« I showed an Iranian artist who had filmed her lover’s testicles for hours. There were six pairs screened in 4×3 in the dining room. The artist had camouflaged them a bit with backgrounds and pastel colours; they weren’t immediately recognizable. While parents didn’t see them, the first to realize were the children, then women; it was very funny! »
– Mourad Mazouz
In London, Mourad Mazouz is the darling of both edgy magazines and the business sections of more serious titles. A visionary, full of charm, for over twenty years this hyperactive restaurateur has been going back and forth between Paris’ arty scene and London’s luminaries, whom he indulges and delights with his five establishments proposing different cuisines: 404, Derrière and Andy Whaloo in the Haut Marais district of Paris; Momo and his 3 stars Michelin restaurant Sketch in Mayfair, London. Mourad Mazouz has often spoken to the international press, but rarely to African publications such as SWAG high profiles.
Alix Koffi : You left Algeria for France, then, after a brief time in the United States, finally chose London where you settled over twenty years ago. What ties to you still have with Africa?
Mourad Mazouz I consider myself totally African. North Africans should, for that matter, admit they are Africans fullstop. It took me being held up at 4 am in Kinshasa to realize that I could be taken for white!
My restaurants take up all my time, but I have always taken a break in December and January. I go off, taking nothing with me, no phone, and these long breaks mean I can go on grand escapades. I regularly travelled in Africa beyond the Sahara for ten years, then in Asia and finally in South America with Caroline, my partner. I drove down to Senegal by car, and to Côte d’Ivoire, where I stayed for three months with a friend who was doing his military service. I was free, I could hook up with a friend who invited to me to accompany him to Burkina Faso by motorbike, and I crossed Mauritania by helicopter with another of my friends. I particularly adore Mali where I went several times.
It was more complicated later with the arrival of my two youngest children and more still when they started school. I travel less now that I’ve got older; I have less desire to travel. At fifty-seven, I work enormously; I aspire only to lie in my hammock in Formentera, reading, taking a nap, being with Caroline and playing with my kids. I nonetheless return to Algeria regularly for weddings or funerals and I continue to go to Morocco four or five times a year.
What took you to Kinshasa? I went there for a project I did with the Fondation Prada and the artist Carsten Höller.
It was a place we called the Double Club. It was a work of art and a club, bar, restaurant, with several rooms, one of which was devoted to Congo. We were to stay open six months. The adventure could have lasted longer, but it was an ephemeral work.
There has been a rush on art in Africa for a while. Could you open a restaurant there? Do you think that a place there would be suitable? No. I have never wanted to set anything up in Algeria or in Morocco, for example, but just as I have never been tempted by Kasachstan or by Russia. I opened in Dubai, but it is hard to manage businesses from afar; I am not a businessman; I’m a retailer restaurateur. I need to be on the ground.
You have been at the head of many establishments and at the moment of five. To set up and above all to keep all these businesses running, you need people you trust… In this trade, like in many others, you are nothing without others. We work as a team. I refuse the idea that someone works « for me ». We work together for the same company and it happens that I have to be the one who has the last word in the event of a dilemma; that’s my role.
I work with my friends; it was much simpler for me. I have only had one assistant from outside my circle and we rapidly became close. I work very much on affect. It’s no doubt a failing, but I won’t change. For that matter, I don’t believe that we change fundamentally. I’m instinctive, I jump in and then see where I fall. I left school at the age of thirteen, I read little and I don’t like writing. I have no complex about this and it never stopped me from advancing, but it did enormously slow me down. Today still, I always need someone, Caroline or Meriem, my right-hand person. It doesn’t matter their job, but it’s important to me that my children continue their studies so that life is simpler for them. I want them to be autonomous, for them to tknow how to respond, defend themselves, so that they can remain alert.
The restaurant Momo where we are now has existed for over 20 years. What did the renovation you have just carried out here consist of?
It would have been better if I’d started another business from scratch… I never take the easiest path. I pulled everything down then redid everything in the restaurant! The downstairs room is no longer the dancehall you may have known; it’s now a cocktail bar, already listed in the Fifty Best [World’s 50 Best Restaurants], even though it has only just opened.
I’m also creating an annex: Momo Diner. I read in the New York Times that diners were dying out so I decided to open my one! Risk-taking like this amuses me. I drew up what I had in mind with the help of designer and architect friends.
