Morocco's Rising Female Chefs Are Taking Back the Kitchen
Working outside of the home was not a tangible option for Moroccan women for many years, but times are now changing with chefs like Meryem Cherkaoui and Najat Kaanache.
It's not a secret that most of the world's top chefs are men. It is also not a secret that it is women who have fostered cuisines and created meals in home kitchens around the world.
If you ask any Moroccan who makes the best food, their answer is simple: It comes from the hands and hearts of their mothers and grandmothers. However, it is very rare to find women at the helm of a professional restaurant in the North African country. Working outside of the home was not a tangible option for Moroccan women for many years, but times are now changing.
My mother-in-law Khadija was born in 1945, during a time when Morocco was going through its own turmoil. Faced with a strong French influence due to the protectorate and growing nationalism, people were questioning what it meant to be Moroccan. For many, this often came back to food.
I asked Khadija if she would have been able to become a chef or to run a restaurant when she was younger. "No. Never," she said. "It wasn't even something we would have thought of." Marriage and children were the only cards on the table. Yet it was the women of her generation that raised the women who are now making a splash in the Moroccan culinary scene.
Two dynamic forces are making names for themselves both domestically and abroad. Chefs Najat Kaanache and Meryem Cherkaoui are two culinary stars who walk different paths but carry a love of their homeland deep in everything they do. Both chefs inject the flavors of Morocco with a modern twist that takes tradition to a higher level. Moroccan food is salt-of-the-earth food, focusing on fresh, local ingredients that are simply prepared but packed with flavor. Many attempts at modern Moroccan cuisine fall flat, combining foreign elements and losing the essence of Morocco.
As someone who has had a wide range of culinary experiences, I knew what these women were doing was special. But, what would happen when a traditional Moroccan grandmother sat down to try these modern interpretations of Moroccan cuisine? Lucky for me, my mother-in-law was up to trying the menus of both chefs and providing her unfiltered insight.
Kaanache is the child of immigrant parents. In 1975, when Francisco Franco died and Spain opened up, her 17-year-old father made the journey to immigrate to Spain. He ended up in a small Catholic village near San Sebastian, in the heart of Basque country. Her mother soon followed and the couple began to build a life there. They were outsiders from the beginning, but she credits her parents with never letting her feel like she was owed something. "When you go to a place, you're the one that has to give from [yourself]," she quoted her parents as saying. "And then whatever happens is not in your hands—if they accept you or not."
Even though Kaanache grew up in Spain, her connection to Morocco was a part of everyday life. "I was the little girl that dreamed of the flavor of vanilla," she said. "Because I didn't know what it was or where it came from. All of the kids in the village would have vanilla ice cream and Nutella sandwiches with vanilla, and I would have a honey sandwich with [lentils] in bread."
But this didn't mean that she faced an identity crisis. "'Moroccan' is something you carry with you, that's inside you, that's a feeling. It's not a discussion of the neighbor or the mayor. It's something very personal, like religion—something that doesn't need to be explained to anyone. I don't have an identity issue—I am Moroccan."
During her childhood summers, her family would load up their car and drive to Taza, the small mountain village her parents had left. They would become a part of everyday life there, helping to harvest and press olives into oil, and picking up fallen grains of wheat that would sustain their extended family in the winter months. Food was always important for her, but it wasn't until she took a risk that she began to realize her future might be in food.
As an adult, she visited the Netherlands and stayed in a friend's apartment near several art galleries. Kaanache began approaching them and offered to make small bites for them to serve during gallery shows. It was through this that she realized cooking was something in which she truly found joy. Soon afterward, she took over as head chef at a seafood restaurant in Rotterdam. After that, she waited for weeks at the door of a new Heston Blumenthal restaurant until she was given a job.
Kaanache's path isn't traditional. She has worked incredibly hard to get positions in some of the world's best kitchens, such as The French Laundry and elBulli, in dizzying succession. But in her heart she always carries Morocco. Last month, she came back to the country after nine years away to be the guest chef at the new Salt-Marrakech restaurant. Her menu is distinctively modern and includes the famous Ferran Adrià liquid olive. (Hers is made with 100-percent Moroccan olives, of course.) The kitchen also serves Moroccan khobz bread mixed with rose petals and salted black olives, savory rabbit b'stilla in flaky oarqa pastry, a camel tart with all the flavors of the sweet and savory tajine, sweet royal shrimp from the Atlantic coast, and homemade Magnum bars—a childhood throwback for every Moroccan kid—to create a culinary tour of Morocco in a single meal.
This was the first time my mother-in-law experienced a multi-course meal of this style. It took a little encouragement and explaining to help her along the way. Some dishes just didn't make sense to her. She wondered why anyone would serve just three olives on a plate, but she loved the camel and shrimp. She wasn't too sure about the b'stilla and salad (while I, on the other hand, relished the fresh tastes and textures), while the Magnum bar made her laugh and appreciate the childhood reference.
That's exactly what Kaanache's food is: a memory and a reminder of who she is and where she comes from.
Meryem Cherkaoui's story is different. Born and raised in Rabat, Cherkaoui says that the scents and tastes of her mother's kitchen are some of her earliest memories. After completing her A-level studies, she moved to France and attended the Institute Paul Bocuse and trained in both culinary arts and management. She followed this by working at La Majestic in Cannes and heading a small restaurant in Brittany. In 2002, she made her return to Morocco to open her own restaurant in Casablanca.
It was also important for Cherkaoui to find her own personality in the food she was creating. While French techniques and influences were a part of her training, it wasn't the food she grew up with. The scents and tastes of her childhood also play a big role in the menus she creates. Her passion for Morocco is front and center. When designing the menu for Mes'Lalla at the Mandarin Oriental in Marrakech, she didn't want to create "tourist food." Instead, she wants to bring the flavors of Moroccan homes to a wider audience. This means not working with both the finest products and the simple foods that are an integral part of the everyday Moroccan diet.
Cherkaoui's menu represents a mixture of modern and traditional styles, and it changes seasonally. During our visit, spring produce was just making its entrance. Marrakechi classic tanjia, a slow roasted mutton with a combination of simple spices, was fantastic. A pigeon b'stilla, one of the more difficult things to find done well in restaurants, was cooked to perfection. The leg of lamb with carrots and pears, which is Cherkaoui's mom's recipe, melted in the mouth. The presentation was beautiful and the food had the flavors that were familiar.
It was then time to hear Khadija's final verdict: It was a win!
Professional Moroccan kitchens have yet to break into the global culinary scene, and there are very few top chefs creating Moroccan food for a wide audience. When I asked my mother-in-law what she thought about Moroccan female chefs running these kitchens, a huge, mischievous smile came across her face. "We make the best food at home," she said. "Why shouldn't people eat the best food in restaurants, too?"
I'll take that as a sign of approval.