The things to do in Casablanca aren't that many. Despite the glamor that is associated with the name, Casablanca is not exactly Bangkok. Or Cairo. Besides the third largest mosque in the world, the city boasts little more than a few architectural jewels in the way of monuments. There’s one thing to do in Casablanca – go and have dinner or a drink at Rick’s. Never heard of ? It’s the restaurant that looks like the one in the Hollywood blockbuster. But how is that a restaurant could become ' a thing to do' in Casablanca ? Way before “Hideous Kinky” or “The Sheltering Sky” came around, “Casablanca” must have been the film that lit up imaginations on the idea of travelling to an Arab country. Even though most of the action happens inside Rick’s Cafe Americain, the few scenes shot outside show bustling markets, the complicated art of bargaining and one or two glimpses into a strange yet mystifying culture, in contrast with the few scenes portraying Paris. But... hold on a second. No one involved with the production of the film ever set foot in Morocco. Yep, that’s true, it was all shot in the studios of Hollywood. And that’s one of the reasons that pushed Kathy Kriger, an American expat with a background in diplomacy and travel industry, to open a restaurant that would become much more than the pastiche of the movie, a Casablanca institution, mixing together good cuisine, a spot where expats could meet and the desire to entertain. For a restaurant requiring a dress code yet having its general manager ( Issam) playing the piano, it might as well come out of a movie. It was everything but easy, but 11 years down the road, Kathy would play, I mean do it again. She was kind enough to agree to an in- depth interview where she details her love of Morocco, talks about nowadays Casablanca, jazz sessions, Bill Willis, Yves Saint Laurent and the ‘Monday’ syndrome.
Sun Trails: Is it true that you watched Casablanca in 1974 in a cinema in Portland and the audience stood up and applauded at the end of the movie ?
Kathy Kriger: It was the same year I’d opened up my travel agency, and we shared space in the retail outlet of an outdoor/leisure catalog operation headquartered in Portland. I went with friends from the store. It was a black & white film series and “Casablanca” just had an emotional impact on the entire audience. One in our group recounted how his father had been based in Casablanca after the Allied embarkation and they showed the film “Casablanca” to the troops in a tent. His mother always added that she and other wives whose husbands were away all watched “Casablanca” at the Blue Mouse (a Portland theatre) and cried all the way through it.
ST: You had a background in travel business and diplomacy. Why a restaurant ? How do you feel about your choice 11 years down the road ?
KK: My first plunge into entrepreneurship was starting the travel agency in 1974 with $800, encountering all the usual financial problems and unexpected crises. Eventually a friend joined me and it became very successful. Sue, my partner in the travel business, and I at the same time took a variety of cooking classes – it was just at the outset of California Cuisine – and we used to cook a lot together. Many of the dishes on our menu are adaptations of recipes I learned back in the late 1970’s. I knew Rick’s would always be more than a restaurant, but a dramatic setting that would give rise to the fantasy sought by a tourist, or a nostalgic ambiance appealing to the sophisticated Casablanca clientele. It was the best thing I ever did, as it has combined all of the things I love. I used to say after the restaurant opened that it was perfect, as I loved to entertain, but never liked cleaning up after!
ST: Life for a single expat woman isn’t easy in Morocco, let alone when she undertakes the restoration of an ancient house and wishes to open it as a restaurant in the medina of Casablanca. Do you feel that experience helped you understand more Morocco ? Would you do it all over again?
KK: I had some inkling of what I was getting into as I’d had 4 years as a diplomat, but wasn’t prepared for the degree in which things changed after I was on my own. Fortunately I have some very good friends here in Morocco as well as a lot of friends scattered around the globe, and their confidence in me, and willingness to invest in “The Usual Suspects” kept me going. I learned a lot in the 2 ½ years it took to get Rick’s open, learned more in the first 3 difficult years and am still learning about Morocco today! I’d do it again, and looking back I feel I was meant to – there were so many coincidences of fate or destiny.
ST: Some opinions on the internet portray Rick’s Cafe as a tourist trap. What would you say to them ?
KK: Rick’s is anything but a tourist trap – we’ve deliberately made the commercial tie- in with the film understated, dedicating our Lounge to the movie and old posters of the film. Otherwise what you see looks like the scenes in the movie, and people can pretend they are the stars. When I look at these “tourist trap” comments on the internet I always suspect they’re people who didn’t get through the door as we have a reasonable dress code. Certain types get very outraged when told their attire is not acceptable.
