Exploration should present a sense of the surreal. Whether you are travelling or discovering something or someone new where you are, we should welcome the fascination and wonder of novel experiences. I certainly experienced moments of marvel and awe during my week in Marrakech.
The clippety-clop of the horses hooves on pavement and the daily prayer calls echoing from the towers of minarets and mosques were a far cry from the continents I have resided in. The sights and sounds readied me for more discovery. Fantastic experiences should do just that.
The expansive terraces at La Mamounia offer a luxury often underappreciated – the opportunity to soak in all the spectacles. Bicycles, tuk-tuks, horse drawn carriages, donkeys and, yes, camels are most common on the busy streets. Even though Morocco is far from my home in Europe, I felt as though I was in a distant and exotic place that one surveys in a movie or reads about in a book with pictures.
Marrakech felt alive and full of mystery. And as I wrote last week, exploration has much to do with spotting “life” as it happens, then engaging with it. So, my week was spent doing just that. And there were numerous Moroccan surprises that awaited my discovery.
I delighted in encountering Moroccans. From start to finish we were cared for with immense hospitality. Youssef became our local taxi driver. He cautiously ushered us around the city.
I met numerous resort staff and by the end of the week, I felt like a regular. “How are you Mrs. Robinson? Is there anything we can get for you?” Needless to say I was pampered at every turn. Nada Ramadi, a manager at La Mamounia, was incredibly attentive and we became fast friends.
Naturally, I made every opportunity to meet chefs. Executive Chef Rachid Agouray’s hospitality especially in his exotic, Le Morocain Restaurant, with his exemplary dishes was a magical evening. The ambience, décor and exquisite service are all a hallmark of his dedication to his guests.
Chef Rachid’s very own signature small accompaniment dish, pumpkin jam, delivered a big bang and is something to watch out for. A masterpiece and something that I will replicate soon!
Chef Alvrie Manangka was the superstar at L’Italien Restaurant. The venue showcases a state-of-the-art Italian wood oven, shrouded in copper. It is no wonder why they are known for “the best pizzas in Marrakech”! (He even trusted me to use his pizza paddle!) The lobster ravioli was exquisite, and my husband, Sean, adored the octopus entrée.
However, the most lasting taste of Moroccan culture came through chefs of a different kind.
On each new cultural adventure, I set out to discover how the locals serve their communities. I happened to come across a list of top restaurants, which included a small restaurant called, “Amal”. It turns out to be an non-profit organization that trains underprivileged and vulnerable women to cook. My interest peaked, I determined to join one of their cooking classes.
Amal Training Center is a safe and loving space that accompanies strong women in their journey of empowerment. The charity was founded in 2012 by Nora Fitzgerald, an American born and raised in Morocco. Her vision was to curate a training center where women could get a fresh start, by learning to cook and nourish their hope for the future. Many of the women served by Amal are skillfully employed in local restaurants.
Amal (Hope), amongst other ventures, offers authentic cooking classes. The class was enriched through discussion of Morocco’s heritage, the culture, a tour of their organic garden. Followed by ‘Atay”, (traditional tea ceremony) a “gunpowder” tea infused with spearmint, peppermint, apple mint and lemon geranium.
This was surreal – sitting around sipping our hot perfumed tea and tasting delectable pastries whilst participating in rich conversations with Nora and her team of women chefs. I was in culinary heaven!
The sublime hands-on tagine cooking on a majmar (charcoal stove) was the most fun activity especially when we had to use a bellow to blow air into the fire, a great pre-lunch work out! Sean opted for the lamb tagine and I chose the vegetarian one. The class was most impressed to see Sean’s perfect brunoised (julienned, quarter turned and diced) onions!
The tagines took an hour to yield tender, sweet and spicy, earthy, aromatic, and pungent dishes. These were served with the typical khobz bread used to scoop up tagines.
It was a sensational day, meeting and connecting with different people, exchanging meaningful conversations, and being inspired in many ways.
As we parted, we received one last gem - a tour of their storage unit where bags of staple foods were being prepared to feed as many underprivileged families of the community as possible for the upcoming Ramadan. Nora says she hopes to feed six hundred families during the Ramadan period. [You can learn how to support their efforts here.]
