Interview: chef Mourad Lahlou (Aziza)

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Chef San Francisco

Aziza pastry chef Melissa Chou joined Mourad Lahlou at Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.


JL: Is there such a thing as perfection in food?

ML: No. There’s no perfection. You can never attain it. The trick is to understand that you can pursue it. If you attain perfection, then you’re done. You might as well wrap it up and do something else. There’s no perfection. It’s so subjective. What could be perfect to you could be less perfect for your sous chef, or your cook, or your diner. It’s important to understand that concept. If something is perfect, it’s just perfect within a small world, but if you open it up to the rest of the world, it might not be perfect. There’s always that struggle. I call it the aimless pursuit of perfection, but if you understand that concept, you understand that ideology, you pretty much keep going all the time, but you don’t feel defeated, because you’re not there. Use that as fuel to keep you going, and you will never get there. There’s a moment in time where you make something or you eat something and you think, “What the fuck was that? That was just amazing.”

JL: When was the last time that happened?

ML: The last time that happened was an egg dish we made. It was a carrot jam, a smoked potato foam, and an egg yolk that was cooked sous vide at 65 degrees [Celsius] and the egg yolk, when you look at it, it’s completely raw, but it’s cooked all the way through. When you cut it, it’s like a custard. It’s not like a hard-boiled egg. When you eat it, it’s the perfect bite. I had that feeling three months ago.

A week ago, we were asked to do a caramel, which would be so interesting, because it was supposed to be part of box from Michelin-starred chefs. We were trying to come up with something really unique. We ended up making this caramel and we blended in Urfa pepper, which is a Turkish pepper, smoky and spicy. We put in dehydrated black olives and fleur de sel and coated everything in dark chocolate. That one fucking bite, you put it in your mouth and start sucking on it. You get the bitterness from the chocolate, then you get the sweetness from the caramel and then you start hitting the salty notes from the fleur de sel, and the last thing you taste is the dehydrated black olive, and you experience all of that within 30 seconds. To me, that was amazing. It was really beautiful. My pastry chef [Melissa Chou], she’s the one who came up with that. She gave it to me to taste and I was like, “What the fuck was that? That was so tasty.” It was like a grand slam. We were so happy with it. That was one of those moments, where you capture all that salty, savory, sweet, crunchy, bitter, all in one bite. If we can do that with every single thing that we make, I’ll be really happy.

JL: How long has your pastry chef been working with you for?

ML: Six years. She’s brilliant. She’s been nominated as a finalist three years in a row by James Beard. I think she’s going to get it eventually, this year or next year. She’s an amazing woman. She’s ambitious. She’s humble. She’s amazing.

JL: What do you remember about her when you hired her?

ML: I had a great pastry chef, a classically trained pastry chef. His name was Phil [Ogiela]. We did not need a pastry chef at that time, or a cook, but she approached me and we talked to her. When I interviewed her, I immediately started to gravitate towards her ideology of cooking. She came in and I was like, “Fuck, this is going to be a big mistake. I’m alienating a great chef by bringing in this ambitious young cook who’s never had a job before as a pastry chef, and this is such an important restaurant.” In three months, she took over and blew it up, out of the park. She’s been amazing since day one, and really nice. That doesn’t happen very often, but she’s pretty amazing.

JL: What steps do you take to achieve balance in your life, if that’s even possible?

ML: It is possible. You tend to forget about it from time to time. You tend to be distracted. For me, I just love to play basketball. Every now and then, I sneak in a pick-up game. I love to run, so I’ll sneak in a little run here and there, for half an hour, but I love doing what I do. People ask me, “What would you do if you’re not cooking?” I’m not going to be a farmer. I’m not going to be a writer. I’m not going to be a photographer. I’m not going to be anything else. I’d be fucking lost. If I’m not cooking, I’d be lost. Fucking chefs, they always say, “I work 16 hours.” That’s not true. We can’t work 16 hours every day. Yeah, we do work sometimes, but we do have a balanced life. We do get to enjoy what we do. If you see people every night, you look at the happiness on their faces, it’s pretty awesome. It’s not something to take lightly. You keep coming back for that, which is really cool.

JL: Who else do you look to in the restaurant industry for inspiration?

ML: I try not to look to any other chefs for inspiration. I have a lot of friends. They’re great friends of mine, they inspire me, but I like to derive inspiration from people who are not in the industry. As lame as it sounds, Kobe Bryant to me is an inspiration because of the way he approaches his craft. I love basketball. That’s why I gravitate towards Kobe Bryant. The way he approaches his craft, he’s so good at what he does. The only thing you can do is slow him down a bit, but you know he’s going to get his shit. You know he’s going to get the ball at the end. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. That drive, he’s a student of the game, I love that and get a lot of inspiration from that. I try to approach my cooking in the same way. I want to do things that surprise people when they eat then, when they see them, and they taste it. “What the fuck is that? How do you do that?” And it’s not just me. I have a staff. We all collaborate. We all work together. It’s just beautiful. These are the people I really like to get inspiration from, not so much chefs.

I do go out and eat at my friends’ places. I tend to eat a lot at my friends’ places. I don’t just go to any restaurant and eat, because I want to have a personal connection with them. It’s gotten to a point where I can look at a dish and I can honestly tell you who made it, because they have such a unique style. They’re so true to themselves, and they tell a story on the plate. When you look at their food and you taste it, you kind of know where it comes from. That’s Daniel Patterson’s style. That’s definitely David Kinch’s style. That’s Corey Lee’s style, from Benu. That’s James Syhabout’s style. You can look at a plate and see a small piece of them on the plate. They’re not just copying from everybody. They’re not just putting shit together. Like one day, it’s rustic, one day, it’s fine dining. There’s some coherence to it.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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[…] An interview with chef Mourad Lahlou of the Outer Richmond’s Aziza restaurant. – Food GPS […]

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