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MOVABLE FEAST : Inside Traditional Berber Tents, Chef Michel Ohayon Creates an Innovative Moroccan Cuisine

May 25, 1986|ROBIN TUCKER | Robin Tucker is on the editorial staff of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

The journey from the sands of Morocco to the sands of Malibu took fewer than a thousand and one nights. In fact, in this Arabian fantasy, a 747 provided the transportation, and a charming restaurateur named Michel Ohayon played the role of genie.

Spend a few minutes with Ohayon, the optimistic owner of Koutoubia, a West Los Angeles restaurant, and he'll have you believing that anything is possible. And to a man who can stage an authentic Moroccan feast in your backyard--complete with palm trees, belly dancers and camels--anything is. His tale of have-tents-will-travel started when a hospital asked him to cater a dinner for its annual fund-raising event. Ohayon decided that the decor should complement the food, but a citywide shopping trip proved frustrating: No Moroccan trappings could be found anywhere in Los Angeles.

A few weeks later, however, Ohayon conceived of a clever--if somewhat extravagant--solution for future party requests: He would fly to Morocco with specifications for two made-to-order Berber tents--one that would comfortably seat 40 and one that would hold 90--complete with pillows, Oriental carpets, chandeliers, brass tables and fabric panels that could be raised to let in cool breezes. He would jet to Paris for gold-rimmed tea glasses and silver serving trays. He would get a van in which to haul everything, and a calendar on which to mark bookings.

As enchanting as the movable Moroccan mood is, the spell would be broken if the food were merely ordinary. But Ohayon, who started out as a travel agent in his native Casablanca, maintains the integrity of Moroccan cuisine while introducing a California consciousness. "Cooking everywhere has changed in the last 5 to 10 years," he says, "and so I try to incorporate some of these changes. The traditional Moroccan style of preparing vegetables is to cook them until they are mushy and watery; I do them just until they are crisp-tender. Instead of cooking a fish for hours, I'll cook it for 15 minutes."

Ohayon learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. In 1973, he came to the United States and, after a brief stay in San Francisco, moved to Los Angeles. A series of restaurant jobs followed: busboy and runner at Ma Maison, waiter and captain at Dar Maghreb. He helped a friend open the Marrakech in Newport Beach, then spent a year and a half at La Serre in Studio City before opening Koutoubia.

At first, Ohayon featured dishes that he knew would be acceptable to Americans. But now that people have become more knowledgeable about ethnic foods, he is adding more- exotic dishes, such as those shown here, to his repertoire. PRODUCED BY ROBIN TUCKER BASTILLA 1 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup chopped parsley 1/2 cup chopped cilantro 1 3-pound chicken Salt, pepper 1 bay leaf cup granulated sugar Ground cinnamon 1/2 cup water 8 eggs teaspoon saffron 1 cups blanched almonds Melted butter 1/2 pound filo dough Powdered sugar

Finely mince onion, parsley and cilantro in food processor or blender. Spread mixture in bottom of Dutch oven. Place chicken, breast down on mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add bay leaf, granulated sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Add 1/2 cup water, cover and cook over low heat about 1 hour. After 30 minutes, turn chicken. If mixture becomes too dry, add a small amount of water. When chicken is completely cooked, remove from pan and let cool. Reserve drippings.

Bone and skin chicken and shred meat. Set aside.

Beat eggs lightly. Warm drippings in Dutch oven over low heat. Add shredded chicken, eggs and saffron and cook, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens.

Toast almonds until golden brown. Set aside to cool, then grind in food processor.

Spoon 1 teaspoon melted butter into 8-inch oven-proof skillet. Working quickly and using 1/2 of filo dough, fan individual sheets across bottom of pan, allowing overhang of 6 to 8 inches all around. Brush each sheet with melted butter as it is added. Sprinkle half of ground almonds on filo, add chicken filling and sprinkle remaining almonds over top. Fold overhang over top of layered filling and brush with melted butter. Layer remaining 1/2 of filo dough over top, tucking ends under at sides. Brush generously with melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until top is golden brown. When done, remove from oven and flip upside down onto serving platter. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Makes 6 to 8 main dish servings or 12 appetizer servings. POULET AUX CITRONS (Chicken With Lemon) 1 tablespoon oil 2 3-pound chickens 2 teaspoons ground ginger 1 teaspoon paprika 2 bay leaves 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1 large onion, chopped 1/2 cup chopped parsley 1/2 cup chopped cilantro teaspoon saffron Salt, pepper 1 6-ounce can pitted green olives 4 Preserved Lemons, cut into quarters

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