I sit at my kitchen table smiling as I gaze lovingly at my newly acquired collection of cookbooks. With titles such as Jerusalem, Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey, Mourad New Moroccan, and A Mediterranean Feast , each recipe- and photo-filled volume must weigh at least five pounds. These books are souvenirs that I brought back from my visit this past weekend to the Culinary Institute of America’s annual Worlds of Flavors conference near San Francisco. This year’s theme was Arc of Flavors: Re-imagining Culinary Exchange, from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia, and indeed we explored much of the world and its fabulous flavors.
The conference was quite the experience: Imagine 700 chefs watching 70 other chefs and restaurateurs from about 30 countries sharing their interpretations of the food and cooking styles of their region. And then we ate. And ate. And ate!
Though there were many amazing chefs and I tasted some really delicious foods, one chef truly stood out from the rest, and it was something I learned from him that continues to permeate my thoughts ever since I’ve returned.
The chef is a young (guess I’m showing my age when I call a 39/40-year-old young!) man by the name of Mourad Lahlou, who was born in Casablanca and was raised in Marrakesh by his mother and a house full of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. His story is a beautiful one in which he comes to the United States to gain an education and, in the process, finds his love—and dare I say extreme talent—for cooking the foods of his native land.
I first related to Mourad when he said that he never set out to become a chef. Even after 27 years in the profession, I still have a hard time owning the title since for me it’s never been just about cooking and eating. (But that’s a story for another day.) For Mourad, it was a hunger for the nurturing the “flavors of love” from his childhood that inspired him to cook. And it was this hunger that caused him to spend his evenings experimenting with ingredients, drawing on whatever insights his memory could deliver to him. It was only after several years that he finally asked his mother for some cooking advice—which was significant since men generally did not cook in his childhood home.
To say that his food is both divine and sublime is a gross understatement. If you know anything about how hard it is to extract such a statement from me about someone’s food, you’ll definitely know that booking a flight to San Francisco just to have dinner in Mourad’s restaurant, Aziza, would be well worth the effort!
What was it that stopped me in my tracks the moment I tasted this man’s food? What is this concept about food that I keep coming back to? There are two things Mourad does beautifully that I believe have become the wings of the soaring bird of his cuisine. First, he humbly honors the past by embracing tradition as he handles the ingredients as they are. I love this because this kind of authenticity and honesty about food has formed the basis of my soapbox for years. I say: Get to know and appreciate the ingredient for what it has to offer, accept and honor its characteristics, and allow the ingredient to shine. In my zealous defense of “authentic flavor” I’ve always resisted any method of cooking that tries to radically change a food into something that it isn’t or that pushes it too far to take on an array of flavors not inherently its own .
And then I met Chef Mourad’s food and had an epiphany. What if it isn’t an either-or choice between betraying a food and honoring it? I think it’s precisely because he is able to honor the food and its natural “personality profile” that he’s able to take the next step: boldly ask the food to become just a bit … more.
In this age of the celebrity chef, when thousands of young people are graduating from culinary schools around the world looking to make their mark, Mourad’s approach offers the perfect example of how to “ask for more” from the ingredients and create something both refreshingly new and satisfyingly familiar. I found a beautiful example of this balance in the couscous I enjoyed at Aziza. If you have ever had a vegetable tagine, you know that it contains a sweet and savory aromatic sauce that surrounds the vegetables and (often) beans in a stew. This is then served over couscous, and if it’s all done well, it’s delicious. Now, imagine those same sweet and savory flavors subtly yet clearly coating the couscous without making it too moist. And instead of vegetables softened in a stew, imagine marinated and grilled vegetables placed artistically on top of the couscous with a delectable spiced fig (or was it plum?) paste waiting patiently in the bowl for you to incorporate as you will. I mixed mine gently into the couscous and enjoyed every bit of my favorite tagine flavor but with a wonderful San Francisco personality. I felt as though my tagine was yelling out, “Hey look at me—I’m still my same savory sweet self but even better!”
A cooking traditionalist, I’m skeptical of any hint of a “pushing food to be more” approach. Why mess with perfection? But here’s the beauty of what I’m realizing about Mourad’s philosophy: He doesn’t change the food from what it really is, nor does he operate for the sake of his ego to prove anything. He simply takes a food that he loved from another time and place and invites it into his current life and cultural surroundings. In other words he says, “Hey, tagine, I loved who you were back in Morocco; join me here in San Francisco and let’s see how these new surroundings influence us.” As he writes in his cookbook, “I don’t long for that (past) world, I cherish it.”
I think herein lies the magic for all of us. Whether in cooking, in raising our kids, in finding new careers, or in our most intimate relationships, we need to cherish the essence of what was and is and invite that new person, relationship, skill, or food to become just a bit more by mingling its inherent essence with the present moment.
In this light, I offer an example of asking a bit more from my own cooking. The first night I was back from the conference, my fiancé, Jim, wanted poached eggs on spinach, which I usually keep pretty simple by using steamed spinach, eggs, a splash of olive oil, and maybe a few fresh herbs. But what more could I ask of this dish tonight that would help it really be satisfying to Jim? Below is the result of that inquiry, and it was delicious! The peanuts, by the way, were Jim’s idea—and a slam dunk.
Poached Eggs over Chorizo Spinach
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon curry
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup large diced onion
½ teaspoon jalapeño pepper
¼ cup sliced or crumbled chorizo (or vegetarian spicy sausage)
¼ cup medium diced green peppers
¼ cup raw peanuts
2 cups chopped spinach, packed
Salt and pepper to taste
Your favorite peppery olive oil to top
Cilantro and or scallions to garnish
In a medium pan, heat the olive oil to a medium temperature. Add the spices and stir until they begin to release their fragrance into the oil. Be careful to keep it at a medium temperature so that the spice doesn’t burn. Add the onions and peppers and sauté to desired texture (I like to keep mine firm, but you may prefer to caramelize the onions). Add some salt to the vegetables. Next, add the chorizo and peanuts and sauté for a few more minutes. Add the spinach and gently combine. Crack the eggs on top of the spinach and add a pinch of salt and pepper. Pour a few tablespoons of water into the pan, bring the temperature up to create some steam, cover, and allow to cook until the eggs reach the desired level of doneness.
Garnish as you please with olive oil, cilantro, and/or scallions. We served ours with a side of fresh grapes and a few slices of goat cheese.