Moroccan With a Twist: In Conversation With Chef Driss Mellal

February 15, 2023

Interview by Mona Bavar

Article by Lynne Myers

Photos courtesy of Driss Mellal

Photos courtesy of Driss Mellal


The only way to find peace is to create.” 

Driss Mellal


Driss Mellal is an artist turned chef that’s pushing the boundaries of Moroccan cuisine while never losing sight of his Berber roots. “I wanted to do something else with food, change perceptions,” he says. Mellal grew up in southern Morocco surrounded by a large family of artists and creatives. “It's very easy to understand art when you're a kid,” he ponders. He, too, discovered the “necessity to create” and studied art for seven years. During this time, Mellal began working in local Moroccan restaurants as “just something to pay the bills” but fell in love with the kitchen and decided to swap art school for culinary school in Montpellier, France.

After nine years of working in Europe, the intense hours of cheffing took its toll on Mellal. “I think every chef or any person who works in the kitchen reaches a moment of burnout. You cannot stand a kitchen anymore, or even talk about the kitchen. It was absolutely the same for me and, at one point, I said, "Okay, I'm done."” He returned to Morocco and, in 2008, established his own culinary venture called Nomad Eats Catering, a boutique catering company that offers elevated nomadic dining experiences. Mellal has also used his passion for art and food to create new recipes and author two cookbooks.

DLISH sat down with the chef during the most recent DLISH Table experience in Marrakesh to find out more about his modern Moroccan cuisine movement.



Mona Bavar: What does Moroccan cuisine mean to you? 

Driss Mellal: It's sad to say, but we are stuck in like four plates, for example, the classic tajine. Marrakesh has a specific dish with slow cooked meat, and, again, it's with lots of spices, cooked for 24 hours and served. And, in Fez, they have a couscous with all different meats. The moment you change the recipe, you are considered as a person who's against the tradition and people see you almost as a traitor. People don't see this as innovating. You can cook only if you can do the recipe and you can do it better. And I'm like, “No, actually, it's not. The world is bigger than that.” We are stuck in this and if we're stuck in this, we're never going to go outside of it. Even for businesses, for example, anyone who wants to open a modern restaurant, it's hard for them. Many people have tried. And, I think this is the inconvenience for a tourist place; a person coming from somewhere else wants to try local foods. Even if you want to be creative, it's really hard. There's such a big variety of vegetables and spices, everything is available. It's just this mindset that needs to be twisted and more young chefs need to be involved in the game.


MB: What are you doing to change this? 

DM: I'm doing my best, probably... probably not. I don't really have a strategy but I believe that if you start by yourself, things will come after and influence other people. I believe that if I'm influencing 10, 12, or 20 people, those people at some point will influence others. And that's why I said that it's going to take time. So, I'm making as many videos and photos as I can, and an event that's open even for locals. 


MB: How are you reinventing the food?

DM: I'm not reinventing Moroccan cuisine, but I’m giving it a different twist. I made two cookbooks around the principle of South Mediterranean cuisine because the funniest thing is that we have the same recipes as, for example, Tunisia, the south of Sicily, Malta, the south of Spain. We have very similar stuff, even in Lebanon. The idea is to open to this because there was once a big debate in Morocco surrounding couscous, saying that it’s Moroccan, but in Algeria, they do it exactly the same and say it’s Algerian. But, actually, it's not yours or mine, it's North African. It's heritage, it belongs to everyone. So, that's the idea: open the eyes of people. And also, to say it’s fine to just create and be creative. Stop saying that the classic cuisine is the main thing, because it's not the best. The best restaurants are not doing this anymore. The best chefs right now are Australians and Nordics, and when you see the heritage, for example, of the cuisine in Australia, it's nothing. Everything is important and that's what's making them more creative because they didn't have this heritage. Immigrants bring in more and more stuff and now something really beautiful is coming from from that.



MB: Tell us about one of the twists you have given to a traditional Moroccan dish. 

DM: One that I was doing in the beginning, which I had so many people come back to me for, was this pastilla. Pastilla is a classic, fancy dish in Morocco that people do for weddings or other special occasions. It's a mix of sweet and sour and it has almonds wrapped inside with filo pastry. For me, when I try the classic pastilla, it’s very dry, so, I opened the pastilla and did it with cream cheese and upside down broccoli. And, I called it the same because it's the same ingredients but people were like, “No, this is not pastilla.” That’s also the thing, they see the name and expect that it’s going to be like how grandma made it.


MB: It's interesting because Morocco, and Marrakesh in particular, is a hub for tourists and international people, so, I would assume that they would be receptive to something like that, Moroccan food with a twist.  

DM: Very true. Let's say that the two years before covid was the moment where we saw people trying new things and the restaurants were opening with a difference. We started to see Moroccan chefs doing this. In the past, you only saw either Moroccan or French cuisine because this is what they teach in school here. Now, people are creating their own recipes, and I would say that two years ago, no one accepted that. It's almost like, “No, you cannot create your own recipes, you should just make what's known.”


