The Eternal Hype Of Restaurateur, Mourad Mazouz

01 March 2020
Middle East, Restaurateurs, Food, Arabs, Restaurants, Mourad Mazouz
Image: Hassan Hajjaj
GQ Middle East speaks to one of the most prolific Arab restaurateurs of our time

When Mourad Mazouz – one of the most prolific Arab restaurateurs of our time – thinks back to his childhood in Algeria, a few places have stronger memories than others.

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He remembers the beach, where he’d spend time with friends from his neighbourhood, lathering up his skin with olive oil in hopes of getting a deep tan. (The result was often blisters for the rest of the summer, “because I was so white,” Mazouz says.) He remembers selling prickly pears on the side of the road. He remembers walking through cafés with his uncle, where he would sell thousands of horse racing ticket stubs.

Place and space would go on to play a pivotal role in the 57-year-old’s career, much of which has been spent creating restaurants which pivot between curious, fantastical, cosy, rambunctious, luxurious and beyond.

If, by the time he was a teenager, Mazouz already showed signs of being both precocious and industrious, you could probably chalk it up to a childhood that was both relatively free and slightly neglected. Coming from a large family in Algiers meant that he could easily come and go from his home. “Only today do I realise that it would not happen again in the same way, with the same liberties. A lot of [the] freedom came from neglect, but it was not only a bad thing. I looked for silver linings in everything. It was not an easy childhood, but I had great moments with older uncles and cousins and I don’t look back at it in anger.”

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Mazouz arrived in Paris aged 15 – his first true taste of life outside of Algiers. He put himself through school and found a job as an overnight office cleaner. “I was going out after work in a lot of different clubs. Because I looked very European, I had no problems getting in, which was not the case for my friends from home.”

At 18, the young Algerian found a job in a public relations office. “I understood very quickly that there was a stigma in the ’70s with being called ‘Mourad’. Since I was on the phone a lot, I took on the name Xavier. When I’m in Paris now, I still see people calling me Xavier from that time.”

The precociousness continued. Mazouz was just 26 when he started running his first restaurant – a bistro in Paris, Au Bascou. He thinks of the milestone as simply a fortunate turn of events. “I believe in lucky circumstances, so I don’t really think I chose to open my first restaurant in France. From the age of 20, I had been travelling around the world, and then I got arrested without a working visa and sent back to France,” he says. “Back in Paris, I had this opportunity to take over the lease of a Basque bistrot. Paris was the place I knew best – where I had the most friends. I didn’t have any money to be
anywhere else, so I decided to take on this place and run it long enough to make money to travel.”

Life, he explains, more or less took care of the rest. “Whatever I set out to do transformed, and I ended up opening another restaurant and later moving to London. That’s how I became a restauranteur.”

Mazouz leaned on his North African roots. In 1990, he opened 404 in chic and rowdy Le Marais – to this day, 404 is a Moroccan institution, fresh and modern, particularly when experienced with its next door cocktail bar, Andy Wahloo.

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404 was birthed, in part, by frustration. Mazouz yearned for a North African restaurant that would reflect his roots, yet be something of its time: cooler, sexier and more modern than the rest. “North African restaurants were not famous when I first started. In France, maybe more than anywhere else, people thought only of couscous and tagine when they thought of North African cuisine and somehow it is still the idea worldwide. I am still trying to break this preconceived idea that prevents us from evolving away from traditional dishes towards more modern ones – like Nobu did for Japanese cuisine. There is a treasure trove of options when cooking in the North African way.”

By 1997, Mazouz hit London. And Momo was born: a kind of luxurious, chaotic souk in the heart of Mayfair, where celebrities like Tom Cruise would slink in for the Moroccan fare, then linger to the early hours in a tucked-away bar. (Last year, for its 22nd birthday, Momo got a fresh menu and redesign. Writing for The Guardian, Grace Dent explained how Momo first made her want to become a restaurant critic. Revisiting the new, rebooted Momo was an “unexpected joy,” she wrote. “It would be a struggle for anyone to find Momo ‘boring.’”)

