Industry Insiders: Mourad Lahlou, Self-Made Iron Chef

Mourad Lahlou, chef and owner of Aziza in San Francisco, will make his debut on Iron Chef March 1st. He talks about learning the tricks of the trade, a genuine malice towards Dr. Atkins, and his love of fat.

Where are you when you’re out of the kitchen? There’s a restaurant in Napa called Ubuntu. They do wonderful things with vegetables, and they treat vegetables in a very mature way. I love the barbecued brussel sprouts. I also love Coi. Another favorite of mine is Nopa in San Francisco. Another one is Zuni Café. And then there’s A16.

How do you describe yourself? I’m self-taught. I never went to school for cooking. I never worked for anybody else in any kitchen whatsoever. My first restaurant was my first gig as a cook. I’m not classically trained. So, my style of cooking is such that I don’t have any barriers. I was never told how to make anything, so I’m never restricting myself in a way that certain things have to be done a certain way. I can’t get away from that. But, everything that I make, I make it in a way that it makes sense to me. Just to give you an example — I was never told how important it is to sear meat before you cook it, because you sear all the juices and the flavor inside. This is a popular myth on TV shows, in books, and chefs are always talking about it. You’ve probably heard this so many times. I find that to the most bogus thing in the world. If you take a piece of meat, and you weigh it before you sear it, and then you sear it again, you lose just as much juice as if you don’t sear it. So the trick is in knowing how to cook it.

Your style is trial and error? Yes, but sometimes I feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel. It works both ways. Sometimes it would take me almost a month to figure out how to do something

What’s a positive thing you’ve noticed in the hospitality industry recently? The first thing is the fact that the economy is so hard, and everybody is feeling the pinch. Even the places that are not slow, they feel like they need to up their game. I’m seeing people offer a lot more for a buck. They’re trying to keep customers, they’re trying to attract newer customers, but the bar is definitely being raised in these hard times. You would think it’s the opposite — that people are trying to cheat and cut corners, but from the good places that I frequent, and the good places where I know chefs, everybody is really trying to give customers more.

Any kitchen secrets?

What’s the worst diet out there? The Atkins. It’s the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever heard of. Look at the Italians — they’ve been eating pasta for thousands of years. The Northern Africans have been eating couscous for so many years, and the French eat baguettes in the morning, the afternoon, and night. They eat croissants, and they’re healthier than most people in America. They don’t go to the gym every day for three or four hours either, and they live longer. I don’t understand why people would want to give up that much substance in their lives, and their joy, just because somebody said, ‘Oh, if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to be fat’.

What’s on your radar right now? I’m really enjoying The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s from a restaurant called The Fat Duck in England, and it’s by Heston Blumenthal.

What’s on the horizon for you for 2009? = I’ll be on an episode of Iron Chef that’s out on March 1. I’m in negotiations with Food Network to be the next Iron Chef. I’m also hoping to open another restaurant this year. And I’m working on a cookbook.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? I have so many. I love fat. Anything that has fat in it is good for me. I love peanut butter with green olives. I take two slices of bread, and I smear the shit out of it with peanut butter. Then I slice green olives and lay that on there, and more peanut butter, and there’s the sandwich. I love Ice cream, and dates. There are a lot of calories per date. But they’re really good.