As we explore the unique flavors of Moroccan cooking, we’ve been guided and inspired by Mourad Lahlou, chef at San Francisco’s Aziza restaurant. His dynamic, creative approach to Moroccan-American cuisine was shaped first by a childhood spent surrounded by family in Marrakech, and later by a desire to reconnect with those traditions of home.
Here, we ask Mourad about those colorful memories — along with his favorite Moroccan ingredients and techniques, the most valuable advice he’s received, and how it felt to earn a Michelin star. Read on for his responses, then try his recipes.
Tell us about watching your family cook when you were a kid in Morocco.
The time with family was the most important part of the day. We had three major meals a day, which determined everyone’s schedule, and it was absolutely mandatory for everyone to be there. If one person was missing, no one started eating — we just let it get cold. Everybody’s late once in a while, but it’s disrespectful to the people who spend hours cooking. Meals and food kept the family together, and thinking back, I can see how important it was.
You started cooking organically instead of being formally trained. How did you get into it?
My mom got divorced when I was born, so she never had a man in her life. When I was a little boy I realized that and felt like I needed to be there for her more than a typical kid — I never wanted her to feel like she was missing anything. I was really close to her and would keep her company in the kitchen while she was cooking for us.
I had no intention of learning how to cook and never though I’d be doing it for a living. When I came to San Francisco, it became so natural for me to stay connected with my family through food. I couldn’t talk to them on a daily basis, so every day I would relive moments by trying to make meals they would make. It felt lonely to eat alone, so I invited a lot of people to come over and have dinner with me, and people got used to it. I never had the audacity to ask my family how to make anything; I didn’t want them to know I came all the way to San Francisco to cook.
I was pursuing a doctorate in economics and got my masters. A lot of people said my cooking was awesome, but I told myself, of course they would say that — it’s a free meal! I never believed it was that good. But eventually people convinced me to open a restauarant. A place was out of business, I put in an offer for a lease, and the landlord picked us. I had absolutely no money (not even for a deposit), so I went back to the people who told me to open the restaurant — mostly professors — and asked them to give me money. Everybody pitched in, and we raised enough money to open a restaurant. I had never worked in a kitchen before — that’s how organic it was.
How do you think that affected your food and work?
It was a blessing and a curse. I had to teach myself everything — not only how to cook, but how to manage a kitchen, differentiate between friends and family and paying customers, and cook for a bunch of people from different backgrounds. You look at the spectrum of customers and it’s amazing that all these people will come together for one unifying reason: to eat my food. It was pretty overwhelming to grasp.
Every day I was making mistakes and failing, but in a way I was teaching myself how to cook and manage a restaurant business. I had to really understand what I was doing for it to make sense to me to pursue it. It forced me to come up with cool ways of doing things without having to follow other people’s directions. It shaped me into being unconventional and open to methods of cooking, techniques, and ingredients. That made me so different from other people out there.
Describe your cooking style. What’s your approach to combining Moroccan and American flavors?
I try to make tasty food; that’s all I try to do. I make it tasty, make it practical for the restaurant, and I do keep the foundation rooted in Morocco. I grew up in Marrakesh — the food made sense to the environment and farming system around the area. Here, we don’t have that, and the environment is completely different. I’m really aware of that — I’m cooking Moroccan food in San Francisco. When I make it, I ask if it makes sense to serve here, in this kind of weather and environment.
Morocco is notorious for tradition when they cook — food to us is all about memory and past. Here, it’s always about the future and what’s coming up and trendy. We’re looking at food more about what’s going to excite us; Morocco is the other way around, looking for something familiar. If quince is in season, we’re eating quince every day for two months, making it differently every day, and we’re okay with that. Here, people will have it two times during the season. We have to be mindful of these things.
If we are paying to buy a great piece of meat, we want to be able to taste the meat, not overwhelm it with spices. It’s not like in Morocco when you eat lamb four times a week and incorporate spices to make it different every time.
I was thrilled, of course, but my reaction was that we really deserved it. I felt like what we were doing was really important in the city as far as culinary trends; we were up there with some of the best restaurants. We were stoked and celebrating, and we didn’t take it for granted. It’s a lot harder to keep a Michelin star than to get it. Before you have it, you do your best, but once you get it, it changes everything. Everybody’s watching you and you’re under scrutiny. It affects the everyday approach.
What’s one Moroccan ingredient people should be using more, and how?
Preserved lemons. They are more popular with chefs, but home cooks don’t use them. They’re really expensive to buy, and the reason is that the main ingredient is time — you make them and wait 5 to 6 weeks for them to cure. A lot of people don’t take the time. They are tremendously versatile and unique and tasty. I use them in literally everything, kind of like sriracha. I put them in salads, use the pulp in stews, puree them, use them in aioli for sandwiches — they are everywhere.
Any favorite Moroccan cooking techniques people can easily adopt at home?
