A Night in Tunisia: Three chefs, two loves, one dinner, and life as a very moveable feast
by Mark McDermott
Deep in the ancient Mediterranean port city of Tunis, Tunisia, in a tiny kitchen bustling with knives chopping, sisters arguing, and children scampering underfoot, amid the waft of vegetables stewing and meats roasting, a small, vivacious woman named Zina Marouani worked a sort of magic.
Earlier that day she’d been to the city’s famed open air markets and assembled fresh herbs, a handsome squash, some carrots and peppers. The afternoon before, the butcher, whom she talked to several times a week, advised her to come early the next morning; he was slaughtering a lamb and she could have the best parts.
Her son, Adnen, unlike most boys, took a keen interest in the workings of the kitchen.
Now, her whole family was in a state of high excitement. Zina was making her couscous. Everyone knew it was the best in all of Tunis, maybe even all of Tunisia, a nation in which a family is judged on the quality of its couscous.
Zina, who was the second eldest in a family of nine and had learned to bake in open fire by the age of 13, moved through her kitchen with ease and confidence. What she was preparing was more than a meal. It was sustenance in an older sense, an act of love and communion, the kind of tradition that passes through generations and keeps a family alive.
“All my sisters,” she would say years later, “swear by my couscous.”
Nine hundred and thirty seven miles north as the crow flies, across the Mediterranean Sea, up along the steep spine of the Pyrenees mountain range separating the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe, down in the port city of Bayonne on the Bay of Biscay, in another small kitchen, an exacting, industrious woman named Helene Ibarra worked her own magic.
Her brother, a fisherman, like generations of Basque men before him, had been at sea for days and just returned with his people’s sought-after bounty, nets full of squid. That day, Helene had made her rounds to the city’s vibrant markets. Several times a week, she took two to three hour walks, finding the best produce — fresh leeks, potatoes, lemons, and peppers, in this case — talking to the butchers and the cheesemongers as she negotiated her family’s meals. Her son Bernard dutifully accompanied her, alive to the scents and sounds of the marketplace, and now he watched as she prepared the squid in a way her sister had taught her, infused with a sauce known as sofrito that blends tomatoes, onions and and garlic.
Bernard Ibarra would later realize his mother’s food was central to his his Basque identity. The Basque Country is a nation-without-a-nation on the border between Spain and France that has survived centuries of invasions, in part because of its people’s fierce attachment to their cuisine and the survival it represents.
“I didn’t know then, but I loved food,” Ibarra said. “There were so many things that made me realize how important it was. Then as I grew up and became a little bit older — that is, when I became politically aware — I realized Basque cooking meant you have a culture, like a language.”
Both sons, Adnen and Bernard, would later become chefs who traveled the world far and wide and cooked feasts, from the high society tables of Hong Kong to the wilds of Alaska.
Sunday night the two will share a kitchen for a meal featuring dishes they learned in their native kitchens. “A Night in Tunisia” is chef’s collaboration at A Basq Kitchen on Redondo Beach’s International Boardwalk that will combine Tunisian and Basque cooking but will be about more than the dishes served.
“In Tunisia, the way we eat is the way we live,” said Adnen Marouani, who with his wife Lenora is the proprietor of Barsha Wines and Spirits in Manhattan Beach. “It’s kind of like food is your lifestyle. It’s your culture. If you want to show people love, you cook a good meal for them. The food brings us together.”
“It’s the ancient art of communing through food,” said Jessica Lo Ibarra, Chef Bernard’s wife, and the co-owner of A Basq Kitchen. “I think at a basic, primordial level, you are sharing sustenance, and there is nothing more beautiful than showing somebody you care by providing food for them. And you can explore while sitting at a table — it’s a way of traveling to a different place, through a meal. Food is the suspension of disbelief, for a little while.”
It happened in Vegas. But it began the Basque Country, in Tunisia, and at family tables in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Hawthorne, California.
Ibarra’s journey to the rest of the world began with the scent of ham. Bayonne is famous for its ham and has celebrated the “Foire au jambon de Bayonne,” or Ham Fair, every Easter weekend since 1464.
