Making a booking at Restaurant Numero 7 in Fes, Morocco, is a rather unusual experience. Number of people, they ask? One. Time? 7pm. Guide? Umm, huh? Yep, this eatery is so buried in the labyrinthine Fes El Bali walled medina that most guests need a guide to usher them through the winding alleyways to get there.
It's an unusual approach, but then again, Restaurant Numero 7 isn't your usual restaurant. The 38-seater runs on an innovative new concept: a chef-in-residence program that brings celebrated chefs from around the world to helm the kitchen at the sleek restaurant for one to four months, encouraging them to put their own spin on seasonal produce sourced from the medina market or nearby farms.
I made my booking here for the anticipation of delicious world-class cuisine, but what really grabs my attention upon entering the intimate space is the ultra-slick design by owner Stephen di Renza. An American expat former fashion designer and the creative director of the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, this is a man with superb taste. Decorating the marble floors and bordering the doorways of the space, which occupies the central atrium of a riad, is intricate black and white zellij mosaic tile work. One wall is adorned with a black and white-streaked marble water wall that empties into a small koi pond, and hanging from the ceiling in a corner above a glossy palm is a collection of hand-blown glass bubbles. It's open and airy, feeling at once traditional thanks to the local craftsmanship, yet delivered into the contemporary world with the monochrome colour scheme.
I pull up a chic aluminium chair at one of the small matte black metal tables and within 10 minutes am served the first of four courses on the set menu tonight: pickled eggplant and peach on toast with coriander. It's simple and delicious, spicy and fresh with just the right amount of kick. It doesn't taste very Moroccan, but it's a welcome change from the mountain of tagines I've consumed in just three days in the country, and it reminds me of home. Which makes complete sense when the current chef-in-residence, Asher Gilding from Tasmania's Apple Shed Restaurant, comes out to introduce himself with my second course, which for this vegetarian is zucchini with spiced labna. "We have a new menu every day; if something looks great we have to cook it today, otherwise it'll be gone tomorrow,", says Gilding with a laugh. "As a chef your instinct is to plan, but you can't plan here in the Fes medina." Gilding has joined an impressive line-up of chefs, including Jerome Wagg from the renowned Chez Panisse in California, Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins from Parisian restaurant Frenchie, and Analiese Gregory formerly of Quay.
Just as I'm about to tuck into my third course, a stylish, smiley redhead with a wide smile sweeps over to join me at my table. This is Tara Stevens, an English food writer who runs cooking courses in Fes, and who dreamt up the chef-in-residence program here at Numero 7.
She eyes my plate, which holds a simple yet tasty pasta dish with courgettes, olives and cheese that once again doesn't seem that Moroccan, and as if reading my mind says, "we're trying to pioneer a modern Moroccan cooking here". Since tourism in Morocco is largely controlled by the government, says Stevens, there are, "people sitting in offices deciding what tourists want to eat, but they can only eat so much tagine and couscous before they're desperate for something – anything – else. So this really is about contributing something very positive to the Fes medina".
And the contribution isn't just culinary. Numero 7 also employs locals who have never worked in the hospitality industry before and trains them up to help them work towards a brighter future.
As I tuck into my fourth and final course, a delectable banana concoction topped with fluffy caramel cream, burnt white chocolate, peanuts and a sticky caramel sauce, I start chatting to my soft-spoken young waiter, Ayoub. Stevens tells me he didn't speak a word of English and had never dined in a proper restaurant in his life when he was first employed at Numero 7. "Tara has taught me everything I know," he says with a gentle laugh. "I love food, maybe one day I can even go into the kitchen and create something – inshallah."
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Casablanca via Dubai from about $1680 return, see emirates.com/au.
Luxury riad Palais Amani offers 15 opulent rooms decorated with mosaic tiling, stained glass windows and Berber rugs. Sun yourself on the rooftop terraces, get pampered at the traditional hammam and spa, relax in the salon and library or feast on sumptuous Moroccan cuisine in their alfresco garden and rooftop restaurant. Room rates start at about $180 per night in the low season; reduced rates available for those booking through bypriorarrangement.com. See palaisamani.com
By Prior Arrangement creates small bespoke luxury tours and private itineraries to Morocco based around shopping, art, architecture, gardens, food or trekking; see bypriorarrangement.com.
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of Palais Amani and By Prior Arrangement.