10 Questions with Chef … Mourad Lahlou
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
When Gary Danko threw a birthday party for a staff member, he did it at Aziza. When Jacques Pepin had a birthday recently, it was Aziza that he came to (after flying in from Connecticut). Mourad Lahlou is a chef’s chef.
Gaining national recognition for his modern interpretations of Moroccan cuisine, the Marrakech native had a successful run with the acclaimed Kasbah in San Rafael, which he opened in 1997. Feeling constrained by the ultra-traditional feel of the restaurant and the food, he spent two years searching for a San Francisco location. “Originally we wanted to be in the Mission,” Lahlou says. “But it was really hot. With the Slanted Door, it was really taking off, and we couldn’t afford it. I worried about this place being so far out. People would have to come just for this, because there’s not a lot else around here.”
His fears were unfounded – after opening in 2001, Aziza gained an instant following; an oasis on Geary Street. The decor is at once sexy and exotic, comfortable and relaxed, much like the food – and its chef.
Food style:Lahlou says his style is Bay Area: “Not California – I think it’s short-sighted to call it California. The food in San Francisco is different than in Santa Rosa or Carmel; then there is L.A., which is totally different from here. It’s not Mediterranean or Moroccan, either. My roots are in Morocco – it’s what I smelled and ate for 17 years. But I’ve lived in San Francisco 23 years; that’s why I say my style is Bay Area.”
Upcoming projects: His battle on Food Network’s popular Iron Chef America premieres March 1; he is currently in negotiations to become one of the Iron Chefs on the series (though he’s not sure he wants to be away from his restaurant the required five to six weeks per year required for filming); helping his friend, the talented James Syhabout, formerly of PlumpJack Cafe (for about two minutes) and Manresa in Los Gatos, open his own restaurant in Oakland called Commis (set to open later this year).
Fun facts: He once ran buck naked through the hallway at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas: “I don’t know why… it was Vegas. It seemed like something you should do.”
He spent Thanksgiving with a group that included world-renowned chef Thomas Keller: “It was great to see him with this big pot whipping up mashed potatoes.”
What is the last thing you cooked for yourself?
Dry-aged rib eye steak grilled over mesquite with trumpet mushrooms; I had an arugula salad and polenta on the side. I don’t cook at home very often, though a couple of weeks ago my friends Eric and Ruthie, who own Sketch in Berkeley – they make the best ice cream! – and Lawrence and Allyson, who own NOPA, came over and we made parsnip soup, grilled quail with lamb sauce, lamb sausage; we had cheese, I brought Aziza spreads, and Ruthie and Eric brought these macaroons and black pepper meringues they make at Sketch – it was amazing.
What is your favorite food from your childhood?
Whole milk and honey – my mom would give it to me chilled. I’ve even asked Harold McGee to look into what it is about that combination that makes it so good. I still make it, but I use honeycomb in the milk – I get it from Marshall’s at the Ferry Building farmers’ market, or from Queen of Sheba at the Oakland farmers’ market.
How would you describe working in your kitchen?
Really hard – I’ll be honest. I demand a lot of discipline and perfection; I know it’s stupid to ask for perfection, but it pushes people. I ask the same of myself. I still cook on the line – I want the line cooks to be better than me. If I can jump in and make something on the line better, I didn’t do my job teaching them. Most of my staff has been here 10 or 12 years, I think because they’re always learning, growing, challenged. They are my family.
Something in you fridge or freezer that would surprise people?
Sriracha [Thai chili sauce] – it’s really cool.
What was your worst kitchen experience?
It was Valentine’s Day – you want to make it a great experience for people to help them get laid that night (smiles). We had great ingredients – oysters, everything was perfect – and then the power went off. Only the gas ovens worked. The ice cream was melting. The hood was out, so there was no ventilation in the kitchen and we were sweating like pigs. But we improvised; and we pulled it off – no one left.
What is the last restaurant you ate at?
The opening party of Nopalita – it was some of the best Mexican food I’ve had; tacos with lamb, beef, goat … But as far as an official meal, it would be Coi. I love Daniel. I see him five days a week at the farmers’ markets – I spend more time with him than with my girlfriend. I remember his wife Alexandra gave birth on a Tuesday and Thursday he was at the market. I asked him what he was doing there so soon, and he said, “The restaurant’s still open…” He’s obsessed!
If you retired tomorrow, what dish would you be remembered for?
Squab with ras el hanout – it’s a Moroccan spice blend that, depending on the preparer, can contain between 12 and 120 ingredients, so it always tastes different.
What is your favorite offal?
Lamb kidneys. And brains – I had it at the taco truck yesterday: three tacos – brains, tongue and tripe.
What is your favorite staff meal?
Elvin’s – he’s my main line cook. He started as a dishwasher 10 years ago. He’s assigned staff meal on Thursdays. Also Abi, another one of my line cooks. They’ll do sous vide chicken legs, Guatemalan stew with couscous. I don’t know what it is about Guatemalans; why is it that they can cook Moroccan food better than Moroccans? They can literally cook anything, and cook it amazing.
What is your ultimate fantasy meal?
It would be put together by a bunch of people – Paula Wolford would be there; Daniel Patterson, Lawrence Jossel. It would be all of us just cooking … with Bob Marley.
Aziza: 5800 Geary Blvd. (near 25th), dinner Wed.–Mon. 5:30–10:30 p.m., 415-752-2222,
Have a favorite chef you’d like to see interviewed? Send your suggestions to email@example.com