It has been just a month since a 6.8 magnitude earthquake devastated central Morocco, killing almost 3,000 people, primarily in remote villages southwest of Marrakech. But, according to Karim Benyaich, who was born and raised in Fez and is the owner of Grape Leaves, a popular Moroccan restaurant in Oak Park, rebuilding has already begun.
“Everyone in Morocco rushed to help by providing food, blankets, clothing, blood and money. Even our leader, King Mohammed VI, donated blood as part of a nationwide appeal for donors. I have seen footage of old ladies carrying bricks on their backs to rebuild what they lost. Everybody is doing whatever they can to rebuild as fast as possible,” Benyaich said.
Benyaich said he is convinced that the small, remote villages most impacted by the earthquake will be rebuilt better than they were within a year. Starting this month, the government is providing monthly stipends to impacted families and financial assistance for rebuilding homes.
“The government is focusing on rebuilding and paving roads in remote areas in the Atlas Mountains where many people walk miles to and from their tiny homes. I think the government will also build more schools in these areas. Many of these people still live like they did 200 years ago — but this is what attracts tourists to the mountains,” Benyaich said.
Benyaich is understandably proud of his country and has deep knowledge of its history. The first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation, Morocco was for many years a protectorate of France and Spain. The Islamic country is a constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister, but it is essentially ruled by hereditary kings of the Alaouite dynasty, the second oldest dynasty in the world. Benyaich’s family has been closely connected to the royal family for generations.
His grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were all chambellans, or chamberlains, to the courts of successive kings, responsible for receiving and briefing guests of the royal household and serving as scribes for the monarchy. His uncle was the personal physician of King Hassan II, a cousin is the ambassador to Morocco in Spain and another cousin is one of the current king’s advisors. In addition, his mother, a prominent dressmaker, created many of famed actress Elizabeth Taylor’s signature caftans, he said.
Benyaich grew up in Rabat in a palatial 26-room home with 14 relatives and a constant rotation of guests and visitors, all of whom, including the guards and servants and cats, were feted with food. Cooking is a revered art form and people go to the market every day to buy fresh ingredients. When the markets close at 2 p.m., the unsold fruits and vegetables are left for poor people to pick up.
“Hospitality is very important in Morocco and everyone is welcome. Our tables are always round to include everyone and we only sell silverware in sets of 10 to 12. When I go shopping in the U.S., I can’t believe things are sold in sets of four,” Benyaich said, laughing.
From an early age, Benyaich knew that he wanted to be a chef. He remembered rushing into the kitchen every day after school to see what was being prepared. In particular, he loved the cuisine of Aicha, the family’s head cook. After majoring in business management at college, Benyaich followed his calling by enrolling in culinary school in Fez and apprenticing in his uncle’s hotel/restaurant, the Dar El Ghalia.
In 1989, Benyaich came to the United States after being recruited by Disney to lend an authentic flavor to the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot. He brought a lot of talent and chutzpah — but no English.
“I thought every Puerto Rican I saw at the airport in New York was Moroccan and I tried speaking to them in Arabic,” he said, laughing.
In addition to long work hours, Benyaich took classes in English and food and beverage management at a community college in Orlando. He studied the billboards every day on his way to and from Epcot. Fluent in French, Spanish, German and Arabic, Benyaich took about two years to become comfortable with English.
Benyaich subsequently worked as the banquet manager at the Hilton Hotel at Altamonte Springs and at Disney World’s deluxe Swan and Dolphin Hotel, as well as sous chef at MGM Studios’ Brown Derby.
After several years in Orlando, Benyaich decided to follow his brother to Chicago. He first visited the city in winter — and, unlike many long-term Chicagoans, he loved the snow. While driving through Oak Park, he came across the charming retail area at Marion and Lake streets and was surprised at how much it which reminded him of Morocco. He immediately knew he wanted to open a French restaurant here. However, when he learned that the owner of the original Grape Leaves was selling the Moroccan restaurant, Benyaich made him an offer, sealed with promises to keep the kitchen open and to maintain the name. Grape Leaves will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, 10 years after Benyaich bought it in 2014.
Benyaich now considers Oak Park home — even though he goes back to Morocco two or three times a year, including in February, when he “bribes” his wife and daughter to allow him flee the snow he once loved. His wife is a pharmacist in Chicago, his son is a dentist in Wisconsin and his 13-year-old daughter attends Grace Lutheran School in River Forest.
Although he has been encouraged to expand his tiny restaurant, Benyaich insists he wants to keep the business small so he can maintain a balance between work and family. He has dinner at home with his wife and daughter every evening.
“I am happy where I am. Besides, I want to control every plate that comes out of the kitchen — because if it’s not good, I won’t serve it,” he said.
Grape Leaves, 129 S. Oak Park Avenue, is open Sunday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.