s a formula that’s worked and it’s worked for tourists but it doesn’t really represent Moroccan food. That’s where the ball was dropped. It gets old after a while. For Moroccan food to be taken seriously, we needed to shed all that and put it aside.... But the people who are trying to do anything new, it’s looked at with a lot of skepticism. It’s not a cuisine that is valued for innovation. It's all about the past.
One reason why Moroccan food may not be taking off with American home cooks is that it's a little intimidating. In your book, you ask that home cooks make couscous from scratch.
Absolutely. And I do understand that. But the argument I use for that is: Look at Italian food and when it started to take shape in America. Nobody dared to make fresh pasta, but fresh pasta is so easy to make. I think it’s the same thing with couscous. I think it’s really easy. If you look at the book, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to capture that notion that yeah it is [more work] but it’s worth it, it’s just as hard as making fresh pasta.
Do you encourage people, if they're not going to make their own couscous, to use couscous out of a box?
Couscous out of a box I think is a shame. I think couscous out of a box is basically, it’s the difference between enjoying a really nice bowl of pasta that is made with some great ingredients and using Cup Noodles or something like that. It doesn’t really compare.
Do you think most Moroccan restaurants in America are making their own couscous?
Absolutely not. I don’t know anybody who is. That’s why I think it’s a shame, because there's this mental block with Moroccan food: Just like Indian food, just like Mexican food—it’s ethnic food. And ethnic food is supposed to be cheap and quick and fast. It's not supposed to trigger any emotional effects from you other than just fill you up. So when people eat Moroccan food they are not looking to discover new flavors or discover a new technique or anything like that. But I do think Moroccan food can be elevated to the next level. It can be elevated to capture the flavors of the technique of great cuisines. And I think it’s unfortunate that this hasn’t happened in America until recently.
But I do feel like non-Moroccans will have the balls to try to do something new with Moroccan food, because they are not so much attached to the traditions. Moroccans can find it really, really hard and scary to veer away from what is traditional. They always put boundaries and limitations on themselves. “We never do this in Morocco this way.” “We never use these ingredients.” That blocks them. Some of my favorite chefs in America—you’re talking about David Chang, you’re talking about Eric Ripert—they are not Moroccan, but what they do with Moroccan ingredients and technique and dishes is amazing to me. And I think it’s refreshing. That's what it's going to take. It’s going to take people like that to basically move Moroccan food from being this really obscure ethnic Moroccan cuisine to this really evolved, contemporary, relevant kind of food.
Tickets to tonight's Chef Dinner at($125, which includes a copy of Lahlou's cookbook) are still available. Call the Bristol: 773-862-5555.