If you close your eyes and think of Morocco, what comes to mind? Markets, couscous, vibrant hues, spices? Hanging lanterns, mysterious musical instruments, vividly decorated rugs, Marrakech, the desert? I’m sure tajines, mint tea, lamb, camels, and mosaic tiles made the cut. And if you didn’t think of Casablanca, put that baby in your queue and play it once ... for old times’ sake.
It doesn’t take an Edible article to inform you that Morocco is a land ripe with all things sensory. There’s an abundance of sounds, scents, and sights which all meld to create one of the most famously exotic places on Earth. But for those who live there, the exotic is just ordinary. Ask a true Moroccan and they’ll tell you that when they think of home they think of family, hospitality, joy, tradition—and, believe it or not, cookies: No gathering would be complete without a shockingly vast array of 100 or more handmade cookies to offer to guests.
“I am always inspired by the longing for moments in my upbringing in Morocco, when everyone from extended family to friends would gather for a meal,” says Chef Dylan Elhajoui. “Food was not just sustenance, but a celebration.”
Cooking for gatherings comes naturally to Dylan who, professionally, is the head chef at Shore Diner on St. Armands and, privately, is the head chef for his family of six. Sharing his culinary endeavors is at the heart of who he is.
“I think about food all the time, every day, all day long. I’ve even been known to dream about food and talk in my sleep about it,” he says. “Wonderful ingredients and sharing them with friends inspires me. It’s the art, the science, and the community. Serving others and sharing meals with people is a part of every day. And I love that.”
I had the immense pleasure of watching Dylan and his four children—Khaleelah, Zaki, Saïd, and Nawal—gather in their home kitchen to create a truly traditional Moroccan meal replete with zaalouk eggplant, taktouka peppers, and bakula salad. The family worked in total harmony, with one reaching over to grab a preserved lemon while another reached under to check the oven, with a brother grabbing a tajine from the top shelf and a sister delicately shaping “gazelle horn” cookies on the counter below. Moroccan music played softly in the background and their mother, Anne, observed it all proudly. Generally, four kids in a full kitchen wouldn’t earn the title of harmonious, but family and food are a natural match in Moroccan culture.
“I come from a long line of great cooks and chefs,” Dylan says. “My grandfathers were chefs and restaurant owners; my mom and dad were both great at-home cooks. It was always important; always special.” It seems “special” is a hand-me-down.
Moroccan cuisine may have been the launchpad for Dylan’s love of food, but for this gastronome the kitchen is his home and the entire world his grocery store.
“When I see beautiful, ripe, picked-at-the-right-time ingredients, I instantly think about the most delicious thing I can make with those ingredients. I want to savor them,” he says. “I am determined to master both the sweet and the savory, so I really like to cook everything—without limits. My cooking is ever-evolving. If I’m not cooking, I am thinking about what I might cook next.”
If there’s one thing Dylan made clear it’s that food is nothing without a group to share it with. Though you might not find his Moroccan Duck Moruzia on the menu at Shore, it’s worth paying him a visit to see how he’s subtly changing the flavor profiles on standard seafood dishes and other American fare. Or else, hey, if the man loves a good gathering, I say we just invite ourselves over for family supper.
“I love rising to a new challenge,” he says.
“Great,” I tell him. “I’ll be by more often!”
Dylan, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.