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The Man from Momo

Writer

Ellen Hardy

Photographer

Inzajeano Latif

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But with tea and the burnoose, perched on multi-coloured chairs with high backs scrolled into flaunting arabesques, it isn’t. And Mazouz is immune to the weather, it seems. ‘I have no interest in anything that I cannot change,’ he says, ‘and the weather is one of them.’ His hospitality is another – ‘I grew up this way, that’s maybe the most beautiful thing that I kept from Algeria.’

At 52, celebrated restaurateur Mazouz is as dapper as ever, snug in waterproof black with a flat cap and horn-rimmed glasses, his trademark white hair and stubble setting off his dark eyes. He can look back on 26 years of highly individual success in the restaurant business, and is still going strong. He founded his first restaurant Au Bascou in Paris in 1988, and in 2013 opened his latest project, Almaz by Momo in Abu Dhabi. Each of his restaurants is distinct from the other, often extravagantly so.

The entrance to Momo at the Souks in Beirut is hung with outfits by local designers, floating eerily above the reception desk; Derrière in Paris is decorated with suggestive paintings and lined with bookshelves at crazy angles. At the two-Michelin-starred Sketch, set over two floors of a vast, Grade II-listed 18th century building on London’s Conduit Street (passing tourist buses point out ‘Britain’s most expensive restaurant’), the lavatory is in one of a roomful of individual neon-lit white pods, arranged around the vast white space in a way that makes you try not to think too hard about the egg farm in ‘Alien’.

Contrary to today’s flash-in-the-pan fashionable openings and mushrooming chains, Mazouz’s projects have lasted, some for 20 years or more. ‘You don’t have restaurateurs any more,’ he explains. ‘You have chef-restaurateurs or business people.’ In contrast, he says, ‘I don’t sell, I keep. I am a craftsman.’

There are conflicting currents in Mazouz’s persona. There’s the social animal, the butterfly, the wanderer, and then there’s the passionately committed restaurant owner, manager and friend. The man who invested 12 million pounds in renovating the Sketch site, but who cycled to today’s interview and still drives the same old scooter from 20 years ago. Growing up in Algeria, born just at the moment of the country’s independence to an Algerian father and French mother (‘I wasn’t born in the street, but not far’), he discovered the part of him that wanted to ‘eat the world’.

The kid who grew up simply (‘we had enough to eat, quite often meat, and we had a house, a mattress, a cover, a roof, food – fantastic, enough!’) soon wanted to escape. Always frustrated academically, he was expelled from a series of schools – it was only last year that he discovered he is severely dyslexic, as is his young son. When the doctors were describing his son’s condition, he says, he thought they were talking about him. At 15 he went to join his mother, who by then had moved to Paris. Paris was a revelation – the ‘women, clubs, people’ – and he travelled widely, but it was only after being deported from the US for working without a visa that restaurants became a passion rather than a meal ticket.

Today, he sums up doing business in his various territories succinctly. Paris is ‘wonderful, because in Paris you don’t care.’ London is ‘more stuffy, if you do something wrong they write you a letter a week after destroying you, they will never tell you in the face… as a Mediterranean I find it really weird but I learn to deal with it.’ The UAE, over time, has impressed him enormously as a place of opportunity – ‘for me, the UAE is like New York in 1930.’ Only Beirut, with its insecurity and mistrust, seems to have really disappointed him – but he brushes it off philosophically. ‘Beirut is Beirut, the word already talks for itself.’

Underlying all of this worldly experience is a gleeful, almost anarchic streak of take-life-as-it-comes, the flame of his six years spent travelling the world on a shoestring still burning strong. Perhaps bankruptcy, he muses, would be ‘the best day of my life… it would be a new start, and I’m not afraid at all to start again. Maybe I will be a surfer on the beach and make love every day.’ Other people have labelled him a nomad, but he doesn’t accept this, quite. ‘In 2014 it is very hard to be a nomad… There’s only a few left who are doing caravans of salt – if we allow them because we put barriers and frontiers everywhere – so a guy like me who lives in a city, [can you] call me nomadic?’

And something has shifted slightly. Just last year, the man who claims never to have owned anything in his life bought a piece of land on the beach in Formentera, complete with a hut. ‘Some people would be ashamed to have this type of house [but] me I love it… for now all I want is to go there.’ But this new weakness for treating himself hasn’t really changed him – at the mention of a bucket list, he recoils. ‘Ab-so-lute-ly not! I mean please, why? I have a few things I want to do, but if I don’t do them it doesn’t matter.’ He might talk in passionate generalities, but there’s a pragmatic element to his worldview. ‘I’m not romantic in general,’ he muses, ‘even with women. I’m a charmer, because I think that the world will be better if it is full of charming people, but I’m not romantic.’

The charm works. As he heads off into the freezing night to cycle home to his partner and children, it’s easy to believe that tomorrow he could just as happily be heaving on his backpack, the restaurants forgotten, hitting the road again in search of new adventures. ‘They say that the more we grow up, the less we know,’ he says sagely. ‘It’s not that you know less, it’s that you have billions more questions.’

This article appears in the issue44Buy Now