ST: Last year I had dinner at Rick’s and I remember mostly the stunning lamps and the excellent saxophone player and band. I believe it was a Sunday evening. Is that a regular thing ?
KK: Thank you for noticing the stunning lamps… I set about buying them when a bank loan had come through but construction was months away. Encouraged by Bill Willis and our local architect Hakim Benjelloun as we needed ambiance, I was amazed to find lamps that look exactly like some of the pieces in the film. I learned later that I really shouldn’t have been spending the loan money on lighting, but frankly if I hadn’t bought them at the time, you would have been dining in the dark!
Sunday night jazz jam sessions were introduced a few months after we opened. A Casablanca resident reminisced about going out with friends many years ago on Sunday nights to overcome what they called the “Monday syndrome” – a place usually with live music where they could squeeze out the last hours of their weekend. The Jam Session was an immediate success and today we have a regular combo and from time to time guest musicians.
ST: How did you find Sam, the piano player ?
KK: Finding Issam to play piano was a major sign that creating Rick’s was my destiny! A friend who plays as a hobby was searching around and he called one day with the news he’d located a pianist… named Issam! I was amazed at the connection to Rick Blaine’s best friend, the pianist Sam, from the film “Casablanca” and said I hoped he could play the piano as the name alone had him the job. When Issam came to audition, and I heard him play “As Time Goes By” in a way that sounded like the film soundtrack, as well as other songs from the epoch, it was the sort of affirmation I was seeking that Rick’s was meant to exist.
Over the years he’s done all our graphics, our website, finally directing personnel to the point where he is the General Manager…while still playing piano.
ST: I feel that there could be more done to attract tourists to Casablanca. It certainly doesn’t have the cosmopolitan air and riads of Marrakech or the heritage of Fes, but a lot of people would love to find things to do in Casablanca. What do you think can be done to attract more visitors to the city ?
KK: Because of my experience in the travel business, and having traveled extensively, I see a lot of potential for Casablanca. One problem is that it has so long been associated as the business center, that it’s difficult to convince local authorities to do some of the things necessary to attract tourism investment.
When I first broached the idea of Rick’s Café to Driss Benhima when he was the Wali of Casablanca he was the one who suggested I find an old house in the Ancienne Medina to restore. He said it would then help attract other investors to the Ancienne Medina. I considered that an excellent idea, as I’d see what preservation had done to my own hometown, Portland, and places all over the world, from Havana to Dubrovnik to New Orleans to Barcelona.
I’m optimistic that soon there will be some initiatives launched that will upgrade the old downtown area of the Marche Central and the Hotel Lincoln. Unfortunately investing in the Ancienne Medina is complicated.
ST: Did you choose Casablanca because of the film or were there other reasons as well ?
KK: I liked Marrakech most when I first visited Morocco in 1997, and when I arrived to take up my diplomatic post in 1998 I’d visit often and thought Marrakech was where I’d retire one day. In April 1999 I had the chance to buy a small riad in the middle of the souk that had been undergoing restoration, and was almost finished. The Singaporean woman owner had suffered in the Asian financial crisis and could no longer afford to retire and move to Morocco. I took out a bank loan and got some taste of construction projects as I got the place finished and decorated. It was a magical house with a terrace that looked into the souk on one side and to the Atlas mountains from the other. I went to Marrakech on the weekends and loved entertaining there.
When I decided to stay in Morocco after 9/11 I considered the choice between buying the place across the street in Marrakech and operating a “Maison d’Hôtes” or remaining in Casablanca to open Rick’s. It was really a no-brainer, as Rick’s Café would be unique, it had over 60 years of institutional memory behind it, and I would have no competition.
ST: Do you feel the city has changed in the last 10 years ? How ?
KK: Many changes. First, it was hard to find places, no good maps. Now with Google Maps and GPS there aren’t the problems of finding places.
When I was working on the project, the underground pedestrian tunnels that linked one side of Place Nations Unies with the other (the BMCI, Blvd Mohammed V side with the Hyatt, Ancienne Medina side) were open, functional and one could cross with ease, with a Police box in the underground and no hassles. Unfortunately they closed the tunnels, and while the construction of the tramway made it possible to open them again, I’ve heard that there was little effort put into making them viable, and they’ve been closed up again.
