Reinventing Rick's Café

A former U.S. diplomat, Kathy Kriger opened a restaurant in Casablanca in the aftermath of 9/11.

By Kathy Kriger, as told to Cathie Gandel
Rick's Cafe, Morocco, restaurant reinvention
Kathy Kriger, aided by her porter, Mohamed Khouiled, stocks up on fresh coriander, fennel and arugula
Photograph: Photo by DITTE ISAGER

It’s a gorgeous, cloudless June day in Casablanca, and a maintenance crew from the local electric company is preparing to dig up the street in front of my elegant water- -front restaurant. Their timing is impeccable. Rick’s Café is about to begin lunch service, and my guests will have to maneuver around piles of broken cement to get into the restaurant. “Ce n’est pas grave, Madame. C’est le Maroc. Il faut adapter,” the foreman tells me. (“This is not serious, Madame. This is Morocco. One must adapt.”) I want to tell him that if there’s one thing I’ve learned while living in Morocco, it’s that adapting would be the worst possible mistake. Seven years ago, I set out to turn Rick’s Café Américain, the iconic gin joint in the movie Casablanca, into a reality, and if I’d adapted every time someone told me something couldn’t be done, the place would still be a celluloid fiction. Instead, I tell the crew firmly to move elsewhere until lunch is over. The men roll up the yellow tape and take their jackhammers to another area. “They didn’t even look up when I was trying to get them to stop,” says my maintenance chief as he follows me back into the restaurant.

Of course, he didn’t have Bogie as his inspiration—or at least Rick, the character Humphrey Bogart played in the movie. Like many fans, I’d imagined that Rick’s Café was real, but when I was posted to Casablanca in 1998 as
commercial attaché for the U.S. Consulate General, I discovered that the place was a 1943 Hollywood fantasy. Warner Brothers had built the entire set, using hundreds of photos of Moroccan-style buildings, street scenes and costumes for inspiration. The idea of creating a real Rick’s crossed my mind—I love cooking and entertaining, and had racked up some entrepreneurial experience before entering the foreign service—but instead I threw myself into my diplomatic work, helping American companies do business with Morocco. And I fell in love with the country.

Casablanca is a complex city with some rough edges—noise, traffic, pollution, poverty—and its charms are secret and subtle: Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture in the town’s center; fragrant spice and food markets. The cuisine is one of the most refined in the world, and the people’s hospitality is legendary. Morocco is also known for its religious tolerance. Although it’s a Muslim country, women are free to dress as they wish, and in Casablanca, Western fashion prevails.

After three years, I was still at the consulate when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The next day, still reeling from the horror of what I’d seen on TV, I slipped my copy of Casablanca into the VCR. Something about the wartime urgency in the film resonated with me. It reminded me of the values Americans exhibited during World War II: sacrifice for the greater good, sympathy for the underdog and the willingness to take a stand. I thought
that if I—a lone American woman, of a certain age (I was 54 at the time)—could bring Rick’s Café to life in
Casablanca during a turbulent time, it could become more than a nostalgic tribute to a beloved movie. It could represent the best of American values and showcase a progressive Muslim country.

By the end of that week, I made the decision to leave the foreign service and start a new chapter in my life. Creating Rick’s Café became, in the words of the movie’s theme song, “a case of do or die.”Thankfully, I had no idea of the financial and emotional turmoil I’d face during the two and a half years it would take to bring the project to fru- ition. The movie was my constant companion during the process, a source of inspiration, comfort, encouragement and ideas. I watched it hundreds of times. In the solitude of my apartment, with a notebook by my side, I jotted down favorite lines of dialogue and details about furniture, plants, clothing and lighting techniques. I noted that the only food served in the film is caviar, which meant I’d have carte blanche when it came to developing a menu. I was a woman obsessed.  

By November that year, I’d found the perfect location. The wali, or governor, of Greater Casablanca, Driss Benhima, a good friend from my foreign service days, persuaded me to look for a building in the Ancienne Medina. I resisted at first. The crumbling, old walled city had a look reminiscent of the Warner Brothers set, but it was riddled with drug dealing, prostitution and petty crime. Still, Driss insisted I meet him by the clock tower outside the walls one Sunday. As he strode through the labyrinthine alleys, I struggled to keep up. Feral cats fled as we navigated the narrow streets. Urchins and unsavory-looking char-acters who recognized the wali slipped out of sight, into hidden doorways. As we walked along, the buildings with their arches, verandas, latticework and domed roofs began to win me over. A tawdry-looking game parlor brought to mind the pickpocketing scene in the film. Like Driss, I was now convinced that the Ancienne Medina was the natural home for Rick’s Café.
Two visits later, I was shown a decaying mansion on a dark, dead-end alley, opposite a former bordello. I followed the owner’s daughter through a dingy corridor and up a set of broken stairs. Dull, cracked ceramic tiles lined the lower portion of the wall. Then she opened the door to the living space. Dominated by a central interior courtyard with a dismantled fountain in the middle, the house seemed to stretch forever. Winter light streamed in from the open octagonal cupola above the courtyard, illuminating arches, columns and balustrades. From the second floor balcony, I could see the ocean and the Hassan II Mosque. The house was in terrible shape, but I saw it with the eyes of someone falling in love at first sight.