Last year, another Mazouz Mayfair haunt, Sketch, achieved an elusive feat: three Michelin stars.“I was really happy for 12 hours,” says Mazouz. “I felt happy for my team who work tirelessly, day in, day out… It’s a great accomplishment in our trade: someone told me it’s as if we won an Oscar, which is quite right.”

But, as is the way for so many of the accomplished and driven, Mazouz’s mind reset, lurching back to the urgent and the pressing. “I was back at work, full of problems and pressure. Not forgetting the victory, but it definitely took a back seat in my mind,” he says. “I don’t really realise that I am successful – or rather, I don’t really think of it in those terms. I work very hard every day. I am anxious every day. It doesn’t feel like success from the inside. It doesn’t feel very balanced, and that’s success for me: to be balanced.”

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But, come on now: while Mazouz might be chasing balance above all else at the minute, from the outside looking in, his truest success has been the longevity of his visions, from 404 to Momo to Sketch and beyond. And for that, he credits nothing more than grit and gut.

“It has never been easy. It feels like it has always been hard. The beginnings of Sketch were definitely trying – I had never done something that grand and costly. There were a few moments where I felt defeated. I do believe in perseverance, but I am also so meticulous that it can also become a little detrimental.”

Those who have wandered into Sketch will have no problem pointing out that the bar-meets-restaurant-meets-art-gallery feels as though it’s been made bespoke for a hyper-visual generation of diners. For Mazouz, trend is something to push away from. While his gut and the zeitgeist will often cross paths, it’s the gap between the two that he believes makes his institutions something else.

“I never follow trends. I don’t really go out to restaurants. If I had followed trends, I would never have done Sketch or Momo – everything at that time tended to be minimalist. I follow what I feel and hope for the best with hard work.”

Mazouz’s latest step feels something more like a leap. He’s built a diner after reading an article in the NYT about the slow death of diners. “It made me think how these were popular canteens with an extensive menu – and always a warm familiar feeling when entering.” Set in London, right next door to Momo, the space, as usual, is being created lovingly and deliberately – because a warm feeling doesn’t craft itself. While the interior design was done by Mazouz himself, he tapped design (and mood) masters Willo Perron and Brian Roettinger to build-out a design identity for Mo Diner that genuinely feels true to the originals.

The menu is a collision of North Africa, the Med, and Los Angeles: hash browns with pomegranate and brown sauce, Berber pancakes, grilled octopus with
saffron aioli. “[I saw] Mo Diner’s cuisine as a huge bridge between the Mediterranean shores and California. It felt very natural, as these were two places where I was spending a lot of time,” he says. “For the first time I intended to do a place that was very familiar and common. A place that could fit in any city I decided to set it in.”

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And that notion of an ever-shifting space – of a flexible idea of where you are, and where you’re comfortable – feels true to Mazouz. He still travels to North Africa a lot, more Morocco than Algeria.“I have loved Morocco for a very long time and have been visiting it and producing artefacts there for almost 35 years. Life and people are sweet. The landscape is beautiful and easy to travel through. It is a remarkable country which tries to evolve and progress constantly,” he says. “I go to Algeria less as it is harder emotionally, it is more bittersweet. I go to see my father,
sisters, brothers and family. I hope I can show my children most of Algeria soon.”

For a man who has been wandering around the globe for over 40 years, the notion of ‘home’ is something more fluid, but Mazouz has a rough idea of what it means to him. “I consider London to be home as it is where my house with my family is, and where half of my businesses are. Paris is where my heart is – it is the place where I feel most comfortable and surrounded by the love of friends. But honestly I could live anywhere,” he says, “because I don’t really need a home.”

Mourad’s Greatest Hits: An itinerary worth eating your way through

Momo - Mayfair, London

Best for A delicious night out at a chaotic, luxurious souk of a restaurant in Mayfair.

Sketch - Mayfair, London

Best for  A dizzying dining experience, packed with Instagram moments for visual feasting.

404 - Le Marais, Paris

Best for A cosy-yet-buzzy meal amongst Paris’ cool crowd in a fresh and modern Moroccan institution.