Born in Marrakech and self-taught in the kitchens of his Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants, Aziza and Mourad, Chef-owner Mourad Lahlou reinvents Moroccan cuisine with a California-artisanal perspective and an edge of uber-cool irreverence.
• Master of Science in economics
• Counts legendary Chef Joyce Goldstein and Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert as mentors
• Opened his first restaurant, Kasbah, in San Rafael, California, in 1996; closed in 2001 to start Aziza, the first Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin star
• Opened Mourad in 2015 and received a Michelin star
• Recognized as a Rising Star Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle
• Awarded a three-and-a-half-star review and listed among the Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants for Aziza, both by the Chronicle
• Ranked by Zagat as one of the Top 10 Bay Area Restaurants of the Decade for Aziza
• Author of “Mourad: New Moroccan” (Artisan, 2011)
• Winner of the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” 2009.
Cooking with a Grateful Heart
Mourad Lahlou wears his heart on his sleeved forearm. There, amid a maze of tattoos that look like fragments of the Koran, a single English word in stylized Levantine letters spells “strength.”
He grew up in a sprawling walled compound in the ancient medina of Marrakech, raised by his single mother and a village of relatives. But the center of Lahlou’s world was his grandfather, Hajj Ben Seddiq, a soft-spoken textile merchant with a wise soul and a quiet charm.
One morning when he was 13, Lahlou woke up to early spring sunshine and the smell of his mom’s begrhir pancakes. It was a holiday, and the kitchen table was covered with homemade sweets and treats. After a huge breakfast, it was time to slaughter the lamb.
In Morocco, whether it’s a weekly chicken or the lamb that marks five or six special days throughout the year, slaughtering has to be done by a man, and expertly so that the animal suffers as little as possible. As the head of the household, only Lahlou’s grandfather could perform the task. Since Lahlou could stand, the grandfather made a point of having him by his side to witness the act.
The family, easily 30 people, gathered in the courtyard. The lamb, tethered to the tree, munched on weeds as three men from the family farm approached it. One held its head, the others, its legs. Lahlou stood near them, his grandfather embracing him from behind with the special knife used only for this purpose.
As his grandfather said the prayer of thanks for this animal and the sacrifice it was about to make, Lahlou felt unusually nervous. The air became strangely thick and still. The men brought the lamb closer. And then, before Lahlou knew what was happening, his grandfather put the knife in his right hand, closed his own hand firmly around the boy’s, and guided it toward the lamb’s neck. In a second, it was over. His grandfather grabbed him and squeezed him tighter than he ever had. He said another prayer of thanks and then leaned down and whispered in Lahlou’s ear, “Congratulations.” His mom rushed over in tears and held him, rocking back and forth.
There were many older boys and men in the family—all of Lahlou’s uncles and cousins. But his grandfather had chosen him over his own sons. From that day on, he was the only other person allowed to slaughter chickens, rabbits, and even a few more lambs.
If all this sounds a bit barbaric, Lahlou insists it’s just the opposite. “When you see an animal give its life for you,” he says, “you don’t take it lightly. You cook it with care. You eat it with respect. And maybe what’s really barbaric is never coming face-to-face with that and pretending that meat comes from a market, not a living creature.”
His grandfather understood such thinking. “We cared for that lamb and gave it a good life,” he told his grandson, “and now we thank it for sustaining our lives.”
That same boy, now an established chef, cookbook author, and owner of Mourad and Aziza in San Francisco, says he’s never forgotten the lesson that shaped his approach toward food.
Lahlou cooks with a grateful heart, a reverence for ingredients, and a profoundly personal sense of strength. You can see it right there, on his forearm, where the firm and loving hand of his grandfather held him so long ago.
Adapted in part from: “Mourad: New Moroccan” by Mourad Lahlou (Artisan, 2011).
Mourad Lahlou is also part of Simple Feast, an app the hosts an amazing community of Chefs and their delicious recipes. To view more recipes by Mourad and other incredible Chefs go to Simple Feast.