The next surprise on our exploration were the markets, or “souks”. My friendship with the La Mamounia concierge team paid off in a big way. Labbakh El Mehdi, an energetic and gracious concierge, recommended us to take a guide on our souk tour. We took his advice and made another rich encounter with Morocco, by way of Mr. Najib Kabbaj, our personal guide.
Arriving at the souks, I felt a sense of thrill and enthusiastic eagerness to explore this landmark. A large circular open market with a mélange of people and foods, ochre labyrinths, French influences, conical spice towers presenting a panoply of vivid colors of turmeric yellow, bright orange saffron and Majorelle electric blue. Displays of variety of intricately designed pottery, silver, metal, and brassware shining in the sun. Embroidered table linen and a kaleidoscope of printed scarves.
Shouts and cries beckoned us to come and taste the large plump ubiquitous medjool dates, pale yellow apricots and the syrupy sweet pastries sprinkled with pistachios. The air was filled with scents of floral bergamot, sweet rose water, orange essence, sensual jasmine, sandalwood, cinnamon, and nutmeg, to say the least!
Najib carefully guided us through each store translating where needed and filling our ears with historical data. After a few hours over a cup of coffee in a nearby café, arms laden with gifts for family and friends, we sat down to enjoy the company of this smart, refined, sophisticated, most knowledgeable elderly gentleman. Just like old friends, immediately diving into deep conversations on culture, food, people, diversity, education, and such.
He had been working as a guide for forty-five years! His story represents the Moroccan culture – make the most of every opportunity to seva (serve). Najib shared how he happened to be in the market one day, when he overheard an Englishman struggling to order a drink at a café. He stepped in to assist and subsequently the man asked him to guide him around the markets.
Najib pulled out a black and white polaroid picture of this man who helped launch his career as a guide – it was none other than The Beatles legend, Ringo Starr! As we sipped our coffee and marveled at his story, Najib asked: “can you help me write to Ringo Starr? I want to thank him for helping me start my career.” How could we refuse?!
I could write a whole book on Najib’s story, but instead I will share his parting words to us, “Today I am very happy that you came here and supported our people and fed their whole families”!
Upon our return to La Mamounia there were more rich words from Labbakh, “I invited my dear old friend Najib to guide you today because I trust him and knew he would be able to deliver a true account for your reference”!
The final Morroccan surprise came by pure chance. As I tend to do, I started chatting with with Chef Alvery at L’Italien one evening. We bantered back and forth about his story, their kitchen and the food at L’Italien. He happened to mention that Chef Jean-Georges was in town. So, I jumped at the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend.
I first met Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Hong Kong, where he was chef at Mandarin Oriental’s Pierot. A multi-Michelin Star Chef, a pioneer in the artistic and innovative changes to lighten French cuisine. Substituting butter and cream to create a change in the flavor profile with Asian inspired sauces/jus made of light broths, herbs, and aromatics, with the application of French techniques has been a huge success in his making. He is an innovative master at his art.
And more so an incredible businessman, as I learned in our hour together. He has amassed an empire of culinary brilliance, about which he enthusiastically shared. Chef was gracious to allow so much time, given his busy schedule. I used every minute of it to learn more about his past, present and future work. (Which I promise to share in a future post!)
At 65 years young, Jean-Georges remains as energetic and dynamic as ever. He told me he wants to keep doing more and grow his projects for “another twenty years”!
Naturally, his talent was on display at both of the hotel’s venues that carry his name. We tasted all the new dishes he had implemented on the L’Asiatique menu, with the help of his superb team of chefs, of course. His signature cocktails from L’Italien menu were ambrosial, distinctive, refreshing, and quenching.
After our meeting, Jean-Georges surprised me by gathering his whole team of chefs from all of La Mamounia’s restaurants in their main kitchen to celebrate my new book, “Seva, The Art of Hospitality”! A once in a lifetime treat.
That is what exploration brings to those who venture forth – once in a life time experiences. Life changing and affirming encounters. A discovery that begins surreal, gradually becomes real and makes us all better for having experienced it.
Keep on exploring!