The half-Moroccan, half-French Mourad Mazouz (a.k.a. Momo) might just be one of Europe’s coolest restaurateurs. When we sat down with the notably hip yet completely unassuming 54 year-old on the sunny patio of Almaz on The Walk in JBR, we quickly learned that he doesn’t consider himself a food industry celebrity.
In fact, in a conversation peppered with charming voilas and alorses (because who can resist the wiles of a French accent?) we learned that he hates using the word ‘celebrity’ when it comes to the food biz. “I think the concept of celebrity in this industry is ridiculous. We are not celebrities, we are workers. Personally I consider myself a shopkeeper. My job is to run a place and to make sure that people leave as happy as I can make them.”
Ironically for a man who shuns the limelight his celebrity status is what brought him to Dubai – well that and checking up on his three ‘shops’ in the UAE. In case you hadn’t noticed, a steady stream of food celebs have been rolling through town as of late. The reason, apart from checking up on their Dubai-based establishments, is MBC’s highly anticipated Top Chef Arabia, which sources tell us will be airing once Ramadan wraps up. Details on the competition reality show have been kept very hush-hush, with even the guest judges being left in the dark until they show up for filming.
And a restaurant celeb he is, thanks to his two acclaimed restaurants in Paris – Au Gascou and 404 – and across the Channel for the eponymous Momo and Sketch, the latter once hailed by The Observer as ‘Britain’s most daring – and expensive – restaurant’.
With its five distinct spaces, the award-winning Sketch is really more of a concept than a restaurant. You could say that it’s Mazouz’s magnum opus: he took 9 Conduit Street, a two-storey 18th Century building in Mayfair, and over the course of four years converted it into a destination for food, art and music. Considering the building’s history as host to ‘a bizarre variety of societies and institutions that, according to some accounts included cyclists, balloonists and psychologists’ as well the Suffragette Movement and Christian Dior’s London atelier, the constantly changing and eclectic nature of Sketch is a good fit for the address. And the unceasing transformation of the space is why Mazouz settled on the name. “In the beginning I wanted to call it ‘Rubik’s Cube’ because I wanted to keep playing around with it.”
We’ve got to say that in our humble opinion, ‘Sketch’ is the better name…
When we asked if Sketch, or something like it, would be coming Dubai’s way soon, his answer as an emphatic non!
‘There is only one Sketch – it’s the nature of it. And in the beginning when we opened everyone was criticizing the place for like two years. It was a big, big drama.” We had to agree – nobody needs more drama.
What about a hotel-based establishment, we asked – all three of the Almaz outlets, located respectively in JBR, Mall of the Emirates and in Abu Dhabi on Al Maryah Island – aren’t licensed to serve booze.
We received another emphatic non!
“I have no desire to be licensed here. When I came to visit Dubai ten years ago I couldn’t find any Arabic place that was elegant for locals that didn’t want to consume alcohol. The nice places were bars and restaurants that mostly catered to expats. That’s my target audience here in the UAE.”
But when the first Almaz popped up in a tucked away corner of Harvey Nichols, it proved to be a hit with both locals and expats alike. And it’s not just mall-weary shoppers that wander in during the day – the restaurant attracts a large evening crowd despite the absence of the hard stuff from the menu. You can’t credit it merely to the food – which is decidedly the best Moroccan you can get your hands on in Dubai (a statement applicable to the Almaz in JBR as well as the branch in Abu Dhabi); or the sheesha (we’ve heard that’s spot-on as well). Momo, who considers himself an artisan as well as a shopkeeper, is a master of creating a magical ambience. Each Almaz is different – Mazouz shuns the formulaic – but the same man is behind each setting; he has chosen every tile, selected every bit of cutlery and examined every light fixture in all three venues.
Using a whimsical analogy to explain his approach to his craft he told us, “a restaurant is like a daisy. The yellow part in the middle is the food – it needs to be perfect so that all the insects and the bees to come and do what they have to do. The petals are all the different ingredients that you put in the restaurant: the welcoming on the phone, the front of house, the music, the décor – all the different components. Even if your daisy is beautiful, if you have three or four petals missing, it will not look nice. It needs to be a perfect flower.”
It’s an impressive amount of dedication for someone who claims to have just stumbled into the restaurant business: “Honestly, I started with one restaurant, Au Bascou, because I wanted to travel and I was thinking that I would sell it very quickly to make a bit of profit so I could travel longer and be free.” A gutsy move considering how risky the restaurant business is. “I was 26 and I didn’t think of the possibility of failing. When you’re 26, you don’t think, you just do. And today I still just do, but I think a little bit more. But that’s my character – I tend to jump and then see where I land.”
Not to jinx his luck, Momo does tend to land on his feet – the monumental Sketch, which met with a good deal of hostility when it first opened its doors in 2002, became, and remains, a phenomenal success. Maybe it’s due to Mazouz’s less than conventional take on success. “For me, I’m someone who thinks that we’re born, we die, we just pass by, so there is no point to have money. Running after having a bigger car or owning a bigger flat or whatever people want to have, I always found that quite bizarre.“
You wouldn’t be able to tell that from his roster of restos: eight independent establishments and several collaborations; yet true to this fierce unmaterialistic attitude, Mazouz doesn’t look to his restaurants with a cold commercial eye. “It’s a business – you have to keep account books and be aware of your profit margins etc., but if it were up to me I wouldn’t run my restaurants commercially.”
And it’s probably this aboveboard attitude that accounts for his restaurants’ popularity – Momo takes no shortcuts: we already mentioned his abhorrence of surefire formulas; his parsing of every element that contributes to make the space what it is; but he also insists that all the food be made à la minute. “Nothing, nothing, nothing is prepared in advance – everything is done on the day of. Sometimes, that’s a bit of a problem because, especially in Dubai, people want to eat very quickly. That makes me a bit annoyed, because I feel sometimes people don’t care what they eat so long as they get it immediately. So I’m a bit bitter about that. Because how do you make people appreciate that everything is made just at that instant? It is very, very difficult.”
Don’t worry Momo – if restaurant ratings are anything to go by in this town, plenty of people in Dubai do get it.
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