Everyone expects to be surprised, amazed and astonished when checking into one of the world's mythical palace hotels. But in this new era of travel, such hotels are taking the time to step back and look at luxury from a different perspective.
This is certainly the case at the Royal Mansour Marrakech, probably the most exclusive address in Morocco. The hotel’s innovative director, French hotelier Jean-Claude Messant, launched the pioneering Food Lab in its kitchens to address the question: what kind of gastronomy will guests be looking for in this new uncertain world?
Discerning gourmets are already spoilt for choice when they stay at the Royal Mansour, where outlets are overseen by two of the world’s most renowned chefs, Yannick Alleno from France and Italy’s Massimiliano Alajmo, who have each earned three Michelin stars for their respective restaurants.
Furthermore, the local food scene is buzzing in Marrakesh, where adventurous foodies can discover the surprising variety and subtle flavours of traditional Moroccan cuisine. But the innovative Food Lab was intended as a melting pot of both local and global food trends, turning the spotlight on exciting new dishes created not by famous chefs, but the hotel’s predominantly Moroccan kitchen staff.
The Royal Mansour has been one of the few luxury hotels to remain open throughout the pandemic, but with the number of guests limited because of travel restrictions, Messant admits it was a challenge to keep staff motivated and busy, given that there are normally more than 100 people preparing dishes for the property’s various restaurants.
His solution was to create an unconventional competition, open to everyone working in the kitchen, calling for recipes with “freshness, colour, taste, pleasure, audacity”. The top three dishes would go on to be featured on the hotel’s menu.
Messant explains that “it was essential to demand creativity, to ask everyone to think out of the box, beyond the constraints of classic Escoffier-style training, instead taking inspiration from world food and street food, where you maybe only need to spend 15 minutes perfecting a dish rather than a meticulous eight hours”.
Jerome Videau has been the hotel’s executive chef since it opened 11 years ago, and having tasted all the dazzling dishes in the competition, he says: “What struck me most is how the Food Lab has developed our brigade’s curiosity. In a normal world, the pressure inside our kitchens means no one ever really has time to be curious. It is always the immediate that counts, the daily routine.
“While many of the team have never travelled beyond Morocco’s borders, this project gave them a virtual travel ticket across the globe. Of course, at first some were shy, nervous and stressed, but slowly everyone got taken over by the competition, and in the end, anxiety was replaced by fun. To make everyone more relaxed, we decided that candidates should present in pairs, often with a more experienced cook working with a young apprentice who may never have taken part in a competition before, and needed to be assured and given confidence to unleash their creativity, to be instinctive rather than cerebral.”
Looking through the irresistible array of eclectic dishes presented during the competition, no one could imagine that most of the trainee chefs creating them have never travelled beyond the frontiers of the Maghreb. The six-person jury ended up taking a global foodie tour that included Indian street food pani puri, Senegalese chicken mafe, Russian blinis stuffed with aubergine caviar, a Middle Eastern moussaka burger, a Belgium waffle sprinkled with exotic spices and a luscious Mexican tres leches cake.
Almost 40 different dishes were presented in the competition, with most of the hotel’s kitchen staff working for a month on their recipes during the quieter moments of lockdown. Apart from the freedom to virtually travel the world searching for inspiration, they were also given the freedom to not only imagine a classic main course, but to propose snacks, sandwiches or finger food, to use raw ingredients, salty, bitter or spicy tastes, and to add a little local Moroccan touch when revisiting a recipe from a different culture or country.
The dishes selected as winners – a Lebanese falafel sandwich, Vietnamese banh xeo crepes and Mexican green banana tostones rellenos – will soon be featured on one of the Royal Mansour’s menus, and all illustrate freshness and originality. The falafel dish was created by Jaouad Boulaayat, joint chef de cuisine of the hotel’s prestigious La Grande Table Marocaine, one of the country’s leading restaurants dedicated to Moroccan gastronomy, and his young partner Mohamed Ben Doudou, who works as a demi chef de partie in room service.
“We are both excited by any kind of Oriental cuisine and our dish combines the flavour and heritage of Lebanon’s iconic falafel with our traditional Moroccan batbout bread, accompanied by the Middle Eastern flavours of baba ganoush and tahini, grilled pine nuts, and garlicky tzatziki to awaken the palate,” Boulaayat explains.
There are numerous female chefs in the brigades, with Zahira Lasriis and Mariam Hammoudi both working in Massimiliano Alajmo's Italian-influenced Sesamo restaurant. They have been with the Royal Mansour since attending the local Ecole de Cuisine, and have never travelled to Asia, but let their imagination run with Vietnam’s famous crispy rice pancakes, filling them with plump shrimp, soya shoots, pickles and herbs.
“Presentation is very important in a hotel like the Royal Mansour, and we were inspired by our local market where rural women come in to sell Jben, every Moroccan’s favourite creamy fresh cheese, delicately wrapped in palm leaves, which looks so good you are desperate to eat it,” Lasriis says.
This trend of reassessing a palace hotel’s gastronomic approach is occurring all over the world, with properties moving away from what is fast becoming an outdated fine dining experience, where hotels invest heavily in prestigious chefs essentially because of their notoriety and Michelin stars.
For Messant, this begins with the client, “because today, our sophisticated, worldly guests just want to eat well. That is all. The crucial word is now ‘gourmand’ – tasty – and no longer gourmet or gastronomic. As long as it is tasty, you could be enjoying an elaborate 10-course degustation menu or a simple sharing dish like a family-size pizza.
“The new generation of food-loving traveller is just as happy in a casual, bistro-style environment as a formal restaurant with precious porcelain, crystal glasses and black-suited waiters hovering at your elbow.
"And rather than classic French cuisine, which for so long was the unquestioned apogee of fine dining, he wants to be tempted by Chinese and Indian dishes, raw fish prepared Japanese or Peruvian style, Middle Eastern vegetarian, exotic takes on pizza; to be surprised by new tastes, new spices, new ingredients. That is the challenge we laid down to the future chefs of our kitchens in the Food Lab, and the response and results have been simply sensational."
When he first wanted to motivate his team of young Moroccans, Messant recounted a story of the time he was tasked with catering for an exclusive private party given by a wealthy Russian billionaire at his Cap d’Antibes home. “Of course there were all the classic, luxury dishes you would expect, from caviar to lobster and foie gras,” he recalls.
“But to surprise guests, I also presented a stand making the local speciality from nearby Nice – socca – the most basic flatbread version of a pizza you can imagine. Well, the socca stand was submerged by crowds, and the billionaire came back three times for more. It opened my eyes, a sign of the times that people’s tastes were dramatically changing, and that is what gave me the idea of creating the Food Lab.”