There was not as grand a range of restaurants as there are now – very few Chinese, Asian restos, and I think the first sushi arrived in 2002. But the fine restaurants in Casablanca when I first came had the weight of history going for them, and were distinctive: Le Cabestan in the days of Mme Viot greeting clients at the door with her little Yorkies by her side, and André Halbert presiding over A Ma Bretagne with its striking modern architecture which perfectly compliments his impeccable cuisine. Mme Viot retired to France, and the Cabestan has been re-designed; A Ma Bretagne is now squeezed between the Morocco Mall and an intrusive neighbors construction site, but Maitre Halbert is still holding on.
New places have come along, catering to people living here by providing food and service to draw clients back. Among the new arrivals are the Rouget de l’Isle (new French), Iloli (Japanese gastronomic) and Churrascaria Marius (Brazilian).
One big change is the art scene with many Galleries opening up – Atelier 21, the Loft Gallery as two examples joining the venerable Venise Cadre. The Museum of the Foundation Abderrahmane Slaoui Museum displays a lovely collection of Orientalist Posters and other objects in a beautiful art deco villa.
Back then “around the turn of the century” the Marche Central was THE place to shop and see friends. The stalls were full and it was bustling. I remember seeing Mme Viot walking through the Marche in the morning with her Yorkies, and the Chef from the Sheraton had a reserved seat at the vegetable stand. Today it has declined rapidly hastened by the traffic and parking problems, closed stands and a proliferation of open air snack shops. The Marche Maarif back then was small and basic. Today, it is the vibrant, lively market that the Marche Central once was.
The Centre Ville with its art deco/art nouveau architecture is a priceless piece of patrimony, and with the introduction of the Tramway and designating this part of Boulevard Mohammed V a pedestrian street I’m hopeful that the City will finally address the restoration of the Hotel Lincoln and the revitalization of the Marche Central.
One change I don’t so much appreciate is the development of the Marina in a way that completely blocks the view of the Ocean. While the project will bring some much-needed economic and touristic benefits with the Convention Center and Cruise Terminal, I feel it could have been better designed with open spaces allowing the local population to enjoy the space and the view.
ST:What is the menu on a regular day ? What are some of your favorite dishes?
KK:Our menu is printed daily, with 6 Starters: the Prawn (Gambas) salad Tropicana is an adaptation from my cooking class in the 70’s; the Goat Cheese and Fig salad I created the summer before we opened when I had an apartment near the Marche Central and discovered fresh figs; the Crabe Louis is after that served at the Dan & Louis Oyster Bar in Portland. 6 Meat & Poultry dishes: Favorites are our beef filet mignon and a T-bone, and there’s also lamb chops and duck. 3 Fish & Seafood dishes: Right now we have St. Pierre/John Dory, Sea Bass/Loup and Swordfish/Espadon, but these can change according to availability.
In addition to our standard menu we have four daily specials; “Moroccan Touch” featuring a lamb tagine, lamb and vegetable couscous and Moroccan lemon roasted chicken. All our Moroccan dishes and many of our other plates feature ingredients from Moroccan cooperatives available at the Magasin Solidaire et Equitable (located off the small street that runs between the Sofitel and Royal Mansour). We also have some pasta selections and Vegetarian plates. For dessert our menu has 5 choices and in addition there’s a special ice cream menu.
ST: What is that sets Rick’s apart from other restaurants in Casablanca, besides its name ?
KK: As you can see from above, I think one distinction is the variety of the menu and the care we take to use the very best possible ingredients. Another is the quality and professionalism of our service staff – all young people who have adapted to our own training system emphasizing teamwork. I have to say that the decoration and ambience with the piano music and lighting makes Rick’s a standout even if it weren’t for its association with “Casablanca”. We have more than 60 full time employees, with Security, Housekeeping and Administrative sections in addition to the service and cooking departments.
Our overall attention to detail and maintenance is apparent and clients can clearly see we are continuing to invest and innovate.
ST: What is the profile of your regular customer ?
KK: We have many Moroccan clients who don’t come to “ see and be seen”, but appreciate good food and music; expatriate diplomats and business people who come informally or for entertaining; foreigners who regularly come to Casa on business, tourists from the world over: China, Japan, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, Russia, Australia as well as good numbers from the U.S., Europe and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.
