By Shoshi Parks | 7 x 7
In Marrakech, Morocco, Mourad Lahlou’s life revolved around family meals. Three times a day, without fail, grandparents and parents and children came together to eat and argue and eat some more.
“We’d sit around the table and have breakfast, argue a bunch about dinner the night before, and then the majority of the conversation at breakfast centers around what we’re going to have for lunch,” laughs Lahlou, the chef/owner of Michelin starred Mourad and Aziza. “Food was the central event within our daily life.”
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So it was something of a shock when, arriving in the U.S. at the age of 17 to attend university, he discovered how many Americans ate their meals not with loved ones but alone, hastily, in a car or out of a microwave. The rhythms of family and food that had been essential in Marrakech only happened here on major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“That’s the main reason I got into cooking,” says Lahlou. “I realized I was so disconnected from my roots and my culture, so I decided to start teaching myself to cook what I had watched everybody make [in Marrakech].”
Within months of arriving in the Bay Area, Lahlou participated in his first official American celebration, spending Christmas with a local family. “There were a lot of people I never met before and they brought me presents, like symbolic things,” he remembers but most of the cards read: to Mourad, from Santa. “I was so overwhelmed that I went to the lady that invited me and I was like, hey listen, who is Santa, I really want to thank this person. I had no clue that Santa was Papa Noel—that’s what we call Santa in Morocco.”
Ever since, Lahlou has celebrated not just Christmas but Thanksgiving, too. For the last several years, he’s found himself in the best of company at the Napa home of his best friend, producer and manager Susie Heller. Her Thanksgiving parties in particular, which bring together several dozen people including some of the country’s most famed chefs, all of whom pitch in to make the meal, are epic.
“Every year five chefs cook a turkey differently, then people get to taste all variations and interpretations of Thanksgiving turkey. Then every year people anonymously vote for their favorite,” explains Lahlou. While he’s never completely understood why Americans are so gung ho about dry turkey on Thanksgiving, he’s done his best to win the game.
“I’ve done turkey cooked in the Moroccan way with preserved lemons and olives and saffron. Many times I’ve done traditional turkey in the oven, smoked in the green egg. I’ve done boneless turkey that I’ve rolled up and sous vide,” says Lahlou. The year he traded in the turkey for a suckling pig, though, was the best. “That year it won best turkey,” he laughs.
This year, with COVID preventing the big celebrations of Thanksgiving past, Lahlou is thinking a little smaller for his holiday centerpiece. Roasting a chicken instead of a turkey, along with some winter root vegetables, is just right for a smaller family meal.
The chef begins by brining the chicken with cracked green olives, garlic, peppercorns and herbs, then slides thyme and preserved lemons between the skin and flesh. It may seem intimidating but, says Lahlou, “it’s really easy, you just put it in the oven and cook it and forget about it.”
// Aziza (5800 Geary Blvd., Outer Richmond) is open for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery 4:30pm to 9pm Wednesday through Sunday and 10:30am to 2pm Saturday and Sunday, azizasf.com. Mourad (140 New Montgomery St., SoMa) is open for takeout and delivery 4:30pm to 7pm Thursday through Saturday, mouradsf.com; both restaurants will be closed on Thanksgiving Day
Read from source 7X7.com