Chef Brings Love of Design, Food to his Crepe Creations

The batter sizzles as Chef Hicham Chehouani pours a pale mixture onto a round black
grill. With a quick twist of the wrist, he takes a wooden dowel and smoothes the batter
into a thin layer — the base for one of his crêpe creations.

The crêpe bubbles slightly. He gives it a quick series of pats with gloved hands and
begins adding blueberries and strawberries, one by one. He shifts his opus onto a
heavy ceramic plate, adds a dollop of whipped cream and serves it to the waiting
customer: “Enjoy.”

Plates in Chehouani’s restaurants are always “designed.” An order of the Ratatouille
arrives with swirls and spirals of the pesto sauce drawn over the folded crêpe. The
spinach and greens are arranged in the center, just so.

People seem to enjoy watching as their crêpe creations unfold, Chehouani said. This
is part of the reason the cooking portion of his restaurant — two round electric griddles
and a counter full of Nutella jars, fruit and sauces — is separated from the dining section by
only a small glass panel.

“I’ve had a few people look at it and ask me if they are going to eat it or take photos
with it,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I think Americans are not used to having designs in their

Chehouani, a lean man whose chiseled features show his Moroccan heritage, wears
his black chef top buttoned all the way up and a striped black apron reaching down to
his knees, almost hiding the manufactured tears of his jeans. When he talks, his voice
bears a soft accent influenced by French and Arabic.

His restaurant is small, with six bar-height tables pushed up against the windows and
walls. An eclectic mix of old-time blues and modern rock fills the air, complementing the
smell of ham crackling on the griddle pending its addition to the Lyon crêpe.

Customers waiting for their crêpes might wonder about the surfing stickers covering the
metal circuit box.

“I’m a pro surfer,” the chef said, adding that he surfs when he visits his family in
Morocco during the winter — out of season, but Chehouani never surfs during the
summer, he explained, because the beaches are too crowded and raise bad memories.

“In 1984, I was taking some waves,” he recounted. “The water was clear and I went
down toward the base of a wave and then I saw one head popping out of the water in
front of me. My eyes got so big,” he said, holding his hands up and spreading his fingers
in demonstration. “The boy was fine, but I was scared.” In the winter, he adds, “I’m safe
and I don’t get freaked out that a boy will pop up.”

Originally from the Moroccan capital, Rabat, Chehouani makes food inflected with both
African culture and French colonialism. This Moroccan heritage influences his approach
not only to food production, but to its consumption: a key part of the experience is
sharing, and his Sunday night dinners with friends have become tradition.

“We definitely get together for food,” friend and former girlfriend Lindsey McMartin
said. “His friends all have their own little obsessions with food, so they all bring their
own dishes,” she added, describing the multi-cultural repast that may range from Saudi
Arabian to Mississippian to her own Midwestern chili — which Chehouani says is one of
his favorite American dishes.

“But I’m never making it for him again,” McMartin said, frowning as she described his
picky eating habits. “Last time it was ‘too spicy.’ I donated plasma to buy the ingredients
to make it for him and he didn’t eat it.”

Chehouani’s particular eating habits and love of sharing meals have always marked him
as a “foodie,” but he has been much else besides a chef.

When he was almost finished with high school, Chehouani joined the Moroccan
merchant marines, where he finished his degree and worked as a cook and mechanic
for four years. “Basically I did that for my dad,” Chehouani said. “Back home you don’t
disappoint your family.”

After the marines, Chehouani worked odd jobs as a model, actor and translator
of Arabic documents. Translating for an American writer provided the catalyst for
Chehouani’s move to the United States. The client helped him with the move and the
transition to Los Angeles, where Chehouani hoped to continue his career modeling and
acting. Trouble with agencies led him to change his mind, he said. “I dropped what I
was hoping for,” he said. “I changed my…my…what do you call it, my chemin, my path,”
he added, briefly dropping into French.

Following family ties, Chehouani moved to Iowa City, where his older brother and a
cousin lived. At first he worked in a factory in West Liberty. “It was hot and hard, and
didn’t pay very well,” said McMartin, his girlfriend at the time. “Finally he just quit. It was
night and day. He was his own boss.”

Chehouani worked with his cousin at a crêpe cart on the Ped Mall for about two years,
then started questioning the location, and began his search for a lease on a space for
a small restaurant. A storefront at 309 E. College, a former music shop, became his
Crêpes De Luxe Café .

When he first say the place, “it was packed with guitars,” he said. “I kept coming back. I
took a lot of pictures and kept designing it in my mind. I decided to take it.”

Aiming to open by the fall of 2009, he ran into problems finding loans and working his
way through overwhelming building codes. He did most of the construction himself to
save money. “I opened Dec. 15,” he said, “and everything was fine. Everyday is hustle,
hustle, hustle. We are always getting new customers.”

William Watson, an employee and friend of Chehouani, has been part of the crêpe
enterprise from the beginning. “He is not like other business owners,” Watson said.
When customers come into the restaurant, “it is kind of like walking into his house. He
treats everyone as friends.”

Chehouani’s business style and commitment to his food have earned him loyal patrons.

“I’m one of your best customers,” Andrew Alemao told Chehouani as he took an iced
tea out of the restaurant’s fridge. Alemao eats at the café as often as four to five times
a week. “Sometimes I’ve come two times in a day,” he said, explaining that the service
and fare were some of the best in Iowa City. “And once you get to know them, it doesn’t
hurt the pocketbook too much,” he added with a smile and a glance at Watson, who was
filling a crêpe with shredded cheese.

Although Chehouani is happy with his current venture, one day he hopes to get closer
to his roots and open a Moroccan-French restaurant.

When he begins talking about Moroccan food, his eyes brighten, he leans forward and

“It has a delicacy,” he said. “There are not too many spices. It is perfect. You taste every
vegetable, every fruit. I always go back to Moroccan food. Always.”