There has been an unprecedented increase of proudly Moroccan female chefs domestically and abroad, fearlessly and innovatively creating modern interpretations of Moroccan cuisine, and supporting small producers by using only fresh local produce and ingredients in their female-led kitchens.
Considered one of the finest in the world and referred to as “a cuisine of the kings”, Moroccan cuisine has been gradually enriched over the centuries because of multiple cultural influences; strictly refined in the royal palaces of Fez, Meknes, Marrakech and Rabat; and lovingly shared and taught by mothers to their daughters in warm kitchens across this North African country.
Morocco is abundant with many fine ingredients and spices, in fact the famous Moroccan spice mix, Ras el hanout, consists of twenty seven spices combined to give marinades and dishes that distinct explosion of flavours. Meals are also communal in nature, and their staple dish tagine for example, is shared from a single clay pot. In most cultures around the world, food takes centre stage and brings together families and communities. This is also true for Morocco where it is inherently part of the culture for grandmothers and mothers to lovingly bond with their daughters in the kitchen, teaching them how to cook traditional Moroccan meals.
Although men dominate the world’s commercial kitchens as known top chefs, it is undoubtedly the women that cultivate cuisines. In Morocco, like in many other parts of the world, it is rather uncommon to find female chefs commanding professional commercial kitchens. However, change is finally happening.
Chefs Hanane Ouaddahou, Najat Kaanache, and Meryem Cherkaoui are disrupting the international culinary scene. Not all grew up in the streets of Morocco, but all carry a love for their homeland that manifests in their work. Having a food-oriented family, a strong sense of identity, and a desire to popularize Moroccan cuisine using local produce, ingredients, and spices; are three things that these three famous female chefs have in common.
Born and raised in Casablanca, Chef Hanane Ouaddahou left Morocco when she was 17 years old. She studied in Paris at a business school where she learned all about auditing and cost controlling. She worked as a business intelligence consultant for many years before finally fulfilling her dream of opening a restaurant. Ouaddahou reminisces, “As a young girl I was always in the kitchen, learning cooking from my mother and my grandma.”
She opened La Marocaine (The Moroccan) when her son was 6 months old, and she pretty much did everything. From managing, being the waitress and a chef, Ouaddahou ran the restaurant in France for two years. During the financial crisis, she sold the restaurant to another Moroccan family, and her and the family moved to Dubai where her husband got a job.
In Dubai, she offered cooking classes and started catering. With a mission to popularize Moroccan cuisine in her mind, during a holiday in Morocco, inspiration struck. While watching Fatafeat, the Middle East television station dedicated to everything culinary. Through her father’s advice, she contacted the founder of Fatafeat, Youssef El Deeb, and told him she wanted to share her Moroccan kitchen as it was not very well known in the United Arab Emirates.
Fast forward and Ouaddahou now flies weekly to Cairo to go live on air in the cookery segment of Al Qahera Al Youm. Having lived in Dubai for five years now, this hardworking chef and mother of two has become one of the Middle East’s most popular television chefs.
Unlike Ouaddahou, Chef Najat Kaanache grew up in a small village in Spain but every summer her family would drive back to Taza, the mountain village in Morocco they had left. And although Spain was her home, she was undoubtedly Moroccan in every way. “‘Moroccan’ is something you carry with you, that’s inside you, that’s a feeling,” Kaanache says.
It was in the Netherlands when she realized her passion was for cooking when she started supplying small bites in art gallery shows. Her professional culinary journey has since been a dizzying and exciting ride, from becoming a head chef at a seafood restaurant in Rotterdam, to working in some of the world’s best like The French Laundry. She runs a Moroccan grill restaurant in Mexico City called Cus, with her life and business partner, Charles Accivatti. Aspiring to create the best modern Moroccan restaurant in the world, Kaanache bought Nur in 2017, a restaurant at the Medina in Fez. At Nur, Kaanache brings to life all of the flavours that she remembers from her childhood summers in Taza, and adds a modern twist to what is traditionally Moroccan.