Steaming is so underrated in America. People in America are so in love with crunchy: chips, nuts, thin-crust pizza. Another texture is slippery — and it’s fascinating. It’s unbelievable on the palate but not familiar to Americans; it’s more prominent in Asia. I think there’s a huge difference between slippery and slimy – slippery can be delicious, but slimy is bad and unappetizing, and people confuse the two.
Steaming is a great way to get subtle flavors in things. I grew up eating so much food smothered with spices and harissa and bold flavors, so I became in love with the pristine flavor of a nice piece of fish. Steam it over a bath of water or stock with Moroccan ingredients, with a subtlety of flavors introduced through steam, and it’s a lot less aggressive.
What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
When I started cooking, people said, “This is not really Moroccan.” The best advice I received: never cook food for people who don’t understand it. Cook for yourself and be honest with your inclinations and values, and it will come out fine. That’s better than trying to please everyone. Joyce Goldstein, Jacques Pepin, Jose Andres, Thomas Keller — they all told me, be honest when you cook or your food will be confused.
Tell us about your cookbook. How do you hope people use it?
My cookbook is intended for people to use at home. My biggest beef with Moroccan cookbooks is that they all look the same, tell the same story, with the same table of contents. People go to Morocco who are not Moroccan, and they fall in love with the food and document what they eat. They are eating same things everywhere, so the books become the same stories. I was frustrated with that. No one was willing to evolve the cuisine.
That motivated me to write the book. I felt like, from the time when we opened restaurant to writing the book, we’d done so many interesting things for Moroccan food that it was important to document some of it to help its evolution.
Do you cook at home? What’s your go-to dinner?
I do occasionally, but I’m so caught up in the restaurant. When I cook at home I eat like everybody else. I’ll make a sandwich with preserved lemons, roast chicken, or make a hamburger with cumin. I like to incorporate some Morocccan ingredients into everyday cooking.
Describe a day in the life of Aziza.
It’s waking up around 5:30 in the morning — that’s the only time I can concentrate on doing emails and getting back to people and think clearly about the day or week. I may not even get out of bed but work for an hour-and-a-half or two hours. From 7:30 to 8, I have coffee, catch up with the news, and by 8:30 I’m calling people back, talking to purveyors and farmers.
Then I go to the farmers’ market, which takes two to two-and-a-half hours of my day. I come back to the restaurant and set up the kitchen and have meetings with the cooks and staff, discussing menu changes and making adjustments. I meet with the front of house staff and managers so they can print menus and make notes for the servers. I usually have a meeting or two in the afternoon. Then I come back and get in the kitchen and cook and taste and try to be set up by 5. At 5:15 everyone lines up in the front of the house, and I talk to them about the food, ingredients, and why we cooked it how we did. We start service about 5:30 and it goes until 11 or 11:30. Then I meet again with the staff to talk about what worked, what didn’t work, any issues we had, and why dishes were hard or not communicated. We iron out things and take notes, then talk about the next day — what we need to order or look for.
I’m home by 1 in the morning. I eat some cereal and some ice cream, watch some sports, check my computer for anything important, and try to get some sleep until the next day.
What do you love about your job?
It’s never boring. I feel like I’m so blessed that people have allowed me for the last 10 years to do the things I love to do. So many places out there are making delicious food that’s never gotten a response from customers, and they end up closing. I haven’t had to do that.
I have an intimate relationship with everybody who comes to eat at my place. How many people allow you to put your work into their bodies? You go see a play, you’re 50 rows behind. Food is so intimate. It’s something you actually make, a piece of art that is temporary and lets you be creative. It’s so humbling. It’s overwhelming to know over 100 people a night come in and they have trust in me — it keeps me going and keeps me wanting to do something better.
Tell us about the line of products you created for Williams-Sonoma.
I never had any intention of doing a product line — I’m always complaining about how bad things are out of a jar or can. But over the last eight years or so there have been some great products. As I became comfortable with what I do, it allowed me to think there was something I could share with people. My motivation was the ability to share with home cooks the ingredients they might not be able to make themselves, like spice blends. A spice blend may include 25 ingredients, all toasted separately, and people don’t have the patience or knowledge for that. But they can buy it and cook Moroccan food more often.
I had to pick an outlet for that, and I thought of Williams-Sonoma because of the high quality, which was confirmed during the process of product development. The team went far and beyond to make sure the product had integrity. I really can stand strongly behind every product that we’ve made. Others couldn’t be made in an honest way, and we ended up dropping them — the ones that made it are those I would serve at the restaurant and use myself.
What’s the most important tool in your kitchen?
A pencil. I think to be able to write down things when they cross your mind is crucial — moments of brilliance happen, and if you don’t take 10 seconds to write it down you may never think about it again. A pencil because it’s not permanent; you can erase it and change it. Pen is more permanent, and there’s nothing permanent about cooking. It’s important to change as we go along.