On a recent Monday afternoon, Mohamed Lakeb sat at a table covered in plaster dust, the air heavy with the smell of fresh paint, in the soon-to-be-open Morocco Gate Restaurant, where he’s to be head chef.
Like many others in his line of work, Lakeb says he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, before he started his formal training.
“Food for us is like art,” says Lakeb of his family. “Even the spices, we grew them in the garden.”
Originally from Algeria, Lakeb has traveled the world in his 28 years of working with food, including Morocco, where he says the food is similar to Algeria’s, and happens to be his favourite style to prepare.
But the family recipes are kept secret, he says, and here in the restaurant, they’ll offer “Moroccan traditional in a modern way”.
Coloured-glass lamps, blue and red tiles, and ornamental tagines decorate the space.
Gold-painted false doors are inset with scenes of decorative doors and sand dunes, so it’s like looking out at a Moroccan landscape.
Owner Hurry Dulthummun decided to start up his own restaurant after working as restaurant manager on South William Street for six years, where he met Lakeb.
Morocco Gate is fusion restaurant, says Dulthummun, so they’ll be serving traditional Moroccan food, as well as fish and chips, pasta, and burgers, but with a Moroccan twist. “It’s very unique actually,” he says.
“I don’t cook, but I create the menu,” says Dulthummun. Originally from Mauritius, after six years at a Moroccan restaurant here in the city, he got a feel for Moroccan food.
“Tagine is traditional, and couscous. They’re the most popular dishes,” he says. “A lot of the dishes are sweet, and that suits Ireland, because a lot of people like spicy, and a lot of people don’t like spicy.”
Dulthummun says he has been decorating Morocco Gate himself, and it’s taking longer than expected, but he hopes to open sometime this week.
“All the decorations, it’s part of Morocco. I took all the interesting points from all of Morocco, and then I built it myself,” he says.
“A lot of people already told me it’s very unique in Ireland, so I’m very happy, because that’s what I wanted,” he says. “And the food is very creative, I want people to know that.”
Dulthummun has been to Morocco once, for a couple of days and, although that visit made an impression, the decorations are mostly from pictures he’s seen.
As for the food, Dulthummun has high hopes for working with Lakeb. “If you create a menu, it will never work without the chef. So, I created the menu knowing the chef can do it,” he says.
Dulthummun says he has always wanted to have his own business. “I like my ideas, I think they are good enough. I don’t like to take my ideas from other people, or follow them, ” he says.
That’s why he’s already put up the menu outside, because a lot of people know tagine and couscous, but they’ll find out that he does pasta and pizza, and fish and chips, but Moroccan style. “People will be surprised,” he says.
“If you go to a take-away, you’ll eat chips with curry,” says Dulthummun, but at Morocco Gate you’ll get chips with ras el hanout – a North African spice blend – which he says is smoother, and more flavourfull.
“If you eat burritos, you’ll have […] guacamole, all that stuff,” he says, but at Morocco Gate, they’ll be adding hummus, olives, and argan oil to their burritos.
Accordingly, the penne Arabiata is laced with charmoula and harissa, and the Moroccan-style curry with pomegranate seeds.
He says they’ll also be adding more vegetables to the traditional Moroccan dishes, to make them that bit healthier. “Even for Moroccan people, they’ll find out it’s something different,” he says.
As for the traditional dishes, Lakeb says the secret is always in the spices, and for tagine “it’s all about how you marinate the meat”, and you always slow-cook.
The meat is Irish, and halal, but they import many of their spices from Morocco, he says. “Over there, it’s not an industry making the spices. They’re home-made,” he says, and put out in the sun. “They taste different.”
As for couscous, he says, many people are shocked when they try his version for the first time. “They say, “‘We’ve never tasted couscous like that.’ It needs to be steamed, and we do it with a little bit of olive oil or nice butter. And you have to finish it with your hands,” he says, rubbing his palms together in front of him, separating invisible grains.
“We’re trying to make it Irish-Moroccan. We’re creative. We’re trying to make it slightly different to what is in Dublin now,” he says, and even after 28 years, he’s still learning from others.