When Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou first came across MyMarrakesh.com, a blog started by the design-obsessed American expat Maryam Montague, he fired off an emotional email. “I told her, ‘I hate you! Because you make me miss Morocco,’ ” says Lahlou, who was raised in Marrakesh but now lives near San Francisco, where he’s chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Moroccan restaurant Aziza.
Montague’s lushly photographed blog about life in Marrakesh—particularly the spectacular design and architecture she discovers all over the city—didn’t just trigger Lahlou’s homesickness; it led to a friendship. Since that first email, the two have stayed in touch. “I mean, it’s so funny that I’m a Moroccan guy in San Francisco and she’s an American in Marrakesh,” says Lahlou. “But through her eyes, I rediscovered what’s incredible about the city.”
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Now, several years after that first email, Lahlou is on his way to the Peacock Pavilions, the Marrakesh inn that Montague and her husband, an American architect, run and live in. Tonight, Lahlou is the guest chef at a party for the Mysterious Marrakesh Women’s Dinner Club, a group of talented expat friends of Montague’s— most of them photographers or designers—whose work is inspired by Moroccan culture. “Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the essential beauty of a place,” says Lahlou as his car nears the house.
Lahlou’s own expat life began more than 25 years ago, when he defied his parents’ wishes and moved to San Francisco, where his older brother lived, to study economics. “I didn’t miss the chaos and dust of Morocco for a minute,” he says. But he did start pining for its food. While applying to PhD programs, Lahlou began making Moroccan food on his own at home, initially re-creating classics he’d learned from his grandparents. He discovered he had a knack not just for cooking but for imagining new ways of presenting the flavors he grew up with. In 2001, Lahlou and his brother opened Aziza, named after their mother. Lahlou soon became known for his unforgettable reinventions of the Moroccan repertoire. Nine years after opening Aziza, he earned his first Michelin star, the only one awarded to a Moroccan restaurant in the US.
His car pulls into a long driveway lined with rose bushes and young olive trees, and he parks in front of a grand golden-pink facade. As he approaches the massive, arched front door, Lahlou smiles as Montague, a petite and pretty brunette, throws it open and rushes up to give him a hug.
Montague’s husband, Chris, designed the house—which the pair moved into in 2009—with inspiration from a traditional Moroccan fort, with high walls and domed ceilings. From there Montague, who recently published her first book, Marrakesh By Design, took over, splitting the enormous living room into two seating areas divided by a stone fountain. She furnished all the spaces in the house with idiosyncratic pieces she picked up while living and working as a human-rights advocate in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe: There are vintage black-and-white Berber carpets, an acupuncturist’s mannequin wearing goggles and a Tibetan altar table displaying jade and aquamarine pottery from Tamgroute, Morocco.
“I’m an American in Marrakesh, but I was born in Egypt, and my mother is from Iran,” says Montague. “My father is from New York, and I’ve lived all over the world. My design aesthetic reflects my personal experience.”
Lahlou walks through the house, taking it in. “It still has such a strong sense of place,” he says. “There is no doubt that we are in Marrakesh. Look at those rugs.” He points at the burgundy tribal rugs, in traditional floral and geometric patterns, that hang over the doorways. “I’m familiar with those, but I have never seen them used as curtains. What she’s doing for Morocco on the design side is like what I’m doing for the food: breaking down cultural boundaries and riffing on tradition.”
In the kitchen, Lahlou spots a copy of his debut cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan, on the counter. Published in 2011, it has helped the 44-year-old chef reach a larger audience. Williams-Sonoma has asked him to oversee a Moroccan-themed boutique project, scheduled to launch next month, and at the end of 2013, he will reopen Aziza in a new, bigger location. In addition, Hillary Clinton has just appointed him a State Chef as part of a new culinary diplomatic corps alongside Ming Tsai, José Andrés, April Bloomfield and others.
As Montague goes upstairs to change, Lahlou starts the dinner prep, cutting paper-thin slices of radish that he’ll serve as a garnish for a soup of roasted eggplant flavored with Parmigiano, garlic-spiked half-and-half and lemon rind. “Moroccans never start a meal with soup, actually,” he notes. “Instead they would serve seven little salads, including a puree of eggplant called zaalouk, and lots of bread. This soup will have the flavors and spices of those traditional salads but feel lighter and fresher.”
