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Our beginnings

Words: Ozone Coffee

Our good friends and mentors, Samuel and Samantha Clark of Moro, spent an afternoon with us reflecting on their beginnings. Right from the start, they invested in quality and authenticity. As a result, 20 years on, Moro has become a London institution. They have created something with intrinsic value - by nurturing their people, they have enriched lives and cultivated world class careers. Like theatre, or any other kind of art, Moro gently awakens us to new ideas. In a time when ‘startup’ and ‘pop-up’ have arguably become overused buzzwords, new business mindsets are often limited to generating hype and surviving the short term. Here, we explore day to day life at Moro and learn how The Sams have nurtured their ambition for longevity.

Can you remember your first hospitality experience? Where was it and can you recall the impressions and thoughts you had?

Samantha: I grew up in London and my parents used to take me to restaurants quite a bit. A lot of my childhood memories are about food.
Samuel: When I was 10 or 12 years old, I had a friend who lived on Kings Road right next to a basement chinese restaurant – you could get a three course meal there for 50p. We used to order sweet and sour pork with rice, spring rolls and lovely mango pudding. Those were the days! They served adult portions too, which I had no issues in finishing. Oh, and the wonderful chinese music in the background… very evocative.

Your story starts at the River Café. There are a lot of great places to get kitchen experience, but where does one go to learn the art of hospitality?

Samantha: We’re both cooks, and not very good at service.
Samuel: We first met at the Eagle Pub right around the corner from here. Once or twice a week we were asked to wait tables, remember? It was very interesting to see what service on the opposite side of the bar looked like. I remember feeling totally crushed by how rude customers were. I’m used to being protected by the kitchen and when Eagle asked us to serve customers… it was a scary experience.
Samantha: We’d be hopeless on the floor, I certainly wouldn’t do it.
Samuel: People used to snap their fingers at us… We’re too sensitive, it’s best if we stay in the kitchen.

Correct us if we’re wrong, but we understand that Moro was inspired by the region of Alpujarras, Spain. You went on a three month campervan trip there in 1997 before starting Moro. Can you share your experiences, tell us why you visited, and what you wanted to bring back to London?

Samuel: The idea was to get under the skin of the food and to go to the markets, buy the ingredients and then cook them in our campervan. We went to some restaurants too, but that’s altogether a different experience.
Samantha: There were certain things we read about in recipe books – some recipes are really hard to imagine until you actually see them. We’d walk into a restaurant and ask them how to make a specific dish we were curious about.
Samuel: We are pretty good detectives. We like working out how dishes are made. Although, really, it’s about the flavour, attention to detail, and making things authentic. We do a thing called ‘brik’, it’s a bit like samosa, but the Spanish way. It’s a street food dish and we found it very difficult to make from cookery books, so we travelled around searching for ‘the real briks’. Finally, we managed to find a vendor – only when we actually try a dish, we get an idea of flavours and the authenticity of it. Another restaurant let us into their kitchen and allowed us to watch chefs making food. We came back with the knowledge and as a result, after 20 years, we’re still the only restaurant making our own ‘briks’ in London.

You still travel looking for inspiration and some of your books emerged from such exploratory trips. Have you developed a process you follow to spot ideas, note flavours and recipes?

Samuel: Photography is very important. We photograph everything.
Samantha: I agree, we think visually.
Samuel: Also, it’s really difficult to keep a diary… after a few days I stop carrying it around. When we travel, nothing passes our lips that we haven’t photographed.

Can you remember what your expectations were when Moro first opened its doors? What kind of life you envisioned for yourself and the restaurant? Did you look at it as a fun project or was it a long term plan?

 Samantha: We always wanted to be here. In the early days, we got offered to be bought out by companies, but we weren’t interested. We simply wanted to work here every day for a long time.

 Have you ever felt like moving on and starting something new?

Samantha: I like doing new things, we’re always working on side projects. Obviously, we did Morito five years ago. According to the initial plan, we weren’t going to open anything and for almost 15 years we didn’t. We felt we needed to concentrate on Moro. Only when a space next door came up, we decided to make a little tapas bar there. We’re not the kind of people who are looking to open up a chain restaurant. Now, we’re opening up a place in Hackney.

What are the foundations of a timeless brand? One with a soul and a real community?

Samantha: From the beginning we had a distinct vision of what we were going to cook. That was the thing that lead everything else. Our focus was and is on the food and consistent quality.
Samuel: What keeps us fresh is that we change the menu every three weeks. Everytime we write a new menu, there are probably three or four things on there that we’ve never done before. That’s always been exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. It’s always evolving too.

Do you sometimes have to push yourself to look for new ideas?

Samantha: We do. We travel a lot, read recipe books as well as travellers’ blogs. With a finely tuned palate you can judge if a dish is good or not by looking at it photographed. I also use Twitter. Same with Youtube – I put in a name of a dish and watch all these Turkish ladies make it. You don’t need an understanding of a language, we’ve got enough experience.
Samuel: Also we’re pushed by ingredients. At the moment we are working out how to get pistachio nuts imported from this one village. They produce all sorts of speciality things there and we want to introduce them here. All these things add layers of quality and authenticity to what we are doing.

What about recent travels?

Samantha: A little while ago we went to Istanbul and had ‘manti’. Traditionally, it’s Turkish pasta with a meat filling and little bit of spice. Quite simple. However, the ones we had were filled with aubergine, ginger, molasses and garlic.
Samuel: Dried aubergine.
Samantha: Yes, dried aubergine.
Samuel: So last week we bought dried aubergine in this country, and found out where to get Turkish butter and cheeses from.

When you get back home after a long shift at the restaurant is there a dish you make?

Samuel: Anchovies are good.
Samantha: On toast, yes. With fresh dried chilli. After a long day at work, you don’t want to start doing lots of cooking.

Lastly, in the time that Moro has been open, have you seen a change in the way people approach restaurants?

Samantha: The quality of food that is being served at restaurants has improved so much. People are very discerning now and very well educated. Even the young generation, they know what they like.
Samuel: I agree, not only food, but also customers have improved. Now we have a culture of eating out. In the past, when people came out to dinner, they were a bit tense and a bit nervous. Whereas now, pretty much everyone is an experienced diner.