MB: Who is your target market? 

DM: My target market is anyone with an open mind to try new things, and I'm happy that there are more and more people.


MB: The younger generation?  

DM: Yes, the younger generation love that. My target market is creative people because it's almost like you feel the connection; they understand you, they understand what you're trying to do and the message that you're trying to send. And also, the young Moroccan generation.


MB: Are you living your best life? 

DM: I think I am!


MB: You've discovered what you like to do? 

DM: Yes, absolutely.


MB: And what is that, writing the cookbooks or doing the events? 

DM: It's both. I think writing the cookbooks and then doing the events is definitely a good combination for me.


MB: Why “Nomad”? 

DM: It's my heritage. My grandparents were from Berber families, they didn't have a specific land, they were on the move, they were moving where there was water. And, I think they were tired at some point and they found the valley, where there's water, where I was born. My parents were born there as well. So, it's always been there. We know that our ancestral families are all nomad.


MB: What does it mean to you to be a nomad? Are you a nomad? 

DM: I think it's definitely a part of my DNA. I won't say I am 100% nomad, because I am not, I have a place and I live in that place, but my heritage is. I find it really cool as well that as a caterer, I’m someone who's moving my things from one spot to another. That absolutely fits the description of nomad.



MB: Moroccan food, and what people eat today, came from Berber culture so it’s very interesting that you, coming from this tradition, want to redefine or add a twist to it. 

DM: Yeah, absolutely. And, like what I was saying before, the reason you find it in all of North Africa is because of that. There were no borders in the past, so, the recipes traveled as well. It's the same climate so this means the same ingredients. And, I think it's hard to change that, knowing that it's my heritage, but, I think it's necessary at some point.


MB: When you look at a dish, do you prefer the art side of it or the food side of it? 

DM: Before even tasting it, without knowing, I'm 100% checking the art side of it: how it's composed, the colors involved, the visual aspect. Then, when I try it again, it's like another vision of art but with taste.


MB: What does food mean to you? 

DM: That's very interesting. I don't think it's just about eating for hunger, I think it's an enjoyable moment to gather the family. Probably you have the same, if you have a background from Iran, it's a sacred thing. They say, for example, “Lunch is at 12”, and, because the classic Moroccan thing is slow cooked food, everyone is waiting for that moment and we're gathering half an hour before it's ready. It’s not like, “I'm going to grab something by myself.” Everyone eats at the same time. So, I keep that in my mind that food is, first of all, a family moment. And, if it's not the family, I still have the feeling even for myself. It's like a ritual: you put the TV on, relax, and start eating, instead of grabbing something and eating and working. I can't do that. It's an enjoyable moment to enjoy either with your family or by yourself.


MB: When you say enjoyable, is it the taste or the ritual? 

DM: Even before the taste, I think it's the concept. For example, If you're having dinner by yourself, it's everything about it: preparing the food and sitting down. Anyway, for me, this is enjoyable, like a process. Before even knowing if it tastes good or not, I think it's the ritual of it.


MB: What does the table mean to you? 

DM: A table is definitely about gathering family or friends. I said in one chapter on this that it’s like bringing friends to become a family.


MB: Turning friends into family? 

DM: Yeah. I had this in my mind that it’s like a sharing we do with a person. It's very intimate and you’re not going to be the same as you were yesterday. For example, if we shared food or went to a restaurant to eat together, then, we're definitely not going to be the same as yesterday. It's like a developing relationship. I feel it's turning your friends into family.



MB: What does art mean to you?  

DM: Art is creating, and either you have that or not. And if you have it, the art side, then you need to create, it's a necessity to create.


MB: In any way? 

DM: In any way. Absolutely. If you don't, so many problems are going to come later in your mind and in your behavior. The only way to find peace is to create. It's almost like having a problem injected in you. It needs therapy and creation is our therapy. Anyone who has this part and doesn’t create for a long time will not feel good. Art definitely needs to come out, holding it is never going to be good.


MB: Have you always been creating? 

DM: I think so. I had a moment where I stopped, and I didn't feel good. And, when I say creating, it can be the smallest thing. For example, if I’m not feeling okay then I decide that I'm going to make a new recipe, take a picture of the recipe, and then I'm going to share it. It's the small things: buying the ingredients, creating the recipe, tasting if it's good, changing a few things, taking a picture. It's very satisfying. It’s like you’ve released that thing that you have in your brain.


MB: Who or what inspires you? 

DM: Going to other places, seeing what other people are doing, and also meeting new people and new chefs. People inspire me. And gathering the ideas, even talking about something, like a person telling you, “ I tried this at this place”, and you think, “Actually that's a good combination, why have I never thought about it?” And, obviously, seeing other chefs and everything going on around.


MB: Who do you admire? 