Soon Montague, dressed in a silky brown tunic with gold embroidery, comes back downstairs and walks out to the tent she’s set up in the olive grove. What looks like just a white canvas tent from the outside is going to be the surprise setting for tonight’s dinner. Inside, Montague has created an intimate, stylish space: She’s hung black pendant-shaped wicker chandeliers that play off the intricate stenciled patterns on the tent’s interior walls and set up a long dining table, covered in a tablecloth she made by decorating brown paper with a Moroccan star pattern in shimmery gold spray paint. She walks around, setting silver ceramic chargers from Loun, a Marrakesh atelier, in front of each seat.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Lahlou is struggling with a few obstacles: The oven is low on gas, and the car carrying the dessert his family is sending over has broken down halfway to the house. But he still manages to pull together his six-course menu, and he starts sending out his soup, fragrant with the scent of smoky roasted eggplant, just after guests take their seats.
For one course, he creates a savory porridge of toasted green farro, slow-cooked like risotto and topped with sweet caramelized cauliflower and bright yellow egg yolks. It’s his spin on a cinnamony breakfast porridge called herbel that he ate as a child. There’s another reason for the dish: “In the land of couscous, I like to use a different kind of grain, like farro, to shake things up a bit.”
Seafood is abundant in Moroccan cuisine, and in another course, Lahlou pulls apart a familiar fish stew, reinventing it as crisp, seared pieces of fresh branzino topped with a light, tangy tomato jus flavored with garlic, mint, thyme and coriander. Later, he sends out bowls of mussels steamed in a broth of Riesling, thyme, saffron, orange zest and cream, and garnished with brioche toasts topped with black olives—“an earthy flavor,” he notes, “that makes a nice contrast with the flavors of the sea”.
The special delivery from his family—a dessert couscous heaped with spiced dates and apricots—arrives hours late, but just in time to be served alongside the deliciously rich caramel-sauce-topped cake Lahlou has made with Medjool dates and hits of rum and espresso. He joins the women in the tent. “I’m so inspired by what’s going on in Marrakesh lately,” says Lahlou, looking around the table. “I just wish there were a food scene as dynamic as the design scene.” He laughs. “Guess I’ll have to come back and open something up.”
Berlin-based Gisela Williams is the European correspondent for Food & Wine. She also contributes travel, food and design stories to the New York Times.
Mourad’s Moroccan Menu
Marrakesh Black Book: Style Stops
This boutique in the Industrial Zone, a gritty up-and-coming district about 20 minutes outside Marrakesh, is where Montague shops for handmade ceramic tabletop items, like curvy tagines in bright crimson. 504 Zone Industrielle de Sidi Ghanem, Rte. de Safi; lounmarrakech.com; 011-212-524-356-999.
A cluster of chic design shops has recently opened near the legendary 12-acre Majorelle Garden. One of the best is this two-story concept store selling items like place mats made from recycled flour bags and clothes by local designers. Rue Yves Saint Laurent & Avenue Yacoub el Mansour; 33ruemajorelle.com; 011-212-524-314-195.
Delicate hand-painted glass vessels, carafes, votives and perfume bottles are some of the specialties at this pretty boutique in the Guéliz district. 15 rue de la Liberté; 011-212-524-434-074.
This shop in the Guéliz district stocks beautiful Moroccan tea glasses and linen and silk fabrics sold by the meter or as tablecloths, place mats and napkins. 70 rue El Houria; 011-212-524-436-108.
Marrakesh Black Book: Restaurant
While exploring the Industrial Zone, Montague often stops for lunch at Le Zinc, a bistro from French chef Damien Durand, who trained under Joël Robuchon. On his chalkboard menu: dishes like a tart of blood sausage and apples, or a cardamom-spiced shepherd’s pie. 517 Avenue Principale, Zone Industrielle de Sidi Ghanem; 011-212-524-335-969.
Marrakesh Black Book: Hotel Hot List
Marrakesh meets Miami at this 71-room urban resort, which has a stunning rotunda-shaped lobby, a hopping rooftop bar and four restaurants, including one overseen by an Italian Michelin-starred chef. Doubles from $350; delanomarrakech.com; 011-212-524-424-242.
Taj Palace Marrakech
Used as a backdrop in Sex and the City 2, this regal white-domed hotel in the Palmeraie district combines Moroccan and Mughal influences in its ultra-luxe rooms; the spa has two traditional hammams. Doubles from $480; tajhotels.com; 011-212-524-327-777.
This compound outside the city consists of 10 villas furnished with vintage finds and objects custom-made by locals; in the huge garden, guests might spot the resort’s pet donkey, Deepak. The restaurant is overseen by ambitious French chef Olivier DeChaise. Doubles from $390; fellah-hotel.com; 011-212-525-065-000.