Chef News

Abdul Chaara of Couscous Express in Phoenix on Travel, Moroccan Food, and Classical Music

Couscous Express owner Abdul Chaara closes his restaurant early by most restaurant standards. At 6 p.m. every Monday through Saturday, Chaara's supposed to make the day's last round of date shakes, say goodbye to remaining guests, and begin the process of closing shop. 

Why so early? Because after a long day as the restaurant's cook, waiter, and host, Chaara is tired. 

"I only have about five years of hard labor left in me before I burn out," he says. 

But if he's as committed to retiring — or at least getting help after five more years — as he is to actually closing at 6 p.m., then he may have to go a bit longer than that. Because for Chaara, the process of closing the restaurant sometimes means greeting late-coming guests who didn't check the hours of the restaurant, seating them anyway, and making a few more meals. 

The diners may insist on getting their meals to go, so as not to impose, but Chaara will similarly insist they stay. He does this because he treasures what he calls the "art of food." To Chaara, this means more than the cooking; it means the plating, service, and always putting something on the table as soon as a guest walks in. 

In fact, these are all things Chaara treasures. He tries to put Moroccan bread and hummus or tea in front of diners in as close to a minute as possible. And though Couscous Express has a menu, albeit a small one, Chaara makes many executive decisions about how closely it will be followed. For Chaara, there are so many different ways to make a tajine or hummus that he prefers guests let him direct the meal for them. 

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with this at first.

"Sometimes, a guest will come in and sit down, and they won't let me take care of them," Chaara says. "I can hear the sarcasm — they say, 'Only four things on the menu?', but those are really only the first timers."

Chaara learned the art of food through years of living all over the world, often in places where dining is a much slower, more deliberate process. But how exactly did a young boy from a village in Morocco, who cut his teeth in cooking by grilling sardines to sell to tourists for 25 cents a kilo, end up owning arguably the best, most authentic Moroccan restaurant in Phoenix?

"I love to travel," he says. "Honestly, I'm a little like a nomad. I was from a little town in Morocco, and when I was 7, my family moved to Tangier."

From there, Chaara traveled to Spain, France, and the UK, where he settled after finishing his degree in Morocco. While in the UK, he became a dishwasher at a hotel. And while he was getting his footing, he sometimes slept on the floor in the kitchen.

"Guys would come in to the kitchen to get a beer, and they'd trip over me — 'Abdul, I'm sorry,' they'd say," Chaara remembers. 

Over time he rose through the ranks, until in 2007, having risen to the head of Moroccan food at the restaurant, he decided to retire. Chaara went to Morocco for self-discovery, but instead discovered his finances weren't quite where he would have liked. He decided to move to the United States. 

"I was thinking that I'd end up somewhere like New York or Los Angeles and open up some little coffee shop, but that was impossible," he says. 

But of all places, he ended up in Yuma, where he opened a date shake shop. After some time, he decided Yuma was too quiet and then moved to Phoenix, where he is content to stay for the time being. 

Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Chaara was never formerly trained to cook. He learned the basics from his parents and the community that surrounded him. He honed his skills once he left home.

"When you live on your own, you have to figure out how to cook," he says. 

These days, cooking is in his blood. He focuses on keeping it simple, and doesn't use a recipe book or any measuring cups or scales. 

"I don't understand how people rely on recipes," he says. "What happens if the wind blows the book away? Everyone starves." 

On what makes an ideal chef: "My definition of a chef is someone who can make anything," he says. "You put ingredients out in front of them, and they'll make anything. I don't know, I can't make a good pizza."

On his ideal meal: "A whole lamb roasted over a fire, with all my friends and family around. When it's roasted slowly like that, the meat just pulls off," Chaara says, miming pulling meat from a bone. 

On his fondest food memory: "When it didn't rain in the village, everyone would march and pray to God for rain," he says. "The women would all be making couscous, and it was just incredible."

On what makes Moroccan food special:
"A Moroccan kitchen is very well balanced," Chaara says. "It's a product of an 800-year-old marriage with Spain including Muslims, Christians, and Jews." He also emphasizes the health benefits of Moroccan food saying, "Moroccan food is like healthcare. If we had American healthcare in Morocco, everyone would live on average to be 120 years old."

On eating out: "I eat out to see how I can improve my restaurant — the food, the service, and so on," he says. "I like pizza a lot."

On his goals for the restaurant: "I'd like to open another restaurant, one that would really be part of a neighborhood."

On his goals for life: "My goal is to have peace and health," he says. He's also considering closing the restaurant during summers to travel and perhaps lead tours to Morocco and Europe. 

On the classical music that nearly invariably plays at his restaurant: "I love classical music," he says. "I listen to KBAQ [metro Phoenix's classical music radio station] in the car. I fill my soul there. I might just be an old guy, but I've always loved it." His favorite composer is Mozart. 

On what he would tell his 7-year-old sardine-selling self: "I love that kid, and I'm so proud of him," he says. "If Abdul from this little town with all these things can do it — you just have to persevere, and keep on digging."