As far as Abdel Alaoui can remember, he has always been a kitchen helper. As a child he was already peeling vegetables in his mother’s skirts. “I was very greedy, so I stayed close to her,” he smiles, as evidence on VHS tapes. He was 7 or 8 years old when he told himself that food was a passion: “My friends love football and I like cutting carrots for my mother’s couscous,” it often says.
Traditionally, food in Morocco has been “the business of the women who raise the children and stay at home,” he notes, so much so that he regularly wonders how the stoves could have taken such a place in his life.
It was only recently that he found the answer: He learned, somewhat by accident, that the kitchen was the room of the house in which he was born. It was her grandmother who gave birth to her mother, and to see clearly, she needed an increased support: the working surface was chosen for childbirth. It was in Oujda, Morocco, in 1979. “Actually, I got into it when I was born,” jokes the chef, now a columnist for France Télévisions.
Potato gratin with cumin
He was 3 years old when the whole family moved to France. What he tells about his childhood can be found on the plates of the family table: mainly Moroccan. But “with the resemblance, my mother watches culinary channels and starts mixing traditions,” he recalls.
His mother cooks a Proust madeleine
At school, when he comes back from lunch, Abdel asks his friends what they ate for lunch at home: “I asked every day, they still remind me today! he smiles. Their answers are so many ideas to pass orders to his mother, which contribute to the diversification of the Alaouis’ menus. Around 11 or 12 years old he tasted his first gratin dauphinois, but always with a Moroccan touch, a little cumin in this case.
His mother cooks a Proust madeleine. “Just spent a few days with my parents in Marrakech, a city full of excellent eateries, but what I wanted was the cardoon tagine with olives”. † spoiler… That was delicious! he points with a wink.
These precious recipes are appreciated by all of Abdel’s siblings who demand the sharing of maternal secrets: “She sends us hours of voice notes on WhatsApp to explain all the details to us,” says the son turned chef.
Couscous is really his signature dish. “She makes two, one with beans with milk and whole wheat semolina, the other with medium semolina, chicken or lamb and carrots, zucchini, cabbage, turnips”. She weighs and measures nothing and it’s exactly the same every time, as if the proverb “your eye is your scales” was written for her. Despite Abdel Alaoui’s glittering career and long list of experiences in the field, his mother’s kitchen remains a sacred reference.
It’s here hchoumayou can’t
Before he became the king of gastronomic crosses, before he became a “comedian chef” who could make his audience laugh by preparing a vegetarian kebab, before being heard on the radio and in the kitchens of great chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire or even Michel Rostang worked… Abdel Alaoui had to convince his parents.
“It wasn’t easy for my family, we grew up in a ZUP [zone à urbaniser en priorité], families attach great importance to the appearance of neighbors and the rest of the family. In the beginning I was told “it’s hchouma (shame), you can’t”. And then I took my father to a starred restaurant, in Cazaudehore, he saw men in the kitchen. He said he was fine,” he says.
Previously linked by the French menu, his gastronomy is today the result of a crossbreed, for example, Moroccan traditions are tasted at home in the form of rolls that evoke sushi, but with the taste of tagine.
He is preparing a book of oriental recipes, choukran, published by Marabout. In addition to all his activities, he also has several Parisian addresses, including: Yemma† “When I opened it I had already been to London where I had learned a lot about acidity. So I designed my couscous by adding pickles onions. I also make a compote of raisins, onions and cinnamon and add chili to the semolina. His signature couscous is this one.
Abdel has been sharing his culinary tips and tricks on TV for years: in the Special Edition of Canal +, then in C à vous on France 5, in Bonsissages d’Europe with Stéphane Bern, on his Youtube channel, Abdel Kook… But also on the gastronomy pages of the women’s site Shewhere we find some culinary memories of incarceration.
At home he develops a whole series of recipes under the commentary of a small voice in the background asking questions, that of Basile, his 8-year-old son. “He likes to cook with me,” notes his father. Familiefrichtis didn’t stop with Abdel’s generation, he also saw them with his two boys. The smallest, Lazare, is also “a great foodie”, from the height of his 3 years.
His son makes his own gastronomic experiments
“During the lockdown I really couldn’t live without them and didn’t want to disconnect from the kitchen and the people. Basile joined in by commenting on the recipe, asking questions, the spectators loved it. When I took over on my own after that , they told me it was a pity…” His sons accompany him to the market, the tall man does his own gastronomic experiments, “he takes risks”, admires the father who indicates when although it is not always good.
Abdel is surprised (and delighted) to see such small children eat everything, adoring Roquefort and preferring “a well-made camembert that stinks, when I can’t myself,” he specifies. Their favorite dish is Thai-style chicken marinated in ginger and lemongrass, soy sauce and sesame seeds, before being oven-roasted with Indian rice. Of course they love couscous, when their father is ready, they see it, “they know they will have a good time”, he remarks amusedly.
Ramadan, Ukraine and always couscous
This year Abdel will again participate in the program La nuit du Ramadan, on France 2, in which he will prepare a chorba and pastry, among other things. “With these dishes I want to tell a shared gastronomy. A cuisine that does not matter whether the recipe comes from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia. A kitchen that can be found on all tables of Ramadan in the evening and that brings everyone together. †
He himself is preparing to start fasting in April and tells what will delight his family in the evening. “The week will be quite light: mint tea, a good soup to start, a sellou, a kind of muesli made of honey, sesame seeds, peanuts, roasted flour. But also honey pastries from Marrakech and salads! †
On weekends, his siblings meet, as tradition dictates: “It’s very important to us, it’s what we love, it’s unforgettable childhood memories and we want it to stay that way for our children,” he says. This time the meals will be more muscular, “more comfort food, fatter what! Fried meat and tuna cubes, donuts, tajines, couscous of course.
For this month of Ramadan, Abdel has another couscous project in the pipeline. He is preparing to leave for Warsaw to meet Ukrainian refugees, “with two tons of semolina and one ton of vegetables, aiming to cook 5,000 dishes on site,” he explains.
It is a good dish to bring a little comfort because it can be shared
With every conflict, Abdel tries to lend a hand, which often ends in a pat. He contacted Polish chefs with whom he maintained contacts from previous trips, they responded positively to this initiative. Couscous would be one of Poles’ favorite meals, he casually learned. It is a good dish to bring a little comfort because it can be shared. “Semolina has the advantage that it multiplies the weight by three during cooking, the vegetables contain a lot of vitamins, it is a warming meal. I love the image of couscous traveling in these moments,” he concludes.