Chef Mourad Lahlou
Aziza | San Francisco
Self-taught Mourad Lahlou traveled to the United States from Marrakech in 1985 to study macroeconomics at San Francisco State University. There, Lahlou began cooking to ease the loneliness he felt while studying far away from home. Working from memories of watching his mother prepare traditional Moroccan dishes, Lahlou began to experiment for small groups of friends and professors. After receiving his master’s degree in economics, Lahlou had intended to continue his work towards a PhD but recognizing that his drive in the kitchen was getting serious, Lahlou postponed his academic career to supervise the kitchen as chef/owner of Kasbah which he opened in San Rafael, California in 1997.
Lahlou soon began to feel that consumer attachment to traditional Moroccan food and décor was beginning to inhibit his growth as a chef, and decided to create a modern establishment where he could reach his personal culinary goal of revolutionizing Moroccan cuisine. Lahlou conducted an extensive two-year search for a San Francisco location and closed Kasbah to open Aziza in November 2001.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
ML: I had never worked in a professional kitchen before I opened Kasbah in 1997. I opened Aziza in November 2001 with $300,000. Michael Bauer, the critic from The San Francisco Chronicle, reviewed us and gave the restaurant three stars. So I just jumped in and started cooking with no professional experience.
TR: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs without a culinary school background?
ML: I never went to culinary school. It could work for certain people, but everyone I know that is really talented didn’t go. Nothing replaces experience and repetition. But sometimes I think I’m reinventing the wheel because I haven’t been to school.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
ML: Paula Wolfert – I’ve known her for twelve years. She comes into my restaurant and gives me advice. She gets me, she gets my food, and she has been a great supporter.
AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
ML: I ask them what their interests are outside of food. I want someone that has lots of interests. It lets me know they are well rounded and honest.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
ML: Go work in as many kitchens as possible. Develop your own style. Hopefully they have a trust fund, because they probably won’t make a whole lot of money in this industry.
AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
ML: Argan oil – it’s extracted from nuts in southern Morocco. It’s nutty, smoky, and really delicious.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
ML: I like mushrooms and squab together. I also like peanut butter and green olives.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
ML: A notepad and pen because I try to write all my ideas down.
AB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a technique that you have either created of borrowed and used in an unusual way?
ML: I make my own cous cous every day.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
ML: Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers is really good. I like all of Paula Wolfert’s books on Mediterranean cooking as well.
AB: Where to you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
ML: I’d like to go to China. I think what they are doing is great. I’m always intrigued by their flavors. Spain comes in a close second.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
ML: For Thai I go to Thai Express on Clement. It serves until 2 am and has great pad thai and a nice, light vegetable and noodle soup.
AB: What languages do you speak?
ML: Moroccan, Arabic, French, and a little Spanish.
AB: Which person would you most like to have dinner with?
ML: I’d love to eat with Bono [of U2]. I think he might be a vegetarian so I would cook homey vegetarian food.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
ML: I think a chef should make people experience something they haven’t experienced before. I want people who eat my food to taste the familiar and the foreign all at once. Dining isn’t just about the food, it’s about the entire experience.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
ML: In San Francisco people feel that they need to go to the farmer’s market on a weekly basis. A chefs relationship with the market and its farmers is really important. The sous vide technique has become really popular too.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
ML: I wouldn’t mind opening a restaurant in New York City. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
ML: I really try to follow the slow food movement, which Alice Waters has been supporting in since its inception. I support Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), our local farmer’s market organization.
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