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This week's Chicagoan: Khalid Kamal, Moroccan restaurant owner

"In Morocco, we don't eat in restaurants"

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A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"In Morocco, we don't eat in restaurants. Number one, because the best food is in the homes, and number two, if my father sees me eating in restaurant, he feels like he cannot provide.

"My family are farmers in Morocco. We have a farm between Fez and Meknes, in the mountains, at about 2,000 feet altitude. We never bought wheat; we always grew wheat. We always had so much fresh vegetables. My dad had about 12 different kinds of trees of fruit. My mom, she is a very, very good cook. She is a traditional country Berber woman.

"In Morocco, every Friday is a couscous day. When I was growing up, you don't find couscous in the stores to buy. So they used to make it by hand. My mom, she invites my aunts, some neighbors, they would spend the whole afternoon in the house drinking the tea and making the couscous, enough for six months.

"When I finished college, I decided to come to United States. I went to Wichita State University. That's where I learned English. When I got there, I asked if there were any Moroccans in that school. They were like, 'No, you are the first one.' Then I knew I was in trouble. The food in the cafeteria was not that good. I'm used to my mom's cooking, so I started learning to cook. That's how it started—just for me to feed myself better.

"I've been in the restaurant business for the last 22 years. I worked different places, but I thought, 'I have to share Moroccan cuisine.' I opened Shokran in 2008. I kept my daytime job. Usually I am at seven o'clock downtown and finish around four o'clock. Then I go to Shokran maybe at six o'clock. On the weekend I am there all the way till midnight. I don't feel like they are long days, because when I am there, I feel like I'm home. That's the only way you can do this. If you feel like you are working too much, it will not work.

"I get this question from customers: 'What's your favorite thing on the menu?' I say, 'I make the menu. I put things I like. Things I didn't like as a child, I don't put on the menu.' If my mom was here, she'd be so mad. One thing is a Berber dish, lamb with roasted peppers. The Moroccans who come to my restaurant, they never heard of it. We also have lamb Fez. It's lamb that is cooked with onion, ginger, spices, but it's finished with honey and prunes and cinnamon.

"My mom never used a gas stove. She used the barbecue, charcoal. It may take three hours to make something. So the spices, they don't burn. The meat gets tender slowly; all the flavors come out. That's why I try to capture in my restaurant, is the slow cooking. It takes so long if you want to do it the right way."

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