DM: Anthony Bourdain is big inspiration for me, I think since a really long time ago when I started reading his books. He's a good inspiration and the person who was doing what he likes and saying it out loud, without waiting for someone to say, “Well done”, or, “I'm shocked about what you said”, or anything. It's almost like, “I'm just doing it for myself". And the reality is you either like it or not. I think this rings a bell for me because most of the time I’m doing my thing and either someone's going to like it or not, but I’m not going to hold myself back. I'm just going to keep doing this and since it makes me happy, then that's perfect, that’s all that matters. He had this part and he talked about it so many times, so, yeah, he is definitely my inspiration.



MB: Who can cook for you? 

DM: I really love enjoying other people's food actually. 


MB: But who would you say, is it your mom? Is it your sisters?  

DM: I think my older sister cooks the simplest things but she always gets it right. It’s just like the combination of the ingredients and the spices and everything. I always enjoy her food. 


MB: Do they like your food? 

DM: That's something controversial. I don't cook that much with spices because I feel that it takes away the taste of a vegetable. And each vegetable has its own taste and it's too bad to remove all this taste with spices, and then it's going to be the same. So, for them, especially for my mom, it's still like, “No, this is how it's supposed to be, it's the classical way to do it, it doesn't have enough spices.” My mom is still struggling with my food.


MB: Where's home? Is it with your mom and your family? Is that why you're back here? 

DM: I think so, yeah. I still consider home as where I grew up. I've been living here for a while but home is definitely where my family is.


MB: Do you go back to your family home often? 

DM: Yeah, I try to twice a month. I need to go back.


MB: Most of the chefs that I've talked to, their passion is creation and they can stay alone in the kitchen and work on creating whatever it is they want to create. But, it seems like there's more to you, and I think it’s because of your strong roots. 

DM: Yeah, I think that’s true. For me, there’s a bigger picture, it's not just focusing on creating the perfect recipe, it’s about bringing more people into this movement. It's about creating a movement of modern Moroccan cuisine. And, when I say modern, it's not specifically minimal food, it's just to explore and create how you want to. And yeah, bring in as many chefs and young people to express themselves. 



MB: Do you see yourself opening a school? 

DM: I don't think I will do that. I don't think I am an ingredient to be structured in this type of institution, because this will definitely stop me being who I am. I prefer to do it by myself.


MB: Who are you? 

DM: I'm a person who's trying to convince people.


MB: About what? 

DM: About how to express themselves with food.


MB: Is that all?  

DM: Yeah, that's the main thing. 


MB: Why is it important to you? 

DM: I don't know. I wish I knew this answer.


MB: It's okay, it took me 50 years. 

DM: I probably know a little bit of the answer, but not all. I know that in the past in Morocco, you were not considered a good chef, or a person who knows to cook, if you didn’t do the exact recipe by the book. And, I know that I was not like this and I was seen as like, “Oh my god, you cannot follow a recipe.” I think that stayed in the back of my head that I want to change that and give it to a force of nature. You can do it with your methods and not what someone said 100 years ago.


MB: Do you think it's possible in your home, or is it better to do it where people would value it? 

DM: I think it's very important for me to do it at home. I couldn’t do it anywhere in the world. I choose home and I will not change that. It means a lot to me to do it here.


MB: Would you say that cooking for someone is your love language?  

DM: I think it is, yeah. 



MB: Where do you see yourself in five years? 

DM: I see myself with more cookbooks and with more people who are convinced that this is actually a thing. And maybe a venue. I'm working on it.


MB: To open a restaurant? 

DM: It's not a restaurant, it's like a food retreat. 


MB: Tell me about that. 

DM: So, I started it and then covid made it pause, but it's always been something in the back of my head that I wanted to create. People would come for one week, staying with me, we do the shopping. There would be a different program each day: we’d cook something classic the first day then the second day, you’d have the ingredients to create your own thing. The idea is to express yourself as much as you can with food. I'm going to develop it a little bit more. 


MB: Are you a businessman? 

DM: I'm trying. I don't have the business background but I’m learning at the same time that I'm doing it. I started without knowing anything about business, I'm just the chef, the one who cooks, but I think it's a necessity that is coming more and more. Then I find myself in a situation that I need to fix and then I realize actually this is just like a business movement.


MB: And it's something good to invest in. 

DM: Yes. I feel like I'm learning while doing it instead of learning first and then doing it after. I always put in my mind that finding the solution, without saying no to a person, is the main thing. This helped me a lot in improving myself and improving the business.



MB: What's your favorite dish? 

DM: This is funny because it's one of the classic ones: lemon chicken, cooked with potatoes and green olives. But again, it's a family thing, it’s a childhood dish that I really loved in the past. Even now, when I just smell this dish, it takes me straight back to when I was a kid, and it's still my favorite. I know this because when I go somewhere else, for example, when I'm in Europe for long periods, this is one of the first things that I'm going to have when I come home.


MB: Any last words? 

DM: I have real thanks for you to be interested in a Moroccan chef because I feel like we don't get our share in the whole food scene, and people don't get their own share in putting their word out there. So, yeah, thank you so much.


Click here to discover more about Driss Mellal and Nomad Eats Catering.