Pretend it’s Sept. 28, 2011. Please? Cause that’s when I did this interview with island-grown chef Chris Kajioka and Mourad Lahlou, chef-owner of vaunted, Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Aziza. OK, the time travel starts…now.
SINCE CHRIS KAJIOKA joined Mourad Lahlou’s San Francisco resaurant Aziza in January 2011, the contemporary Moroccan spot has become a sort of pilgrimage stop for Hawai‘i eaters and cooks. And Kajioka said choosing Aziza over the other name-brand eateries that wanted him was the best decision he could have made. He and Lahlou were in Honolulu in September for the inaugural Hawaii Food + Wine Festival and kindly met with me at what was then the Waikiki Edition, after they were done prepping for the next night’s Streets of Asia: Morimoto and Friends Presented by Hawaiian Airlines event at the hotel on Sept. 29.
The dude duo has been working together less than a year, but they’re already joined at the hip, communicating in an easygoing, brotherly banter. And it was like that from the start—they talked for a couple of hours the first time they met. Kajioka was in San Francisco on a job reconnoiter mission and had interviews lined up at many of the city’s to eateries.
“Chemistry in the kitchen is so crucial,” said Lahlou, “and Chris wanted the job for the right reasons. Lahlou also like Kajioka’s straightforward, no ass-kissing manner.
For the moment they were still awed by the Kaua‘i-farmed shrimp they just worked with, in preparation for the big “Streets of Asia” event the next night. “We just tested, worked out the cooking time. I felt it was better than lobster. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted and I’ve tasted a lot of things. I wish we could get them in San Francisco,” said Lahlou about the crustaceans. He moved from Casablanca to San Francisco in 1986 to attend college—”If I had known about Hawai‘i I would have gone further,” he laughs.
“I don’t remember them being this good,” said Kajioka. “And the sea asparagus from Kahuku is pristine and juicy. It’s woody on the mainland.”
“I felt stupid today,” chimed in Lahlou. “I thought we had great ingredients in San Francisco, but the seaweed is amazing here. Sea beans—I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s been an eye-opening experience.” All the gushing about local ingredients is enough to make even the most hard-bitten cynic feel warm and fuzzy. Their culinary cocoon of bliss absorbed everything around it, including me.
“I didn’t think I’d leave here wanting these products,” said Lahlou, adding that he doesn’t even want to do anything to them—just “enjoy them the way they are.” Which led the conversation to what he’s doing with Moroccan cooking. North African cooking, like other well-spiced cuisines such as Indian, isn’t about putting individual ingredients on a pedestal by letting it shine with just a squirt of lemon or a drop of olive oil. It’s the opposite of Italian cooking.
“Moroccan cooking is about building flavors,” explains Lahlou. “It can get cluttered—you can have seven or eight different vegetables in a dish and they all wind up tasting the same. It’s not about merely enhancing the flavor. it’s hours and hours of creating new flavors.”
For him, the biggest challenge has been to remove those many layers of flavors, stripping things away, as one would remove clothing from an overdressed person “to just see the beauty of things.” He’s documented how he tackles this challenge in his new book Mourad: New Moroccan (read the New York Times article about it!).
And it’s a philosophy that spoke to Kajioka. “In the Bay Area, the ingredients are so much better. There’s got to be a way to use the same products and have them stand out,” he said.
“I don’t like heavy reductions and heavy plates,” said Lahlou, talking about TKKT. “He made teamed halibut. He took chermoulah concept and made a broth—it was like a dashi. It felt so refreshing. I find this is so Moroccan. He captured all of that in that broth.”
Lahlou learned how to cook out of necessity: “I was homesick when I came to the U.S. I was trying to stay in touch. I started calling my mom every day. Then the bill came. I had to find another way to connect.” So he started cooking, and learned something. He tried to re-create what he had in Morocco, “but you can’t,” said Lahlou. “There’s no smell, no food, no light. If you’re in the middle of Marakesh having a merguez sandwich, it ties in together. But you have it in San Francisco and it’s lame.”
Instead, he decided to make Moroccan food in the context of the Bay Area. To illustrate the concept, he cites a rabbit dish. “In Morocco, the rabbit is smothered in a sauce of paprika, ginger, turmeric, then you stew the shit out of it. I take rabbit and confit the leg, pan sear the loin, braise and pull the shoulder, and make stock out of the body. I cook them separately so that each part has integrity, then put them back together in a dish.
But he started out with the “cook-the-shit-out-of-it” technique. “I just learned by trial and error,” said Lahlou. “Knowing what I know now, I never would open a restaurant with $3,000, like I did in 1996. I didn’t have enough money for a deposit after I signed the lease.”
Lahlou learned on the job, and reveals that he’s still learning. “What is really exciting is when I get to work with people like Chris—he brings something new to the table. It bends the trajectory we’re on. People want to learn from him. He’s a great, great addition to the team.”
For Lahlou, doing the Hawaii Food + Wine Festival was extra special with Kajioka on hand. “I’ve done so many events, but this is really important. Meals on Wheels in New York, James Beard House, Pebble Beach—they all feel the same. Chefs don’t even know what they’re doing—they just show up. Peeling and deveining 1,000 prawns from here with Chris—there is a sense of place, there’s a link.”