ST:Bill Willis helped you decorate some parts of the restaurant. He is quite known for being a friend of the Gettys and working with Yves Saint Laurent. Could you tell us a little more about him ?
KK: Bill was probably the most fascinating person I’ve ever met and I adored him. He had an amazing tolerance for people who were his friends, but did not suffer fools gladly – and it didn’t matter who you were. I was lucky that we clicked on our first meeting – in the bar of the Mamounia after a reception that had been given for the visiting then- First Lady Hillary Clinton by the then- Crown Prince Mohammed. When I had the idea for the project – even before I found the house – I went to see Bill at his labyrinthine home in Marrakech, the former harem wing of an old palace. He loved the movie and said he’d love to work on it – “Just call me your aesthetic advisor, My Dear.”
Once I’d found the house and finally bought it, Bill went to town. As I was buying lamps, he was designing everything major (the wood doors and entrance look just like the movie, and our downstairs bar is the exact same shape as the film’s – only with golden palms instead of colums), minor (the distinctive beaded table lamps on each table were designed from a beat-up brass and enamel lamp he’d carried with him when he arrived in Tangier by ferry in 1966. He pulled it out from under an armchair in his sitting room one afternoon after lunch when be began talking about the “lamp”. “I think this will work” he said and it surely did.), and many things that moved beyond a film set (four fireplaces, central staircase with terra cotta tile and zellige, a private dining room with oak floors, tadelakt walls and a view to the port, intricate moucharabieh carved wood panels between arches) plus an upstairs apartment for me! In a book that Pierre Bergé produced (sadly Bill died before the book was published, but it is a lovely testament to his talent) he says the basis for his design of Rick’s was “giving my friend Kathy a place to entertain!” Well, that he did.
Bill moved to Morocco from Rome in 1966. Just before leaving Rome he’d met and befriended John Paul Getty Jr. Six months after his arrival in Morocco, Getty invited Bill to come to Rome for his wedding to Talitha. Bill demurred and suggested instead the Gettys come to Morocco and he would escort them on their Honeymoon. In Marrakech they fell in love with an old palace near the Mamounia and bought it on the spot, hiring Bill to restore, repair and decorate it – his first commission in Morocco! He was friends with Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé and in 1974 when they bought the Dar Es Saada – neighboring the Majorelle property – they hired Bill to do the renovation and interiors. Later, after they had bought the Majorelle estate and the garden, he was involved in the restoration of the Villa Oasis.
ST: What is your favorite hidden gem in Casablanca ? Why ?
KK: I’d have to say the Spice Market – it’s hard to find, but a real space apart. The setting is marked by some leafy trees at the entrance and one passes through the Henna section with decorative signage and booths, and then a series of spice stalls – very colorful – with herbalists (the old fashioned variety, dried animals and reptiles on display) on the opposite. There we have our favorite “spice guy”, Redouan, who picks out the spices with a long paddle and displays them on a flat tray – holding it up for photos - before he grinds. We’ve had him make ras al hanout with over 40 different components, and he’s also made curry powder for us (“kari” in his recipe book). Saffron is taken from a safe where it’s carefully wrapped in muslin, out of the light.
If one goes down a level there is a long hall of more spice stalls, and from there a real market with poultry and meat. If you go all the way through the market and onto the back street there are a variety of street-side stalls, among which the only purveyor of live escargot ( snail) we know of in Casablanca. I know this as we had to buy them for a chef who was coming to film a segment at Rick’s for the Food Network. She was due to film on the day the Market is closed, so asked us to buy the escargot the day before. We couldn’t leave them in the plastic sack the vendor placed them in, so had the kitchen divide them into two plastic containers with open grilling. The containers were carefully wrapped in transparent film, and placed upstairs on the terrace. The next morning when I walked out on the terrace I was shocked to find the two containers empty… and snails all over the terrace! I called security and housekeeping and between the two they were gathered up and put in more secure surroundings. For several weeks thereafter I’d confront one who’d got away….
The video team got a real kick out of this anecdote and in doing some wrap up shooting had the chef and I at an upstairs table on one side of the courtyard, and on the opposite side an escargot poised on the balustrade. They recorded the chef saying, “You know, Kathy, I have a feeling we’re not alone.” It didn’t make the cut, but for us was a perfect ending to a hilarious anecdote. Needless to say we have never – and will never – serve escargots at Rick’s!
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