Louisiana Chef Serves African Sheikh


SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Chef Earnestine "Tootie" Morrison may add "cooked for royalty" to her resume after her culinary excursion in the mountains of Morocco.

The Shreveport chef returned from a May trip to Zawiya Ahansal, a village in the High Atlas Mountains of the nation in north Africa.

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Morrison, until recently the chef at Abby Singer's Bistro at the Robinson Film Center, spent nearly two weeks cooking alongside some of the village's female cooks. She participated in their daily routines, explored the countryside and learned about the country's rich culture.

It was a humbling experience and her outlook on the world has evolved dramatically, she said.

"I came back and I look the same, but I don't see the world the same after that trip," Morrison said.

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Morrison traveled with help from a $2,000 scholarship from The Ross Lynn Charitable Foundation to learn authentic cooking techniques, in partnership with Montana State University and the Atlas Cultural Foundation. Students studying agroecology and environmental science joined Morrison in the farming village.

The travel put Morrison in a place to learn new culinary skills, which she will share through community outreach services in the U.S.

On May 6, Morrison flew from Dallas to Chicago to Madrid to the Moroccan city of Marrakesh before making the four-hour drive to Zawiya Ahansal.

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Immediately, Morrison was smitten with the natural beauty of the land and the simplicity of daily life. She fell right in with the residents' routines from washing her laundry in the Ahansal River to hiking through the mountains.

"It's rough around the mountains, but down in the village it's plush and green with rivers flowing — and someone's plowing their garden with two donkeys," Morrison said.

The village in the High Atlas Mountains and has about 15,000 residents. It would be Morrison's home until her departure May 19.

Morrison described the villagers' pace as easy going, yet full of purpose. Technology, though present, was limited, allowing Morrison to disconnect from the rest of the world and become fully immersed in the experience.

She stayed in a family-run hotel similar to a bed and breakfast in the U.S., she said. She worked with the mother and her daughters preparing meals for hotel guests.

Arabic is the native language in Zawiya Ahansal. However, cultural and language barriers didn't stop Morrison from communicating and learning. Although she had a translator, she soon was comfortable enough to set off on her own — with a few learning curves along the way.

"In the kitchen, it was a little different. I would say 'butter' and they would bring me an onion or something," Morrison said. "For the first couple of days I had a translator in the kitchen, but after that I was like, 'Cooking's universal.' I'd just watch and ask."

Kitchen routines and food preparation became easier as Morrison became acclimated, though it required her to adjust.

The cooks sat for much of the time while preparing food, while Morrison is used to being on her feet and moving around the kitchen.

The chef was surprised — and impressed — by how the cooks worked without having many of the kitchen appliances and tools she has in the U.S.

Small paring knives were used for food prep — even for cutting meat. In the village, she saw the butcher use a paring knife to cut a leg of lamb.

The cooks used small stoves, like those used for camping at home, that had to be lit. The metal box she mistook for a cabinet turned out to be an oven. And women kneaded large bowls of dough with their hands, without a mixer.

"It's not as advanced because it's a village and four hours from the major city, so they don't necessarily have all of the major amenities we have, but it's efficient," Morrison said.

Before leaving, Morrison gifted a couple of larger knives to the butcher and to the village's sheikh from her personal collection.

Morrison gained a new respect for the villagers and cooks after witnessing how much they could accomplish without luxuries. And she was in awe of the physical strength the women possessed just by working in the kitchen — strength gained by tasks such as carrying supplies across rough terrain and lifting propane tanks for heating water.

"You can look at their hands and tell they're working hard," Morrison said. "But they're not complaining — well, not that I understood."

Morrison learned firsthand how to make many traditional Moroccan meals. She also shared bits of her culinary knowledge with the cooks and had opportunities to impress African royalty with her cuisine.

Tagine is a common Moroccan dish, cooked in a clay pot bearing the same name. The stew-like dish may be prepared as various combinations of meats and vegetables.

One day, Morrison made a tagine lunch of beef, onions, carrots and seasonings for the village's Sheikh Ahmed Amahdar.

She prepared it by using the traditional method but added her personal flair to enhance the flavors.

"He was like, 'That was the best tagine I've ever had,'" Morrison said. "I called my husband like, 'Babe! I cooked for the sheikh, and he said it was the best tagine he's ever had!'"

Morrison realized that some Moroccan techniques were similar to American cooking styles. And that applied to the tagine, she said.

"The cooking styles are the same," Morrison said. "For us, it's braising something. We'd take beef tips and braise them until they're tender and that's what they're doing. They're adding everything to a clay pot and when it's tender, it's ready."

Morrison also was asked to cook in the sheikh's home for a party in the students' honor.

The evening went smoothly until it came to baking the dessert. The cake batter required baking powder for it to rise. But Morrison discovered there was none.

"I'm like, 'okay, I'm a chef. Bring me what you've got,'" Morrison said. "Please, I can't have the sheikh eating a hockey puck."

With prayer, she thought of a solution: a bit of yeast in place of the baking powder. But she was still concerned that the cake would not rise properly since the village sat high in the mountains.

The cake turned out a success, and Morrison has since dubbed the dessert's altered recipe as her "Prayer Cake."

Morrison left the village with an abundant recipe collection and cooking methods for traditional Moroccan cuisine.

Among her lessons was how to prepare a proper couscous using a three-step technique.

She also learned a recipe for a breakfast cinnamon bread — a fried yeast bread served with honey and jam.

And she prepared a cold salad made with rice, beets, carrots and potatoes seasoned with vegetable oil, parsley and lemon.

The farming village had ample fresh herbs and produce. While many were familiar to Morrison, she found much of what made the dishes unique was how they were applied to a dish.

"I was aware and familiar with the spices and herbs they used," she said. "Now, there are different preparations I know they can be used for. It gives you a completely different result when paired with the spices and how they do things."

She'll put what she learned into practice with a special Moroccan cuisine package to be offered through her catering company, Earnestly Tootie's Chef Services.

And Morrison will be the featured chef for The Ross Lynn Charitable Foundation's annual fundraising dinner in November.

"I look the same, but I'm really not the same," Morrison said. "You can't leave that place and be the same, and if you do there's something really wrong. It makes you stop and pause. You're thankful for the things you have, but also appreciate that it doesn't require a lot to be content."

– by Tiana Kennell, The Shreveport Times

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