What changes are there to the menu? I avoid folklore; I am there where people don’t expect me. For example, I propose a red couscous of a totally new kind: we soak it in beetroot juice, we work the semolina and the broth is made out of Chinese broccoli and cabbage. There is traditional couscous on the menu and the revisited one, as well as asparagus couscous. It’s out of the question to propose anything and everything; I don’t want to do fusion food; I want to take all of our ingredients and to work them differently. Some clients say to me: « It’s not like my mother’s, my grandmother’s, or my aunt’s couscous », or, « It’s not like back home », but that’s not my problem. I always believed that my mother cooked the best couscous and when I was thirty, I realized that it was terrible and that mine was much better. I have never understood why you have to do grandfather’s or grandmother’s cuisine to be a good North African or African restaurant! And I am like everyone; I live with my times. We are in Europe, we can include what we want, depending on its character, then we fuse it with the history of our childhood, our culture; it’s a blend. We do all we can with what we are. Your magazine isn’t obliged to be « African-style », is it? I refuse to let others to reduce us uniquely to what they want us to be.
Sketch, your 3 stars Michelin restaurant, is the jewel in your crown, the most Instagrammed restaurant in the world, apparently. Pierre Gagnaire is the chef, The Gallery – the dining room – decor was designed by your friend India Mahdavi, artworks are always exhibited on the walls. Since it opened in 2003, it has remained highly popular. Even the internet site is very conceptual. How was all of that conceived? I wanted to show works in the dining room when I opened Sketch, but no one wanted to be curator. One of my friends proposed to be and a year later, requests were flooding in! In ten years, I have shown more video art than the Tate Modern! We screen works, often made by young artists, in the daytime, in a loop. We have no limits and the council has had to sanction us twice for a dick showing here or there. At night, the selection is careful not to bother clients while they’re eating too much, but remains audacious. I showed an Iranian artist who had filmed her lover’s testicles for hours. There were six pairs screened in 4×3 in the dining room. The artist had camouflaged them a bit with backgrounds and pastel colours; they weren’t immediately recognizable. While parents didn’t see them, the first to realize were the children, then women; it was very funny!
I show artworks; people like them or they don’t.
For the visual communications, I had met Helena Ichbiah from studio Ich&Kar [Helena Ichbiah, Piotr Karczewski]. We came up with a series of very subtle political posters and flyers. They had fun with a calendar-programme: Ich&Kar’s Diary at Momo’s, from 2001 to 2008. They also designed a cocktail menu in the form of a fanzine for Andy Wahloo and they have just redone the Momo’s logo for the reopening.
You evolve in a highly arty milieu… I have more artisan friends than artist friends; I like people who make things with their hands. I like workers. But it’s true that I have collaborated with a considerable list of artists, between the exhibitions at Sketch and the concerts at Momo’s, with very many African artists.
Are you a collector? No, I have never collected; the concept doesn’t interest me. I believe that you should own nothing when you die. Some of my friends spend their lives putting together collections for their children, their grandchildren. I am not concerned about what will happen after death.
But I run into you all the same at Frieze and at 1-54 in London, or at la FIAC in Paris … You have to live with your times, so you need to keep informed. I have a particular relationship to art; I rarely go to galleries, even less to private views – that doesn’t interest me – but I visit a lot of museums. I go practically every week to fill my mind, just like I used to travel to fill my mind. I don’t go to judge, but to know, to speak, to exchange, to meet, to get to know. I don’t know what my subconscious retains. I suppose that I have reminiscences when I design projects, like the one for the diner for example.
I stay far from the gallery milieu, but I am more than delighted when a guy like Carsten Höller comes to ask me to help him create a place. I also have a very good memory of the café I designed for the Museum of Everything. It was a challenge; we only had a budget of 5000 € to set up a café that was to last three months in Paris.
What would be your message to young readers of this interview, who might be African? How would you encourage them, starting from nothing, to become a restaurateur in the upmarket districts of London or Paris? To begin with, I’d tell them not to go into restaurants! It’s a profession that has made me suffer all my life. But I was a lad who always suffered. I’m anxious. I have the impression I constantly flagellate myself. I’m always afraid of doing things badly. I’m a perfectionist and that makes me quite ill. It’s a terrible affliction that I wish on no one, but its my story and I’m no longer trying to change. While I’m talking to you, I’m looking at the mimosa and I’m sick to the teeth for not having had the time to cut it before leaving. I should have done it! I’ll take care of it when I come back.
Next, I would say to set up little restaurant chains, or to buy and sell places, which is what I should have done. But I keep my businesses. I’ve had the rue de Gravilliers in Paris for 31 years; I have just bought the leasehold of the building next door and I’m thinking about what I am going to do with it. Find the French and English version included in the PDF.
In SWAG high profiles issue 1