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Memory is the key that unlocked and defines the inspired cuisine of Mourad Lahlou, chef/owner of the Michelin-starred, wildly popular San Francisco restaurant Aziza, named for his mother. He is the author of MOURAD: NEW MOROCCAN, already chosen as one of the best cookbooks of 2011 by Bon Appetit and many major newspapers. It is a story-driven exploration of Lahlou’s sensual cooking style—a nuanced balance of traditional flavors and techniques from Morocco fused with today’s freshest ingredients from Northern California. A semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Pacific, Mourad won Food Network’s Iron Chef America by the largest margin in the show’s history.
Arriving in California from Morocco at 17 in 1985 to go to college, a homesick Mourad began to channel memories of watching his mother and aunts cooking in their sprawling family home in the ancient medina of Marrakesh. As a child, Mourad would sit in the kitchen, listening to the daily ritual melodrama of the adults arguing over what to have for the midday meal—and the inevitable outcome, the menu his grandfather had in mind all along. “Grandpa, my first role model and my lifelong idol, wasn’t a dictator. He was an executive chef,” he says with a smile. Accompanying his grandfather on his treasure hunt to the market afterward, Mourad developed a lifelong appreciation of raw materials and their possibilities.
In his San Francisco kitchen, without any training, he began to experiment, remembering, refining and reinventing as he went along. Initially cooking for himself, then for friends, and then for friends of friends, he completed a master’s degree in macroeconomics, but the lure of the kitchen pulled him from his doctorate. He opened his first restaurant, which earned three stars right away, in San Rafael, California, in 1997, and the decidedly modern Aziza in 2001.
“I became a cook in a way that could scarcely have been more different than [other chefs],” he says. “I learned from memory.” His mother may not have been by his side to teach him, but the voices of her and all the other women who helped raise him were in his head, “and it turned out they really wanted to get out.” Now, he says, “I hear myself talking to my cooks: “When is it done? Taste it! It’s done when it tastes good!”
- New Moroccan: How a New Cuisine Was Born
- Cooking From Memory: My Mother's Moroccan Kitchen, and the Stories That Go With It