About 12 years ago I travelled to Morocco with Mourad Mazouz, the man behind Momo, Sketch and a smattering of other restaurants across the world.
With his brother, Hakim, who joined us from the restaurant they co-own in Paris, we visited the souks of Marrakech, drove across the desert to Essaouira, stayed in beautiful riyads went to incredible parties (think pavilions in the desert, lit porticos and pools, models and gurus) and talked about couscous.
This Algerian-born restaurateur, who lived in Paris before fetching up in London had impeccable contacts everywhere. With him we were never bothered in the covered markets (without him there would be a swarm of people offering tours/nick-nacks/protection) and if you ever suggested you needed something – a set of tea glasses, a drink, a carpet, a pee – he knew the right person or place for the job.
From the moment we stepped on the plane he talked about his life, his philosophy, his restaurants, his dreams. And then I would seek him out occasionally in London, often wanting to attempt to re-visit, in the mind at least, the time he ordered me a plate of couscous in a Marrakesh restaurant that would he said ‘change your life’.
I then watched from a distance as he opened the extravagant Sketch restaurant on Conduit Street in Mayfair – Pierre Gagnaire at the helm in the Lecture Room, lavish teas in other spaces, a Gallery room with vast video projections, pod loos that looked like something out of Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex movie. Then a record label, then ventures in the UAE and then he just seemed to disappear.
No more interviews, no press it seemed, and unlike many other ubiquitous London restaurateurs, one never bumped into him at industry dos or even in the street.
So 12 years on I thought I’d see how my old friend was getting on. I arranged a meeting, picked some ripe juicy figs from the garden and went to see him in Sketch.
There he was in the Parlour where pastry delicacies are served as you recline on Louis XV furniture: lean, grey stubble, content, confident, charming as ever.
‘I used to sell these on the street as a child,’ he said gobbling up the fig. I looked around the room pondering its splendour and thinking about the places he has now around the world, from Paris and Beirut to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Had this man who always has a nomadic, Berber air about him been gathering riches around him these past few years? I hadn’t garnered whether he’d changed since we’d last met and he hasn’t given a press interview in six years.
‘I still don’t own anything,’ he says. ‘I don’t own a house or a painting. I’m thinking of getting rid of the car and I have some clothes and books. ‘This is how I function. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. Maybe at 70 I’ll still have nothing and I’ll think I’m in the shit, but I don’t know.’
When he was young, in his twenties, he had ‘a lot of hopes and dreams of so many things. It’s not that I don’t have hopes now, I just want to live well. I’m still an artisan.‘
And it means that the places he runs need to suit his current temperament. Which is why he is in the process of re-launching his Paris bar Andy Wahloo, which sits on the same street at 404 and Derriere.
‘I destroyed it,’ he says. ‘I scratched everything and started again. It was too young. Everyone there was aged 20 to 25 and I had enough. I’m making the place much more mature. We were making money but I was fed up with the young people. It became self-defeating. If I can’t enjoy a place and take my friends why have it. When it re-opens we’ll have largest whisky list in Paris. It’ll be a place for us!’
Mourad spends much time travelling between Paris and London and there are such differences in culture that at some point half way through the channel tunnel he re-tunes to English or French.
‘In Paris no one cares how the waiter talks to you. Here in London it’s more formal. Here, if the service isn’t good, you get a letter. In France we’re happy with bad service. In London I stop at red lights, in Paris I drive along the sidewalk and elbow my way through the crowds.’
As well as being a barometer of social behaviour what of the economy? So many London restaurateurs report fewer takings over the past five years. What of Mourad’s empire?
‘The recession hasn’t touched me,’ he says. ‘Actually it’s helped me. Sketch has hit the roof in the past two years. I think it’s part of the image of London today. When the London tour buses drive down Conduit Street they stop and introduce Sketch.’
And he’s done this with little PR and virtually no press. ‘I’m in the shadows,’ he explains, ‘I’m not interested in being in the papers. I find no pleasure in it. If a restaurant is well run it will work.’
But, he says, the finances of his restaurants do not really interest him. ‘I look back and consider a year was good if I managed to pay everyone.’
And of the London restaurant scene that he inhabits: ‘I don’t know what’s going on outside. I don’t know a lot of restaurateurs or journalists. Apart from that everything interests me. I can talk better politics than most, especially on the Middle East.’ So we discuss Syria for a while before returning to the subject of restaurants and I ask him if there is a magic formula for one.
‘A restaurant is like a daisy,’ he says. ‘The yellow part in the middle is the food. The bees and the insects come to it. Then you have the petals which are service, front of house, lighting, music…’
‘You know when we opened Sketch the press killed us and said we would never last. Here we are 11 years later, stronger than ever and I just love the fact that nobody talks about us.’
In return for the figs he gives me two boxes of delicious cakes – from eclairs to sweet buns, chocolate patisserie and lemony tarts. This time I’ll try to stay in touch…