Nur has a very strong focus on using daily fresh market seafood and local produce. The restaurant also regularly hosts events and actively participates in projects such as Pop Up Chefs or the Chefs in Residence experience where incoming chefs get to work with the country’s wealth of produce, herbs and spices while working with Moroccan farmers and producers.
Another celebrated Moroccan chef is Meryem Cherkaoui, a Rabat native that received her training at the renowned Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. After working in illustrious restaurants in France such as The Majestic and The Crillon, she moved back to Casablanca in 2003 to start her own restaurant, the Maison du Gourmet. Seven years later she began offering her consulting services through Saveurs des Chefs, where until now, she teaches catering professionals through cooking workshops.
Merkaoui proudly supports agribusiness companies in the development of their products, and through another company of hers, Dima Terroir, improves the livelihoods of Moroccan women by sourcing the finest products by working in partnership with local women’s cooperatives. In 2013, she founded Slow Food Maroc (Slow Food Morocco) with Zoubida Charrouf, coordinator of the 10,000 Gardens in Africa project. In the same year, it is through this connection that Cherkaoui met Dounia Bennani and Nadia Benmoussa, particularly through the Slow Food Alliance of Chefs project.
Bennani and Benmoussa were so impressed with Cherkaoui that they joined forces to open their own retaurant, Ch’hiwates du Terroir. Although Dounia began her career as a manager in an accountancy firm, and Nadia was an architect and decorator, they had a similar dream of promoting the richness and diversity of local Moroccan produce. Because of this Ch’hiwates du Terroir has an organic menu based on local produce; fresh meat and fish are bought from shops in their neighborhood in Rabat; cheeses are from a local cooperative; fresh produce comes from the Moroccan fair trade platform, Taswiq; and herbs are naturally grown by Nadia in her eco-agricultural farm in Shoul.
Ch’hiwates du Terroir has even recruited a female chef, Chef Couad, who used to be a housewife. Seeing all these Moroccan women flourishing in their professional careers, and extending their success to cooperatives, farmers and other small producers is a positive trend. According to the World Bank, women make up less than 30 per cent of Morocco’s labour force, so for a country where women used to only have very limited and conservative choices, times are definitely changing.
In Marrakech’s Gueliz neighborhood, an outdoor café called the Amal Women’s Training Centre, is a restaurant training institute for Moroccan women with little to no income who are single mothers, female orphans, divorcees and widows. “They’re like this category that society wishes would be invisible,” says Nora Fitzgerald, the Training Centre’s founder.
These invisible women are treated as outcasts and pariahs in Moroccan society, and such an opportunity to gain culinary skills to get full time jobs in restaurants and hotels after being trained in one of two branches of the Training Centre, is like getting a second chance at life.
Fitzgerald was born in Morocco to American parents, and she set up the Amal Women’s Training Centre in 2013, after having numerous encounters with a young mother begging in the streets on her daily walks to the school where her daughter goes to. She started small by teaching this young mother and other women how to bake all sorts of goodies which were sold at local bake sales. From there, the dream and the vision grew, and after receiving a large grant from the Drosos Foundation in Switzerland, the Training Centre fully opened its doors as a non-profit organisation.
Dedicated to the empowerment of marginalised women through restaurant training and job placement, the centre has trained more than 200 women as of mid 2018. And chefs such as Chef Jamila Aamer has mentored over 100 apprentices there who have moved on to securing jobs and living better lives. The Training Centre and outdoor café serves a growing number of customers traditional Moroccan favourites such as a variety of tagines, zaalouks and their popular icy blended mint lemonade.
There is an African proverb that says, “if you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” At the helm of these professional kitchens, restaurant institutes, and slow food movements in Morocco are these trailblazing women who are creating more opportunities and possibilities for others. All the more validation to this proverb, as well as the undeniable current statistics and research stating that an educated woman is better able to educate her own children, and have a healthier family, leading to greater wealth in her community.
It looks like Morocco is being steered in the right direction by women in a white toque blanche; armed with a collection of sharp knives; and using only the freshest local produce in the hearth of Morocco’s finest kitchens.