by Samantha Schoech
With a culinary victory on national television, top ratings for his restaurant and a new cooking show in the works, Mourad Lahlou has a lot on his plate.
WHEN RESTAURATEUR and "Iron Chef" winner Mourad Lahlou (B.A., '93; M.A., '95) arrived in the U.S. 20 years ago to study economics at SF State, he was terribly homesick. His English was limited to a few words and phrases, everything about American culture seemed foreign, and he really, really missed lunch. "Every family in Morocco is a food-loving family," he explains now. "Everyone comes home for lunch and there are 12 or 15 people eating four courses. It's a really big deal."
His nostalgia for family lunches back in Marrakesh inspired him to start cooking for the very first time. "Cooking was cheaper than going out and it was my link to back home."
Those first culinary ventures turned out to serve him well. Twenty years later, Lahlou, who earned a master's in economics but never attended cooking school, owns and runs Aziza. Named after his mother, it is one of the most celebrated restaurants in the Bay Area, and Lahlou is on the brink of becoming a major
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Lahlou came to America with plans to earn a doctorate in economics and then return to Morocco to work for the World Bank or the IMF.
"I wanted to help people economically," he says. "Until I got into the restaurant business that's what I thought I would be doing."
Once he earned his master's he felt he needed a break from his studies. He decided to take a semester off before applying to doctoral programs and joined his brother in opening Kasbah, a Moroccan restaurant in San Rafael.
The professors he had been cooking for socially for years were worried. "They really liked my cooking. They encouraged me to keep cooking, but they were worried I would get sidetracked," says Lahlou.
The late Dwight J. Simpson, who taught in the International Relations Department, became one of Lahlou's closest friends and advisors at SF State. "He was a huge influence and we became really good friends. He told me 'I think you are going to taste something in this business that is going to take you away from economics,' and he was right."
Kasbah was an instant success. "The first day we opened we were so packed. And it just never let up." Within a week the reviews started coming in. "All the reviews were so good I thought, OK, maybe I'll take two semesters off," says Lahlou.
Two semesters became a dozen years and a very successful trajectory into a new career. In 1990, he opened Aziza on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco and found huge success with his modern takes on Moroccan cuisine.
"I started looking at Spain and Turkey and France and Italy. I got into the California thing, the Bay Area thing," he says of his first forays away from traditional methods. "My food has its roots in Morocco but it's just food that I like to eat. If the ingredient is from Japan I will use it. I'm not constraining myself."
Chef Daniel Patterson, of the celebrated restaurant Coi, champions this approach. "What he has done brilliantly is bring his personal experience and cultural background together with a California sensibility. His success is well earned."
And success is exactly what he has enjoyed in recent months. In the last year, Lahlou beat Iron Chef Cat Cora on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America." He finished a cookbook, due out in the fall of 2011, with celebrated cookbook author Susie Heller ("The French Laundry Cookbook"). Aziza became the only Moroccan restaurant in the U.S. to earn a coveted Michelin Star, and Lahlou learned he was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef (Pacific). It's been a game-changing 12 months for the tattooed 40-year-old with the signature bald head.
When SF State Magazine caught up with him, he had just finished filming a pilot for a soon-to-be-launched cooking network, and he was leaving for Marrakesh to film parts of his as-yet-untitled book's companion series for PBS. Each episode of the PBS show will link traditional Moroccan cooking with Lahlou's modern approaches to the same cuisine.
"It's a bridge between Morocco and what I'm doing at Aziza, showing there is a link, it's not arbitrary," he says.
What he's doing at Aziza these days is some very creative and exacting experimentation with technique and ingredients. He makes his preserved lemons, which usually take months to cure, in an immersion circulator in a few hours. His version of smen, an aged butter used in tagines and other Moroccan dishes, acquires its taste from blue cheese instead of months of fermentation. He is a big fan of sous vide, a method that maintains a food's flavor and texture by cooking it at low temperatures for long periods of time. As he puts it, "I try to explore ways of cooking other than a burner and pot and a pan. The food is getting cleaner and cleaner and more intellectual."
San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reviewer Michael Bauer, who has followed Lahlou's career since his first weeks at Kasbah, says, "He started by basically recreating his mother's recipes. As he became more confident, he started experimenting and doing very interesting stuff. Now he has one of the most exciting restaurants around."
It all seems a long way from economics, but Lahlou insists there is a strong connection between what he is doing now and what he studied at SF State.
"When you go to college you don't just learn what's in the books. You learn responsibility, how to interact with people, how to be your best, how to push yourself. Running a restaurant business is a lot more than learning to cook. My econ. degree helped me enormously, but mostly my interactions with professors and fellow students have helped me with what I do today."
What Lahlou does tomorrow is a bit up in the air at the moment. It's difficult to imagine that with a new book, two new TV series, and a successful restaurant to run, there could be more on the horizon, but Lahlou is not a man taken to standing still. At the moment, it's his immediate plans that are rock solid.
"I've got to find a sandwich," he says, as he waits for his plane to Morocco to board. "I am not eating airplane food."