Only a stone’s throw from the old medina of Marrakech named Djeema el Fna, a UNESCO world heritage sit in its own right,[i] the hotel and restaurant named Le Riad Monceau can make a proud boast to being one of the closest establishments to heart of the city.
Yet besides being positioned near the infamous Berber medina and the almost unnavigable souks (markets) that lead from it, Le Riad Monceau[ii] holds more than just a destination for centrality and comfy bedding within the city of Marrakech; it also hosts the annual competition named Marrakchef, a tournament for some of the most talented chefs of the world (mostly European) to attempt to create exciting Moroccan cuisine with their own unique twists.
I decided upon my visit to Marrakech to interview the owner of Le Riad Monceau and creator of the Marrakchef competition, Antoine Ludovic (a French expat living with his family in Morocco) who hosts the trials to ask questions on how and why he came to such locations and decisions, in the traveller’s quintessential search for fine hospitality and cooking.
Question – So why did you choose Morocco as opposed to other North African countries; and in particular why Marrakech to set up?
Antoine: Well I chose Morocco because of both its historic relationship to France and the consistency that it provides for businesses in comparison to some of its less stable neighbours. But on a more personal note, I had a feeling around 2002 that the competition in Marrakech was intensifying; and with my love for the unique architecture and the fantastic people that surrounded me, I had to move here and start the Riad and accompanying restaurant.
Question – It appears that you take cuisine just as importantly as the hospitality side of running the Riad?
Antoine: We recently had a cook book published associated with the hotel, it won the Gourmet Award, presented in Paris in 2013. Running everything here has given me the ability to mix both business and my passion for food, also being out here feels like a break from routine.
Question – Now you’ve focused on expanding the culinary experience, how would you describe the type of food you serve here? Is it French or Moroccan?
Antoine: The cuisine we serve here is intended to somewhat of a fusion between pure Moroccan gastronomy, and a level of French culinary refinement. The purpose of such a fusion is to exhibit the exceptional Moroccan cuisine whilst making it lighter for a more European palate; so essentially a blend of tradition with modern presentation.
Question – So having seen the other establishments in the area, some of which tend to be fairly European oriented themselves, how does Le Riad Monceau’s cuisine stand out?
Antoine: Well the locals tended to eat at home and the tourists normally don’t get to experience the regional food, and most of the restaurants are specifically geared for tourists; whereas we tend to provide genuine and authentic gastronomy, while creating a presentation that would be familiar to visitors.
Question – It seems that the hotel and restaurant have been a great success, how did you start Marrakchef?
Antoine: I began in 2014 by going to a consultant and it took about four months of travelling around Europe to discover Michelin star chefs who would be interested in participating in the competition. The task of finding willing chefs was easy, and they were more than willing to come out to Marrakech to compete; I think it is the nature of chefs to be open and to explore new types of gastronomy.
Question – What are the challenges that Marrakchef provides to the chefs?
Antoine: After going to the media and asking the chefs to come, there are rounds in which we ask the contestants to create a fusion between Morrocan cuisine and adding their own personal touch to the local diet. The way the chefs are drawn in is that Morocco provides a new challenge and a potential market for their art; it also allows them to have access to the tourists and deliver interest from the media and public. With experimental cuisine and stable environment to explore their ideas, I think Marrakchef is the perfect venue for fusion gastronomy.
Question – Considering its brief existence, Marrakchef appears to be incredibly successful. Is there any plans for the future for the competition?
Antoine: Well in the future we intend for the competition to be televised at some point, perhaps in 2015 we will be on Moroccan television or a European broadcasting network. If we can become televised it will give the chefs more exposure and present their style of cooking and presentation. We are also looking to protect the brand as we hopefully expand toward television.
Question – (Somewhat jokingly I ask) – with all this I suppose you couldn’t give me a lesson?
Antoine: Well I’m sorry but I don’t, however our chef who has been with us for the past five years, Raschida, gives cooking classes in Moroccan gastronomy. They range from 3-5 hours long over 3-4 days, in both the mornings and afternoons with classes between 1-20 people. The programme covers the discovery of local produce, and then moves to preparation and cooking of the food; this shows tourists both a tour of the souks and a flavour of local tastes.
Question – It sounds like you have all bases covered here when it comes to cuisine; is there anything else in the pipeline?
Antoine: Well we have been thinking of expanding abroad, there was a guest from San Francisco who seemed insistent that we set up there; but for the time being I think it is better to concentrate on Marrakchef and consider expansion in the future.
More information about Le Riad Monceau and Marakchef can be found on the Le Riad website