Self-taught chef and restaurateur Mourad Lahlou is the one name repeatedly whispered at industry events as someone who is innovative and daring. Lahlou’s first cookbook “Mourad: New Moroccan” came out last year and the recipes reveal his personal interpretation of his native Moroccan cuisine. Eating at his Michelin starred restaurant Aziza remains a popular “must-do” for many, and Lahlou was recently appointed a culinary ambassador by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Lahlou is also gearing up to open a new restaurant in downtown San Francisco, which Lahlou has said will be different than Aziza.
Bay Area Bites caught up with Lahlou via a telephone and an email interview recently. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: How did you become a culinary ambassador? How will it change your schedule?
Lahlou: Hillary Clinton decided to start this new initiative called culinary diplomacy, using food as soft diplomacy. When dignitaries come to the United States from North Africa, I will cook for them. The main task, though is for me to travel and talk about how we care about the world, and care about the environment...that covers what we eat, what we produce and our children.
Imagine if you have a Japanese dignitary coming to the U.S. who has food made by an American with strong links to Japan. It will show them we care and that they are cared for, and I think that’s really important. This whole thing is labeled soft diplomacy. There’s also hard diplomacy, which is the typical way of doing diplomacy. I’m really surprised that it’s taken this long for this initiative to happen. Food is the one thing that we all put into our own body to achieve many purposes: to survive, to be entertained. By cooking, you’re sustaining someone’s life. It’s a very powerful but overlooked way of achieving diplomacy.
I will travel to New York and Washington, D.C., as well as abroad. Every time I go abroad, I have to go to the embassies and consulates. I also will do conferences, events and connect with people on the internet. It’s not just a title, and you don’t just show up for an event.
Dignitaries are coming to the United States on a daily basis. You’ll get advanced notice three days ahead, a week, three months -- of course, all the chefs are all stoked and really want to make sure it’s a success. It needs to be nurtured and taken care of. We would like other chefs to be invited to participate in this initiative so it grows. So the chefs are a very important part of this process.
Bay Area Bites: What are you passionate about food-wise these days?
Lahlou: I’ve really been obsessing and having a hard time with reduced sauces. You know when you eat a dish that’s really sticky and it’s been strained 20 times? It’s delicious and the flavor is deep and profound but it lacquers your tongue. You have to power wash to get it off. It’s so ugly. I’m experimenting with figuring out the components in the sauce so that I can reduce it without it getting sticky, so that it stays runny. If I can figure out how to break the molecules, then I will have a brothy sauce that is also reduced, flavorful and amazing.
Bay Area Bites: Do you have favorite food/drink spots in the Bay Area?
My favorite spot to slurp a bowl of noodles is Turtle Tower. They have the best pho ga long in town. It’s a great chicken noodle soup with giblets, which is the bomb on a cold, foggy San Francisco summer day.
I'd drive across town in rush hour traffic to eat at Coi, Benu, Saison, Manresa, Commis, SPQR, Bar Agricole and Outerlands. I would actually walk across town in a rainy day to eat at any of these places. Did i mention that I would walk uphill both ways??
Nothing says San Francisco on a plate more than the Crab Louie served at Swan Oyster Depot, which epitomizes San Francisco in every bite. It’s simple, delicious and crazy fresh seafood and the place to take any out-of-towner and watch them lick their fingers because they can't understand why the food is so deceptively tasty.
My go-to place on my night off is at home. I’d order whatever i feel like. It works every time.
For sushi, Ino Sushi has out-of-this-world sushi by Chef Ino who gets to do whatever the f*ck he wants to. It's better that way.
The best tacos are from El Gallo Giro on 23rd street and Treat Avenue. They sell these out of a truck but they have the best tacos in town and they are ideal for eating while paying attention to something more serious than just food for a change. They are much tastier than pizza and they don't get stale as quickly. Try their roast chicken, which are so tasty that they make you not miss pork at all.
For my best late night hangout, if it's before 1am, I would choose Nopa. I love their burger and roast chicken. You can't beat it at that hour of the night, morning or whatever it's called. If we're talking after 1am, then it's My Canh on Broadway, for cheap, tasty grub made when most decent cooks in the city are too tired and drowning in their beer or cocktails; this is San Francisco after all.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Lahlou: Joyce Goldstein is an amazing human being. She’s known me 16 or 17 years. She’s a great friend and is so honest to a fault. She’ll tell you something to your face and I love that. She cares even on a more profound level. We’ve been friends and close for so many years. She respects and loves what I do and always tells me her opinion.
