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

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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