Ibarra, known as Beñat as a child (Basque names were illegal in France but his family still called him by his true name), was 11 years old wandering through the Ham Fair when he had an epiphany. There were tables and tables full of hams and sausages and chocolates and as young Beñat walked through the fair he felt a delight so deep that he knew he’d found his calling.
“I really liked to smell the ham, and I would smell the bones, too,” he recalled. “It smelled so good. And I knew then: that is it.”
It wasn’t just the ham, but something larger that moved him — the walks with his mother, the way his family came together for meals, the fishermen returning with loads of tuna, sardines, anchovies. Food was life; he wanted to live a life of food. He left home at the age of 14 to become a chef, attending La Citadelle College of Culinary Arts in San Jean Pied de Port, France, where he also studied under Chef Firmin Arrambide at the Michelin-starred Hotel Les Pyrenees.
Ibarra would become among the most well-traveled and accomplished chefs in the world. He made the dinner for the ceremonial handing over of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and has worked professionally in France, Singapore, Spain, Japan, The Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, and in various American cities, including his current position as executive chef at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Marouani was also 11 years old when he realized his life would be about food.
All his childhood, he’d been different for a Tunisian boy in that he loved to work in the kitchen. He’d show up, ready to work.
“Mom, what can I do?” he’d ask.
“You are a boy,” she’d reply. “What are you doing here?”
Adnen persisted; Zina relented. He cleaned the parsley and spinach, fluffed the couscous, and busied himself almost daily with kitchen tasks. “Just being her sidekick,” he recalled. “Her sous chef.”
He saw food everywhere. Hiking from his house to his cousin’s, he’d pick greens. “Dude, what are you doing?” his cousin would say. “No, pick that,” Adnen would reply. “It’s wild spinach. Take it home and rinse it. It’s awesome.”
One day when he was 11 his mother realized Adnen was nowhere to be found. She started asking around. Somebody told her to look at a nearby restaurant. She found him in the back, sitting on a plastic crate, peeling potatoes over a trash can. He’d begun his career.
Nine years later, his pure exuberance for life, food, and adventure brought Marouani to America, where, against long odds overcome by the sheer joyous force of his personality, he made himself a chef. He left Tunisia in 2000 at the age of 20 for a vacation to the United States. He called his family from a pay phone on Sunset Strip two weeks later to announce he wasn’t returning home and, despite arriving in the States without a word of English, established his own restaurant in Hermosa Beach only 18 months later. He was 21 years old.
All roads ran through Las Vegas.
Chef Ibarra left Hong Kong for Vegas in 1998 to work for the Mirage, where he oversaw 12 restaurants and 350 chefs. He was recruited to work as the executive chef for Aria Resort & Casino in 2009, a venue which featured 14 restaurants and 4,004 hotel rooms, the crown jewel of the $8.5 billion CityCenter mixed-use development on The Strip. He was attempting to interview a Chinese chef via phone one day, but neither spoke a common language (though Ibarra speaks four languages) and the only person his staff could find to help translate was a member of the design and construction team building the project.
He was pleasantly surprised when a young designer named Jessica Lo sat down at the table next to him.
“What I remember is here was this really, really smiley chef,” she said.
They didn’t see each other again until six months later when they ran into one another at the Mirage. Conversation led to dinner. She was from Vancouver, Canada, one of the most international cities in the world. Her family, with its grounding in Chinese cuisine, and her city, with its stew of cultures, allowed her to understood food as something beyond bare sustenance, but as a means of communing, within and across cultures.
They ate Mediterranean food, and almost immediately fell in love.
“Three months later, I moved in,” Lo Ibarra said.
“After Hong Kong, I couldn’t find Jessica anywhere,” Bernard said, only half-joking. “I thought, ‘Okay, I am going to Vegas. I’m trying my luck. And for once, I hit the jackpot. I was there 11 years before I met her.”
Marouani experienced a meteoric rise as a chef upon his arrival in the United States. After learning English working late night shifts at a gas station in Compton — he befriended the homeless people who visited the station at all hours, and quizzed them for words — he took over a restaurant in Hermosa Beach called Amore Trattoria. The intimate 15-seat Italian restaurant took off, doubling sales in a year, and his business partner thought they could replicate the success in a bigger venue. They sold Amore, and in 2007 opened La Maschera in Pasadena. It never felt quite right to Marouani; the scale of the 100-seat restaurant and wine bar didn’t work. Marouani wanted to sell, but his partner didn’t. One Friday night, Marouani made a decision: he was leaving.
