Yassine Khalal, Executive Chef, Kasbah Tamadot, Morocco

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th August 2018

Yassine Khalal is the Executive Chef at Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson's magical retreat in Morocco's Atlas Mountains.

Yassine has worked at various hotels in Marrakech including alongside renowned chefs Alain Ducasse and Rachid Maftouh. He spent some time working in France as a stagiaire at Pavillon Ledoyen and Le Terroir Parisien.

In 2009, he became junior sous chef as part of the opening team for the Royal Mansour in Marrakech and was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine before joining the Kasbah Tamadot team as head chef in August 2017.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Yassine about Moroccan ingredients, why food has always been an important part of Moroccan culture and why he believes travel and understanding other cuisine is the key to being a successful chef.

Dinner on Roof Terrace low res
Roof Terrace at Kasbah Tamadot

Why did you want to become a chef?

My passion for cooking started when I was young and growing up in Marrakech. My mother worked as a Pastry Chef, and watching her work made me interested in food and the cooking process. 

I have always held a love for Moroccan food, and I am fascinated by great chefs such as Yannick Alléno, Alain Ducasse (both of whom I was lucky enough to work with) and Gordon Ramsay. I wanted to be the next great name in the list so enrolled at culinary school, and the rest is history!

What do you love about being a chef and what keeps you wanting to cook?

I absolutely love the creative process that goes into being a chef and being able to see dishes that don’t yet exist, and bring them to life. This process is a collaborative effort more often than not and usually starts with the team getting together to share thoughts and ideas. We will take into account seasons and food trends to come up with a menu that we think our guests will love. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate new ingredients or cooking techniques into our menu, whether that’s through new dishes or improving old favourites.

You’ve worked for Alain Ducasse, Yannick Aleno and Rachid Maftouh – what did you enjoy and take from each experience?

I’ve been lucky to work with some exceptional chefs and through those experiences I learned a lot about cooking, but even more about life. Working with Ducasse was crucial because he introduced me to Mediterranean cuisine. It was at the beginning of my career, so this is something that has stayed with me ever since.

I worked with Chef Yannick Alléno at the Royal Mansour when I had eight years of experience.

Kasbah Tamadot Mhamssa with spinach and asparagus low res

Kasbah Tamadot Mhamssa with

spinach and asparagus

His cooking is the perfect example of simplicity, elegance and respect for exceptional products. Since then, however, I have discovered the world and realised how much each culture has its own culinary wealth.

I must also mention Rachid Maftouh, who was my mentor. He believed in me and always encouraged me to make the most of myself, so that I could be a great leader in the future. I am very grateful for all that he taught me.   

Why did you want to work Kasbah Tamadot, was the plan always to come back to Marrakech?

Coming back to Marrakech was always my plan; it's my home and I really like the weather and people. I was excited at the prospect of working at Kasbah Tamadot because I had heard a lot about the efficiency of service. Of course, working with the great Sir Richard Branson is just a privilege and an honour.

Are there any significant differences between working in kitchens in France and Morocco?

There’s definitely a big difference between French and Moroccan kitchens. France is the birthplace of modern restaurants and is where professional cooking started, so for me it was essential to get experience working there. French kitchens place a big emphasis on organisation, the hierarchy of the kitchen team and developing and evolving recipes and flavours.

In Moroccan kitchens, the emphasis is more on traditional techniques and our identity. We have the best cuisine in the world, so the focus is on enhancing the already fantastic selection of ingredients that we have on our doorstep.

One thing that I have found similar in both countries is the emphasis on finding top-quality produce; it’s an essential part of cooking well.

Which ingredients native to Morocco do you love working with and feel should be more widely used?

Moroccan cooking is all about the spices, and each recipe is perfectly balanced to make the most of each of their health benefits.

Kasbah Tamadot 2012 Cooking Class 100 low res
"Moroccan cooking is all about the spices"

For example, Cumin is a popular spice which not only gives a wonderful aroma and sweetness to dishes, but has also been used as a medicinal herb since ancient times to help aid digestion. One of my other favourite spices is Saffron. It’s known to be highly valuable, and boosts brain power and the immune system with the added bonus of a great flavour that enhances dishes.

How would you describe the food you serve at Kasbah Tamadot?

We serve a mixture of Moroccan and International dishes. Lunch is a very casual affair usually served at the pool bar, but the pièce de résistance is having dinner with us. Our dinner menu (and location) changes every evening; it could be a Berber feast served family style one night then a multiple-course tasting menu the next.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date and why?

You know, people today are looking for a great variety of experiences. To be a contemporary chef, this means acknowledging and accommodating this variety of expectations. Yannick Alléno always recognised this whilst holding his place as the ‘master of cooking’, which is why he is my biggest influence.

What dish on your menu best showcases your cooking style?

I would have to say a tagine, because it’s one of our most traditional dishes. We serve a delicious lemon chicken tagine with green olives, and a Berber version prepared with seasonal vegetables includes peas, courgette, tomatoes, and potatoes. Scooping up a mouthful with fresh bread is one of life’s simple pleasures! 

What is the food scene like in Morocco – is Marrakech a foodie destination?

Food has always been an important part of Moroccan culture, and its diversity (such as Arab, French and Spanish influences) is what makes it so special. Marrakech is a fantastic destination for food-lovers because there are so many opportunities to explore these different influences. There’s something very special about wandering through the Medina and discovering a hidden restaurant or affordable food stall serving fried treats.

Vegetable tagine low res
Vegetable tagine

Other than your own restaurant, what's your favourite local restaurant?

It’s hard to pick just one local favourite! To get the most authentic Moroccan cuisine, I love to travel to the remote mountain and eat the food in the most original and basic of ways. I just love it!

Do you strive to achieve accolades and what’s your key to success?

Oh yes! Achieving accolades is the dream of every single chef who wants his name to be remembered. As well as hard work, travelling a lot to know more about people’s cultures and their way of cuisine will make you a better chef.

Having worked under a number of top chefs how easy has it been to find your own style and niche?

I have to admit it wasn’t that easy; it takes time because you always find yourself influenced by those chefs and you can’t get out of their shadows unless someone believes in you and give you an opportunity to prove yourself.

What are your plans for the future for the restaurant?

At the moment my focus is on gaining more experience and travelling as much as possible to help bring more to the dishes we serve our guests.

Would you like a restaurant of your own?

Absolutely YES!

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th August 2018

Yassine Khalal, Executive Chef, Kasbah Tamadot, Morocco