soju sunrise

The Soju Sunrise Interview: Wahid Naciri

Interviews | March 17, 2017 | By

Note from Andy: for some time now, I’ve been interested in the idea of chatting with chefs and owners around Seoul to see what makes them tick, what their backstory is, and where they want to go with their food in the future. A recent assignment for Groove magazine on the newly-opened Morococo Café in Haebangchon gave me the impetus to do this interview, an abridged version of which will appear in the April issue. I hope to run more such interviews in the future.

Wahid Naciri was born and brought up in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. He has two restaurants in Haebangchon – the long-established Casablanca Sandwicherie and the newly opened Morococo Café – serving a mixture of spicy sandwiches, shakshukas, tagines and the like.

What first brought you to Korea?

I came here originally to study; I’ve always been interested in Asian culture, and I had studied some Japanese when I was younger. Korea was the next place on my list, as I was fascinated by it.

Opening up Casablanca, a place selling only Moroccan sandwiches, must have seemed a gamble, especially in the Haebangchon of 2010?

I studied cooking, so I can say that I do know about Moroccan food. But in fact our original concept for Casablanca wasn’t necessarily to specialize in sandwiches – we started off with that, fully intending to offer a wider range of dishes from my home country, but they were so popular and sold so well, that we ended up becoming known for our sandwiches. They’re not something you can easily find even in Morocco, because they take the idea of street food and then add fillings like chicken and lamb that you’d normally need to go to a restaurant to find. It’s a kind of fusion of different levels of Moroccan food into a single dish.

What’s your take on HBC and the way it’s changed over the years?

You’re right that it’s changed a lot – back then, after 7 or 8pm it was pretty dead and there weren’t any young Koreans visiting for the food or cafés. To me, the great thing about HBC is that it’s a place where a young restaurant owner or chef can have an idea and make it happen. Itaewon is so expensive these days to set up a business, Gyeongnidan is almost saturated as well. But you can come to HBC with an idea of how you want to make food and you have a good chance of succeeding.

Of course I’ve seen some places come and go, but it’s still a good neighbourhood to try that kind of thing. The crucial thing is that you offer something to the local people as well as the weekend “tourists”. It needs that connection to the area.

What is the concept of Morococo Café, and where do you plan to take it in the future?

In Marrakech, the city back home that I probably know best, there’s been a real trend recently for informal cafes that serve unpretentious but interesting food, good coffee, in a relaxed atmosphere. After dark, people have a few drinks, there’s a bit of music, it’s a place to stay and chat.

That’s the inspiration for Morococo Café – hopefully we’ll pleasantly surprise people with the food, but everything is informal, inexpensive, it’s food for people to enjoy with friends or in their lunch hour. We definitely plan to expand the menu soon, but whatever we add will need to fit into that concept.

Who are the customers?

Casablanca started off with mostly foreign customers, but we became popular with Korean people a few years back and now the majority of the customers there are Korean. In the early days at Morococo it’s been roughly 50/50 between Koreans and foreigners. A lot of our customers have previously visited Casablanca, so they have a level of trust that we are going to give them something that they’ll like. Others have seen it on social media or food apps, even after being open only a couple of weeks. We’ve been really pleased with the response from people.

A lot of people expected you to go down the route of opening a second Casablanca, but you didn’t do that.

Well, we still might in the future! I wouldn’t mind opening another branch somewhere interesting that I can still be close to local people. But I’d always had the idea of opening a café or restaurant with a different vibe. Actually, it’s a funny story. I was in Casablanca on a Monday when it was closed, just checking up on the stock and making sure everything was okay, which I like to do even on my day off. The lady from the next door real estate office put her head round the door and told me that the shop opposite was going to be available and I should snap it up quickly. Ten minutes later the deal was done. It pays to come in on your day off…

What do you like to eat when you’re not working?

I like to cook at home using ingredients from Korean markets. Even if I don’t exactly know what it is, I take it and use it anyway. Or those little places near the markets run by Korean grandmothers, which are always great to eat in.

If you didn’t run a restaurant, what would you be doing?

Honestly, I’d be happy to have a shop selling Moroccan carpets and teas. But precious carpets and fine teas, of course! In fact I have a small collection of carpets. You wanna buy one? Haha.

Any advice for budding restaurateurs who might be reading this?

You need to be in control of, and totally happy with, all the food that comes out of your kitchen. If you’re not in control of that, don’t even bother. You need that confidence because a restaurant isn’t run from the kitchen but from “la salle” (the dining room). Always take care of the customers first and foremost.

Morococo Café is situated at 용산구 용산동 2-가 45-9 and is open six days a week from 12 to 10pm except Mondays. You can follow them on Instagram at  https://www.instagram.com/morocococafe/ as well as on Facebook.

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