Bay Area Bites: What are the pros and cons of building a restaurant business?
Lahlou: The pros are the community. You’re dealing with people who frequent your restaurant who know and appreciate food. Where else can you see someone from another region and country and have it be a success. Look at Mission Chinese, at Bar Tartine. We are so open-minded and embracing of other cultures...That’s a huge draw for me. I feel like people allow me to experiment. They don’t stigmatize me with ethnicity. They don’t ask you to be the same. They don’t have a set of prejudices. They give you room to grow and experiment. When I first started, I was doing traditional Moroccan. I grew and people allowed me to do it differently and to grow.
The produce, farmers and community are also great. It makes it so much easier having easy access to them. We tend to take for granted that. I go to New York quite a bit but our produce puts them to shame. Take Joe’s Early Girl tomatoes, which are so amazing by themselves. They’re like a bundle of flavor that just explodes in your mouth. I think it’s wonderful to get up and go to the farmers' market and then be able to cook with the produce. One of the hardest things is to go to other places and use different tomatoes. You have to manipulate the food more to make it taste better.
The hardest thing about having a restaurant in the Bay Area is that no matter what, it’s a small town. You get a limited area, surrounded with water. It doesn't expand like L.A., which makes it so intimate and limited in a way, you know? Restaurants are opening all the time. The problem I have is: the quality of the cooks. There are great cooks but it’s really hard to find and hold on to great cooks. That’s one issue that has to be addressed sooner or later. It doesn’t allow for one place to have a bunch of great cooks who can elevate to the next level. The cost of living in the Bay Area is so, so high so cooks end up leaving and going somewhere else -- back to New York, Chicago or L.A. because they just can’t be there. We end up losing them. I call it the brain drain because we lose the smartest, brightest cooks.
Bay Area Bites: How did you learn to cook such great food?
Lahlou: The environment was really fertile for me to grow in a culinary sense. If my family would have known I was going to be a cook, to travel 6,000 miles to cook, they would have revolted. It would not even be an acceptable option for me. I allowed myself to be exposed to different cultures.
I was going to go to college in France and stay with my aunt. I had an idea that I wanted to instead go to America. My grandpa wanted to find a way to tell me “It’s not a great idea, but yeah, if you want to get a visa, just know that it’s extremely hard.” Once he said it at the table in front of everyone, I was able to give it a try. I got a five-year visa and was so excited.
Everyone was shocked. My family had promised I could do it and within two to three weeks I was in a plane on my way to San Francisco. I was so homesick and business was hard. I couldn’t fly back to Morocco; it takes a day to fly back there. The one thing I could do to connect to them was food -- I started making things and it was terrible. I was so lost and so sad, there were so many tears and sleepless nights. Eventually I started using my memory to recreate the days and memories with all the women shopping and cooking in Morocco. I was really reliving those moments.
Of course, in Morocco there are no recipes. I would call someone and say “how did you make that tagine?” they’d say a “pinch of this and pinch of that.” I was in college (at San Francisco State) for economics but I was learning how to preserve things, how to break down a fish and how to cook, really. Eventually by the time I was finished with college, people said, “You should open a restaurant.” I had $3,700 to my name and so I opened a restaurant. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Once I opened the restaurant, it was traditional food, and I started to watch people eat, and talk to people about themselves and their food preferences. I started to realize that food has to have a sense of place.
Food has to connect people to where there are. I can’t cook food in the same way it’s made in Morocco. Food connects people to their past. They want to taste the stew that their great grandma made. It’s not Facebook or Twitter that connects us, it’s through memories and through food. It's how we stay connected to people and the past. Here in America it’s always “What’s new?” and “What are the trends?” People are always looking into the future here. I was stuck because the way I was cooking was in the past. But the way people are here is that they look into the future, looking at the ingredients. Food here is a religion, a way of life... where is that carrot and chicken from? There’s an obsession here. I had to change the way I was thinking about food.
I was taking those ideas -- the foods from Marrakesh and making it in SF but it didn’t make any sense. What I’m making now is food for the Bay Area. I think that’s what’s really cool.