It would take 1.7 million dirhams—then about $175,000—to buy the place. When several prospective investors
fell through, I turned to my friends and former colleagues around the world. I created a company called the Usual Suspects and designed a flyer that read, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I’d like you to
buy into mine.” The response was overwhelming. Suddenly, money from Prague, Tokyo (where I’d run a business for seven years) and the U.S. was being wired to the Usual Suspects SARL (similar to our LLC) in Morocco. In the post-9/11 world, this raised some eyebrows. One U.S. investor even got a visit from the FBI.

By October 2002 the house was mine. I already had my set designer lined up. The late Bill Willis (he died in January 2009, just before the Café’s fifth anniversary) was a Memphis-born, Mississippi-raised, New York–educated designer who came to Morocco in the late 1960s and, like me, fell in love
with the country and the culture. His skill at marrying Western designs with traditional Moroccan artisanal work had earned him an international reputation. At Rick’s, it is evident in the tiled central staircase, the five fireplaces and inlaid oak floors. He even sketched out a table lamp with beaded shades. (I commissioned 42 of them—just like the film version, only more glamorous.) It was Bill who came up with the idea of creating a dramatic front door, reminiscent of the film, on the ocean side of the mansion. On Bill’s only visit to Rick’s Café, after it opened, I nervously awaited his reaction. He took a sip of Jack Daniel’s and surveyed the room. I held my breath. I knew Bill would not mince words. “Well, my dear,” he said finally. “It’s even better than the movie. But you shouldn’t wear a blouse under your tuxedo jacket. Think of yourself as Marlene Dietrich, not Humphrey Bogart.”

When I wasn’t fighting with construction workers (who often didn’t follow Bill’s specs), I was meeting with bankers and capital risk firms, cap in hand, carrying a sack full of dossiers, marketing projections and invoices. I quickly discovered thatmy estimate of $500,000 for the restoration was far too low. In the end, my “production costs” would come to $1,043,800: $4,800 more than it took to make Casablanca. Meanwhile loans were promised and then pulled. I was living on my savings and cashed-in retirement accounts. Construction started in March, and by May 2003, I had $40 in my checking account. “No wonder you’re out of money,” one capital risk manager told me. “You’ve been paying your suppliers. You should act like a Moroccan woman: Cry and don’t pay.” Cry I did, though backstage. I replayed Casablanca to deal with the humiliation and turned to my net-work of contacts to find someone willing to make a call for me.

Later that year, I realized I needed to bring some sweetness into my life, to counteract the unfriendly bankers and obtuse construction workers (“You are very, very difficult,” one of them told me). So I adopted an adorable Coton de Tulear puppy named Pacha, now our mascot.

Of course, Rick’s Café would not be complete without its Sam. As the opening approached, Issam Chabaa showed up for an audition, and within minutes of listening to him play songs from the era on our Pleyel piano, I knew
that this would be the start of a beautiful friendship. Today, Issam (pronounced eye-SAM) plays the piano six
nights a week and also manages personnel, construction projects, jam sessions—and me. And there is no one who plays “As Time Goes By” like Issam.

Rick’s Café opened on March 1, 2004, minutes after I obtained the operating permit that had been “held up” at
the vice mayor’s office. I hurried to my apartment, showered and changed into my tuxedo. Rushing to the restaurant, I walked in the beautiful front door and switched on the sign. There were no klieg lights, no red carpet and no chef. I’d been unable to find a suitable candidate in time, so I used a catering service. People showed
up hold-ing the New York Times article with the headline “A Casablanca landmark is ready for its debut.” It would be four years before I found the right chef. I never set out to compete with the wonderful Moroccan or French restaurants in Casablanca. Instead, I aimed for an international menu with subtle Moroccan touches using the best of what our local Marché Central has to offer. A 30-minute walk from Rick’s, the Marché is one of my favorite places in Casablanca, and I know most of the vendors. When More came to Casablanca recently, I thought of them as I prepared the menu for the magazine (click here for recipes). The fruit seller sends us the first fresh figs and chooses the best quality papaya for us. We get our arugula from Mustapha Legumes. When ginger and saffron oyster stew is on the menu, the shellfish come from Madame Zohra, whose son comes to Rick’s every Saturday night to shuck oysters at the oyster bar.

In the movie, the city of Casablanca was either the end of the road or the beginning of a new life. For me it was definitely a beginning. Rick’s has become more than a restaurant. The guests aren’t desperate refugees trying to make their way to freedom, but it is the oasis I dreamed of. Like its namesake, it’s a neutral place where people leave their troubles and worries outside and enter another era. And as time goes by, the legend continues.

Kathy Kriger is working on a memoir, Gambling on Rick’s Café: My Casablanca Story, with writer Cathie Gandel.
Cathie Gandel is a freelance journalist in Bridgehampton, NY who regularly covers business, personal finance and health. She is also the author of Jon Jerde in Japan: Designing the Spaces Between.

 

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First Published Thu, 2009-12-03 14:41

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