Mourad Lahlou moved from Marrakesh to San Francisco, and missing the cuisine of his youth, taught himself to make Moroccan classics. This interest ignited his career as a chef and restaurateur, beginning with Kasbah in San Rafael in 1996, and continuing across the Golden Gate Bridge at Aziza in 2001. Over time, his cuisine has become increasingly refined, and more focused on California. The location will also evolve, with Aziza moving from San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood to the Financial District in 2014. I met Lahlou on September 7 at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, and he shared several culinary insights.
What does a dish have to be to go on your menu?
It has to mean something to the person who made it. It has to mean something to the person who’s consuming it. If it’s just a dish that looks pretty and has high priced ingredients, it doesn’t really mean it’s great. It has to have a sense of place. It has to evoke some emotion when you consume it, when you look at it. That’s really important. It’s got to make you think a little bit, or make you feel something you haven’t felt before. If it can achieve that, at least there’s a reaction, and that’s good. If there’s no reaction, then it shouldn’t be on the menu.
How would you say your vision for Aziza has changed since you first opened the restaurant?
It has changed tremendously over the years. When it first opened, we were trying to do Moroccan food in the classical sense. Then we realized it was hypocritical to do that, because we’re not in Morocco. We don’t have the ingredients from Morocco. We don’t feed Moroccans, and we need to be more sensitive to our surroundings. We need to deal with farmers directly. We need to work with what’s available to us locally. Once you start doing that, by virtue of necessity, you have to change. You have to evolve. We started doing that. We started to evolve and make changes to the way we cook food, the way we approach vegetables, and it became something more – I wouldn’t say Moroccan food – but it’s more local Northern California food with a tremendous Moroccan influence. The Moroccan influence is like the subplot right now. It’s not the main thing, but we’re cooking for Americans. We’re cooking for Northern Californians. We want to make food that makes sense to them, and has a sense of place. To just cook food the way we did when we first started, it didn’t make sense anymore. It’s evolved, and it’s constantly changing. Once we feel something’s really perfect, we change it. We do another dish, or we just abandon that dish, or put it away until we come up with an idea that might make it better. We can’t just sit on things and roll with it.
Is there such a thing as perfection in food?