A feast for the senses: restaurateur Mourad Mazouz tells Tempus about his eccentric aesthetic

By Chantelle Billson | 24 Dec 2020 | Culture, Indulge

The man behind MoMo, Sketch and new Mayfair eatery Mo Diner opens up about his culinary empire

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It was a trip to New York that revived Mourad Mazouz’s enduring love of the American diner and inspired his latest London venture, Mo Diner. The renowned restaurateur is the force behind Mayfair staples MoMo and Sketch (awarded its third Michelin star in 2020), as well as Derrière, Andy Wahloo and Le 404 in Paris.

He is known for combining Michelin-quality North African cuisine with whimsical décor inspired by his artistic collaborations and Mo Diner, which brings new life to the original 1930s aesthetic, is no exception. “I was reading The New York Times and there was a feature on the disappearance of the diner,” Mazouz explains. “In the 1930s, diners were restaurants for workers. When I lived in Los Angeles from 1983 to ’84, I worked at Ma Maison, and would go to diners a lot. I used to love them.”

Ma Maison, the infamous LA restaurant backed by Gene Kelly, was where chef Wolfgang Puck shot to fame with his California Nouvelle style. The glamorous establishment was often packed with celebrities and became well known for its “drunk lunches”. Combined with the contrast of the humble diner, it’s clear to see how these early influences may have shaped Mazouz’s irresistible style.

Mazouz teamed up with creative director Brian Roettinger (of LA firm Willo Perron & Associates) and Michelin-starred chef Éric Chavot (of London’s Bob Bob Ricard fame) to bring his concept to life – originally sketched out as a “child-like” drawing. “I wanted a simple place; I didn’t want to create something new,” he says. “I wanted to copy what had already been done in the past.”

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Mo Diner finally launched in September 2020, on Heddon Street next to MoMo. Despite launching it during the pandemic, he remains optimistic.

“I reopened [my restaurants] on 23 September and closed again at the beginning of November. It has been a nightmare,” he says. “[The hospitality industry] has lost so much money. We’re so afraid that something will happen to us, but that’s life; we need to fight to stay open – and make sure we continue to fight.”

The close proximity of the two restaurants may even help, rather than creating new competition. “MoMo is a proper restaurant with big plates, whereas Mo Diner serves starter [dishes] that people tend to share. Me? I don’t like to share,” he laughs. “The menu is made for you to have three or four plates depending on how hungry you are.”

French-born Chavot’s menu reinterprets some of Mazouz’s favourite dishes and cuisines – a mix from “the shores of the Mediterranean” with mouth-watering dishes from the south of France, Spain and Italy – along with the Algerian restaurateur’s signature North African twist, of course. “I wanted the diner to be laid-back, somewhere you can eat quickly and casually. I also wanted to serve surprisingly good food for the type of place that it is.”

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A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

Despite his growing empire, Mazouz insists he does not consider himself a businessman but, instead, remains humble of his achievements as a self-described “restauranteur and shopkeeper”. “I tend to do what makes me feel comfortable,” he says. “People think that I love design, but my home is as minimalist as it can be. I like everything basic and simple but, for my restaurants, it must please the public.”

Despite this assertion, Mazouz’s unique and distinctly luxe aesthetic is a key ingredient to the success of his restaurants, whether the sensuous Moroccan ambience of MoMo or the quirky dining-as-event excitement of Sketch’s collaboration with artist David Shrigley. Mo Diner only adds to this reputation, from the pops of bright colour within the casual burger-joint

framework, to tongue-in-cheek details such as the many pictures of Mazouz posing with the likes of Andy Warhol and Brigitte Bardot (photoshopped, he says, as a joke for his close friends).

These personal touches will be familiar to fans of Mazouz’s establishments, though it may be a surprise that, as a rule, he does not commission designers; rather, he invites friends in to help with specific elements. “What I don’t like about design is the lines,” he says. “I’m incapable of doing what the young people are doing – with the [exposed] pipes and lights hanging down from the ceiling. It looks so cool, but that’s not me. I need to finish everything to perfection. If you look at Mo Diner, I can show you mistakes that a designer wouldn’t make but, for me, these mistakes can add something special to a place. I am not a designer, I am a restaurateur.”

 

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Mazouz relies on his vision of the restaurant as a whole, which, he says, goes a long way in determining the look and feel. “For me a restaurant is like a daisy: the yellow in the middle is food, the main reason for a restaurant’s existence. The petals each represent another element: the lighting, reception, interior design, music, cutlery,” he says. “If I give you a daisy with five petals missing, you will be disappointed. To be beautiful, it needs to be almost complete. I think design should link to everything else.”

His next project will add yet more blooms to the ever-growing bouquet he calls “MoMo World” – transforming the building adjacent to his Paris restaurants into 17 luxurious apartments for short- and long-term rental. “I even have space underneath that I might make into a diner – I will have fun again,” he says, though admits his plans are yet to be finalised. “I never have fixed ideas, so I can change something very last minute. A designer would never work like this but, for me, everything is done one by one.”

A fitting mantra for Mazouz, for whom being able to work in collaboration with friends and artists to create a gateway into his world is the pinnacle of an all-round restaurateur who simply goes where the inspiration takes him.