“Yo, man,” he told his partner. “This place is for you. I don’t want anything. I am walking away. You win, take everything. You lose, don’t get me involved.”
He left for Vegas. He applied for work up and down The Strip and was hired at Caesar’s Palace. He first laid eyes on Lenora Towns at his chef orientation.
She was a young chef from Hawthorne, California who’d grown up in a religious household and attended LA Trade Tech College, thinking of cooking as something mostly practical. She grew up in a single-parent household. Her mother, Janet Towns, worked hard to both provide for her and her brother and, with limited resources, to still make simple home cooked meals at night. Lenora remembers a family favorite, turkey legs and rice, that may not have been fancy but had the taste and sustenance of her mother’s love.
When Lenora entered the world of professional kitchens, she found food as a way of life.
“Coming up in the ranks, women in the kitchen had a lot of odds against them, at the time,” she said. “Initially, when you jump into the field the first time, you are like, ‘Damn, this is real world. I need to step it up.’ Being in a kitchen is the fastest way to grow up. There is no babysitting. No bullshitting. It is what it is.”
“Looking back on it, I really appreciate it, because it is so raw. If you are a real person, you’ll be successful in a kitchen. You are there to create good food. If you have any other intent, you are not going to succeed. I would say food is my religion now. Being in a kitchen allowed me to grow up and see the world in its true colors, to just understand what ties the whole world together — it’s food, that is our common core. We have tons of differences, but we can always relate to food, around the world.”
After orientation, Adnen was given an executive position as Chef de Cuisine; as he likes to say, he made meals “for the losers” — that is, the high-rollers who lost and would be given five-star room service.
“They said, ‘Adnen, your job is not just in the kitchen — you are in charge of VIPs and the penthouses, because we have a lot of Middle Eastern [guests] and high rollers,’” he recalled. “So if you lose $500,000 and got upset, it was like, ‘What would you like to eat?’ And the guest would say, ‘Oh, I feel like lamb.’ So we would go and make five different lambs.”
The two only knew each other well enough to say hello. Lenora was Chef de Partie at Guy Savoy, the famed Michelin-starred French restaurant within Caesar’s Palace. Her path to Adnen’s kitchen resulted from a panic over spinach. She was working as“entremetier,” the chef in charge of vegetables. One day, her spinach calculations were off. She was making an accompaniment for a duck dish that required each lettuce leaf surrounded by a circle mold of spinach. “So they have to be an amazing piece of spinach, and big enough, because they are particular, all for presentation,” she remembered. “That’s where I ran out, and stressed out.”
She went searching the other kitchens of Caesar’s Palace. The moment she walked into Adnen’s kitchen, she was struck — by the harmony among the many chefs, and by its orderliness.
“I took pride in my walk in freezer,” Adnen recalled.
“I noticed his clean kitchen,” Lenora said. “I am very big on the way a chef commands a kitchen and deals with cooks, and I noticed he was well-respected, and just the manner in which he directed people — not right away, but that was subconscious, in the back of my head. The thing on the tip of my brain was spinach.”
He hooked her up with some very good spinach. As it happened, he’d just put in his two weeks notice; he’d realized he wasn’t cut out for corporate work. They met a few days later, “as chefs,” at a wine bar for dinner. “That, for me, was a date,” he said. “For her, I’m not sure it was a date. So I was not trying too hard. What I was trying to do was be comfortable, so I just talked about freaking wine, because I love wine.”
They eventually ended up back at his place, where they drank more wine and watched “Ratatouille”, the Disney movie about a Parisian rat who is also a chef.
“That was a good night,” Lenora said. “Because I saw a future right then and there.”
Adnen would spend much of the next two years working as a chef aboard cruise ships in Alaska, returning to Vegas and Lenora between cruises. Eventually, in 2010, he swooped her up and they traveled to Tunisia together, where they would marry. They returned to the LA area and she worked as a chef at the Crescent Hotel in Beverly Hills and he worked as a Sommelier in various restaurants around the city. They eventually returned to the South Bay with the intention of starting a family, and in 2012, they opened Barsha.
