From Minarets to Onion Domes
Daniel Aubry - November 2008
A son of sunny Casablanca shines in Moscow's long dark nights.
Even an Arabian Nights storyteller might find this particular chef's carpet ride a far-fetched flight plan. At the age of 40, Said Fadli now finds himself, after four years in Russia, in the dual roles of corporate chef at Numbers by Doucet X.O, the fine dining restaurant in MaMaison Pokrovka, Moscow's recently opened—and first—all-suite five-star hotel, and co-owner of Doucet X.O, another well respected Moscow restaurant.
It took a twisting trajectory for him to arrive here. Born in Morocco into a traditional family, Fadli spent his childhood in Casablanca, grew up in France, where he immersed himself in the cuisine, traveled widely in Europe (doing brief stints in Stockholm and Amsterdam), the Middle East, and the United States before settling behind the stoves in Brooklyn, where he lived in Borough Park, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood he still revisits to cook for bar mitzvahs and weddings.
Over the past few decades, Brooklyn, in particular Brighton Beach, has become famous—some say notorious—for its robustly extroverted Russian émigré restaurant, nightclub, and social hall scene. After spending most of his working life in the United States, Fadli rose to be chef de cuisine at Brooklyn's fabled restaurant/cabaret Rasputin, known for the volume (in every sense) of events and weddings staged there. Hired for his French culinary expertise, Fadli's destiny would be driven by this unforeseen exposure to Russian tastes and menu repertoires.
For Fadli, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, getting the call to head the kitchen staff of a prestigious five-star property in Moscow. Moscow now boasts more billionaires than New York City, and with all those rubles flying about, Moscow's haute cuisine restaurants are coming of age. In his four brief years in the city, Fadli has seen remarkable change. When he first arrived, it was virtually impossible to get fresh produce. Now, he claims, even though it costs "an arm and a leg," he can get virtually anything that's available in France or Italy. Most of the produce is imported from Holland, Belgium, and Israel. Fresh seafood is flown in three times a week from Morocco and Tunisia. And meat also arrives fresh from Australia and Argentina. The ex-Soviet Union provides Fadli with great watermelon and "beautiful" seasonal beefsteak tomatoes from Uzbekistan.
Like any good chef, Fadli thrives on creativity. But he has also learned to be somewhat cautious in regard to his mostly Russian clientele. Before introducing a new dish to the menu, he'll first try it out on co-workers and friends. If they like it, it graduates to an amuse gueule or "compliment of the chef" and finally onto the menu as a "suggestion of the chef." While most of his clients are well traveled and willing to try new things, some are so repelled by the idea of something as exotic as sea urchin they'll push away a dish without even trying it.
Printed in Russian and English, Fadli's Numbers by Doucet X.O carte, subdivided into "Traditional" and "Creative" menus and described by management as "a fusion of French, Mediterranean, and Russian cuisines," reads like a flashback of his culinary life updated with some fashionable internationalisms ("Thai chile scented chocolate crusted crispy phyllo," wasabi mashed potatoes, etc). A few examples from the "Traditional" pages: "cèpe mushrooms carpaccio salad with Brie/portobello schnitzel"; a "hot appetizer" of smoked salmon/ricotta cheese pizza; "sweet pea potage with smoked pork loin and tiny salad of shiitake and sweet turnips"; main course roasted quail stuffed with homemade sausage and kasha with creamy cheese sauce; traditional Moroccan couscous royale with merguez sausage and harissa; "rabbit coq-au-vin" in red wine with braised cabbage; red snapper en papillote with Mediterranean vegetables; apple and dried fruit strudel with fresh berries and sour cream; homemade cheesecake with raspberry sauce and sour cream. And on the "Creative" list, Fadli's signature chestnut/porcini soup with pheasant bouillon, grated truffle, and ricotta; spicy duck breast with endive and rhubarb marmalade; "grouper and foie gras, ginger, apricot, argan oil, couscous, and vanilla scented baby vegetables"; passion fruit cheesecake and sesame/molasses cream; and black pepper crêpes with lemon curd, preserved lemon, and artichoke sherbet.
Back in his Brooklyn days, when prospective Rasputin clients and their planners asked to meet the chef, they'd stare in disbelief when the whippet-thin young Fadli was brought out.
"Where is the real chef?" they'd ask.
"Don't worry," he would reassure them with a smile. "I am a diet chef."
Even now, despite a grueling schedule, Fadli still looks a good 10 years younger than his age. Part of his secret: he only eats at home. There his Russian wife cooks him regional dishes from her native Byelorussia. As to the future, Fadli hopes to remain in Russia. He acknowledges that there's always a level of uncertainty when it comes to getting his work permit renewed, which requires endless paperwork. As a fallback he's always got the States and his house in New Jersey. His only real fear, he says, is burnout. Making it as a chef in any big city means dealing with constant stress and pressure. Fadli doesn't see himself doing this for the rest of his life. "Maybe another 10 years," he shrugs. "Then I want to relax."
Fadli's idea of relaxation is to own his own small family restaurant somewhere. It could be in Morocco, France, or the States. What he looks forward to is the freedom to develop and express himself by doing whatever he feels like doing. And then with the fatalism that is so much a part of his Moroccan heritage, Fadli smiles, shrugs, and says: "In shalaa…" "We'll see…"