The seconds were ticking away in Kitchen Stadium, home to the popular Food Network chef challenge “Iron Chef America.” Morou Ouattara was scrambling around, making sure each of his dishes — created in a 60-minute timed competition, each using the theme ingredient of frozen peas — was ready for three-member panel of celebrity judges to taste.
Suddenly, a crisis: the wrong sauce had been plated for one of his dishes. Morou and his assistants rushed around rapidly, correcting the faux pas. He placed some breadcrumbs on top of sliced lamb as an air horn blared to end the battle with “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay, in an episode that debuted on the Food Network last Sunday.
“I usually get a little shaky in front of the camera, but once the time starts there’s no way of thinking about it because it’s so fast,” said Morou, 40, who goes by his first name.
The last year has moved just as frantically for Morou, who moved to the D.C. area in 1988 from Ivory Coast and joined the kitchen at Red Sage in 1991. Morou moved over to Signatures in the District — a restaurant infamously owned by Jack Abramoff which closed last November in the wake of the lobbyist’s legal entanglements.
Morou moved on to do catering and consulting until he signed a lease to open a new restaurant at the former site of The Blue Point Grill, at 600 Franklin Street in Alexandria, next to the Balducci’s market. Farrah Olivia by Morou is the first restaurant owned and operated by the renowned chef, was has been nominated for Washington’s Chef of the Year three times in the last six years.
Farrah Olivia is the name of his 2-year-old daughter, one of two children with wife Heather, the new eatery’s general manager.
“When you’re married, it takes a long time to find that name that the two of you can compromise on. It probably took us until the day she was born for the two of us to agree on a middle name, and to the order,” he said.
MOROU’S CUISINE blends traditional American entrees with a variety of African spices and flavors. “I call it ‘Creative American.’ It’s American food with my type of cooking,” he said.
During his Iron Chef competition — Morou won a D.C. face-off to earn a slot on the national program — he used some of the same methods and flavors he plans to use at Farrah Olivia. Egusi, African melon seeds, were incorporated into a dish. Millett, an Asian grain, was used for what host Alton Brown said could have been the first time in the history of the show. Morou said he’ll also use exotic flavors like alligator pepper in his dishes at the new restaurant.
The point, he said, is to take modern American cooking in a different direction; instead of chicken with a crème sauce, he’ll use African spices, for example.
Just don’t call it “fusion” cooking. “I never liked that label,” he said. “Everything somehow is a fusion.”
Morou said that trend has led to bad habits from some chefs. . “With the fusion, people didn’t think that way — it was ‘I have the money, I’m going to get the [exotic] ingredients,” he said, adding that we live in an age “where you can FedEx a mushroom from Japan.”
MOROU SAID he’s excited to be partnered with Balducci’s, especially during the eatery’s “celebrity chef week.” Morou joins fellow local cooking stars Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve and Dave Poran, former Executive Chef of the NFL, in a week of tasting and demonstration events. Morou will be cooking at the store on Sat., July 15 from noon to 2 p.m.
He said since Balducci’s is planning on having white wine to sample, he may create several salads with seafood. “But not just leaves and stuff,” he said with a laugh.
Options include a couscous salad with nuts and salmon, and Morou’s own version of watermelon salad.
Farrah Oliva, which will seat close to 70 with additional seating outside, will share an entrance with Balducci’s when it opens, tentatively scheduled for September.
“Morou is a world class talent, and we wish him great success with the opening of Farrah Olivia,” said Peter Krieger, Balducci’s Interim CEO, who worked with Ouattara on the lease agreement. “He already has a devoted following of Washingtonians through his work in DC, and we are thrilled for the opportunity to expand that following through his relationship with Balducci’s.”
ONE OF THOSE dedicated followers is D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who was in the stands at Kitchen Stadium to watch Morou’s battle with Flay, a celebrity chef from New York. “I’m a big fan of Bobby Flay, but we gotta support our Chef Morou,” he said during the broadcast.
In the end, it was Flay who defeated Morou, 54-47 in the scoring, although Morou won in the originality category with inventive dishes like sweet cream cheese pea stick with pea beignets.
Morou didn’t mind losing to Flay, who is an old professional friend and a chef he respects. “Because of people like him, and Emeril and Wolfgang Puck, people are calling us celebrity chefs,” he said.
And how does Morou, who originally moved to America to pursue a degree in computer science, feel about being grouped in with those celebrity chefs?
He doesn’t consider himself one.
“When I’m with my family, then I’m a celebrity,” he said.