“Vegas was a good detour,” he said. “A mecca for food. But South Bay is home.”
The road to Tunisia
The chefs finally crossed paths in the South Bay.
Ibarra, whose gentle, soft-spoken manner belies an insatiable curiosity, had traveled in Tunisia during one of his forays around the world and became enamored not only with its vibrant cuisine, but with the warmth and hospitableness of its people. It was in the late 1980s, and he and some friends had an old beat-up car they drove through Algeria and Morocco before arriving in Tunisia. What struck him first was it was a land of smiles — everyone was so friendly. He picked up hitchhikers, and they’d inevitably invite him home to meet their families, which would lead to dinner, and an insistence he stay the night, then come to a brother’s house for lunch the next day, which would in turn lead another dinner at a nephew’s house.
“We went weeks just eating, going from place to place, crisscrossing the country and just having the best food we could have,” Ibarra recalled. “The smells, the smiles, the spices, all the colors. Wow. It was unreal, all these flavors, and when we were on the middle coast, I ate the best date ever, and the fish was so fresh, and could see the women preparing the food. They were masters of the kitchen.”
“I realized it was the same in most countries — the women are the best cooks, yet the professional cooks, the chefs, are men.”
He met Adnen at A Basq Kitchen a month ago and later visited Barsha. Marouani, with his bushy, dancing eyebrows and sing-song way of talking, is Tunisian hospitality personified. He punctuates his sentences with “la la la” rather than pauses, as if conversation were a song, and anyone who walks into his wine shop is greeted not so much as a customer but as a long lost friend. Over wine, the two couples talked food, and the idea of a dinner emerged, “A Night in Tunisia.”
The two couples and their businesses have more in common then an international bent and a culinary background in Las Vegas. A Basq Kitchen, like Barsha, has become a community hub, a place to drink wine, eat, and commune. As the South Bay’s dining scene has burgeoned with more adventurous, chef-driven options, both businesses are a sign of something deeper that is occurring — food not just as convenience or necessity, but as connection.
Farm-to-table is a recent trend in American dining. But in Tunisia and the Basque Country, farm-to-table is a way of life that has continued, unnamed and uninterrupted, for centuries. People are connected to the sources of their food, and through shared meals, to each other.
Ibarra remembers a childhood in which his family didn’t have a refrigerator until he was eight and a supermarket didn’t arrive until his teenage years. His mother didn’t have any use for the supermarket when it finally did arrive.
“It was so weird to see a place where everything was under one roof,” he said. “It didn’t make sense. It took Mom a long time to go to the supermarket, because she wouldn’t trust someone with a pressed apron and shiny shoes.”
A Basq Kitchen, like Barsha, is a piece of the Old World finding its place in the new. Ibarra owns ABK but is not the chef at the restaurant — he’s executive chef at Terranea, which is more than a full time job. A Basq Kitchen is his way of reconnecting with where his long journey began.
“It’s very similar to the way the coast looks at home, like a typical old town in Basque Country,” Ibarra said. “In that space, in the harbor, I feel like I am home.”
As the chefs collaborate Sunday night, another kind of communing will occur. Ibarra, for example, is adding Tunisian spices to Basque dishes — a touch of saffron to his sofrito stuffed squid, harissa with his steamed clams.
And of course there will be couscous. Zina, in fact, is visiting her son and his family, so the world’s best couscous will be served, as well.
“In Tunisia, if someone hosts you, and they did not make couscous….It’s like, ‘You guys did not make couscous!’ Either they must not be good cooks, or they are cheap people,” Adnen said. “What, you are not comfortable enough to make couscous? So we will make couscous.”
Easy Reader Presents “A Night in Tunisia” at A Basq Kitchen (136 International Boardwalk, RB), a seven course family style meal, Sunday, February 28. There will be two seatings, at 5 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. $65 food only; $90 with wine pairings. To see the full menu and book tickets, see the event page at eventbrite.com. Call Barsha at (310) 318-9080 or ABK (Jessica) at 310-926-6393 with any questions.