Renaissance chef Mourhit Drissi uses Casablanca Restaurant to serve cultural teachings
By Scott Thomas Anderson
Cooking over a fire on the outskirts of Morocco’s capital, an 8-year-old Mourhit Drissi glanced around at the faces of his friends. They were watching him use the ingredients he’d scrounged up: a loaf of bread from the family cupboard, some tomatoes and onions from an outdoor market and a handful of parsley from campers under Rabat’s white sandstone skyline. Now the flame-licked herbs and spices were pluming over the coals. One look at his friends’ anticipation and Drissi knew he’d discovered a special gift for handling the ingredients of his homeland.
More than half a century later, that fascination is still going strong. And if the North African culture had an equivalent term for Renaissance Man, Drissi would be its poster child. He holds a law degree from Algeria, a cinematography degree from San Francisco State University, has been engaged in landscape painting for years and speaks English, French and 10 dialects of Arabic.
“When you grow up poor, when you don’t have a golden spoon in your mouth, you know to have a decent chance you’re going to have to try different areas,” Drissi explains. “But I’ve always cooked. … That was in my blood. I fell in love with it.”
Drissi came to the United States after meeting his late wife Colleen in the Peace Corps. Their marriage in 1974 was followed by a move to Colleen’s hometown of San Francisco. Drissi soon immersed himself in the bustling Moroccan kitchens of the Bay. He’d been cooking all his life, but now he was learning how to plate orders for a hundred tables in an evening.
“That taught me that you have to have the guts,” Drissi says. “You have to keep the freeway running.”
Drissi’s family moved to Sacramento in 1989, after Colleen landed a job as a teacher. Drissi continued developing his cooking chops in the back of Moroccan dining houses. In 1993, he finally teamed up with his brother Rachid to open Casablanca Moroccan Restaurant. It quickly became known as a culinary oasis—modest on the outside, transportive on the inside.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is the country of opportunities, and here we go,’” Drissi remembers.
To this day, visitors find themselves inside a wide desert tent adorned in mesmerizing Moorish patterns and lavish carpets of crimson and gold. Dinner is served over soft cushions and copper, knee-high tables. Meals begin with Drissi, Rachid or family members pouring orange blossom water on their guests’ palms.
Casablanca has been a consistent hit with critics and customers for more than two decades. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its dark days. After 9/11, vandals spray-painted the restaurant in an act of hate. Rather than grow bitter, Drissi doubled down on his commitment to offering a doorway into Moroccan history and culture. He says customers are often surprised to learn that Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States, and that the two nations recently celebrated having the longest unbroken peace treaty in the world.
“After September 11th, people were asking a lot of questions, especially about religion,” Drissi recalls. “[Islam] is a religion of peace. … And we are still always here to answer our customers questions, a million percent.”
Laughing, he adds, “People love talking to us, because it’s always my family serving them, and they feel like they’re meeting their professor.”
While in-depth conversation is welcomed at Casablanca, Drissi hopes the overall dinning experience always celebrates the Moroccan tradition of making meals long and enjoyable. It’s meant to be a time of indulgence—a chance to leave one’s troubles somewhere in the din of outdoor traffic that vanishes when Drissi’s family closes the door.
As much as Casablanca’s customers appreciate the mellow, mental escape it provides, Drissi says the capital city has given him back even more.
“My goodness, Sacramento,” he muses with a smile. “It’s humble. The people are not stressed. I’ve been here 28 years, and I’ve loved every bite of it.”