Think you know your couscous and tagines? This Moroccan chef shows how it’s really done at his much-loved Sydney restaurant, where he’s put his own stamp on his homeland’s cuisine.
"I didn’t set out to be a chef. When I first started working as an apprentice in a professional kitchen, my dream was to be an actor. I was passionate about food and flavours, but I didn’t associate this with a career. Back then, cooking was just a way to pay the bills. Even after opening my first restaurant, The Mosquito Bar, in Sydney’s Mosman in 1986, I still wasn’t convinced.
Gradually my mindset changed though, when I realised how well our restaurant and the Moroccan cuisine we were serving were being received. When people appreciate what you do, it gives you a fresh perspective.
I was born in Morocco and grew up in Casablanca. Looking back, I was interested in food and cooking from a young age and, when friends got together, I was always the person who cooked. I guess I thought everyone my age enjoyed being in the kitchen, but now I realise I was probably a bit different in that way. Understanding how flavours work together seemed to come easy to me.
After travelling, I finally settled in Australia in 1985. I didn’t know much about the country, and that appealed to me. I believe there’s a name your parents give you and then one that you must find for yourself; for me, living in a place where you don’t know a soul and having to start from scratch is how you do that.
Something that’s changed remarkably about Australia since I moved here is the quality and variety of the food and cuisines we have to choose from. People’s food knowledge has grown a lot, but there’s still some confusion about what Moroccan food is – many people mistakenly think it’s hot. The reality is that Moroccan food is full of spices, but it is not necessarily spicy. Heat is used mainly as an accompaniment, not as an ingredient.
The thing that makes Moroccan food unique is that it draws from three different cultures – Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Perhaps because of that, when you eat Moroccan cuisine it isn’t just about the food, it is about experiencing a way of life.
I opened Out of Africa 17 years ago and I would describe my menu as a mix of signature Moroccan dishes, with many favourite dishes still on the menu. Customers return again and again for the lamb sosaties (marinated, chargrilled lamb backstraps on dried-fruit flavoured rice with a sweet apricot sauce), which I have given my own twist.
I approached the writing of my two cookbooks in the same way: I tried to introduce people to both traditional and contemporary recipes, all of which have a distinctive Moroccan flavour. These days, my dreams for the future are about food, not acting. I’d love to write another great book and maybe, one day, open a little kasbah-style restaurant, complete with a fountain at its heart, somewhere outside of the city. It would be a place where people could truly feel like they have escaped to Morocco for a meal, without having to leave Australia."