Insider's Guide to Spas
Chef Hicham Elmadi/Hilton Head Health

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Flavorful Fare with Chef Hicham Elmadi

Rima Suqi


When Hicham Elmadi first arrived at Hilton Head Health, guests were not given options at meals—they ate what they were given, as part of the weight loss resort’s strategy. Part of bringing the Moroccan native onboard was to develop the fairly extensive culinary offerings at the property, now helmed by ex-Miraval CEO Michael Tompkins. And what offerings they are—Elmadi has developed three different lunch and dinner menus with so many choices that deciding on just one thing is difficult.

While his North-African upbringing is evident in some items—Chicken Shawarma, a Mediterranean plate, and Harira Soup—there are many standouts, including Fig & Spinach Salad, Salmon Burger, French Lentil & Butternut Squash Salad, a tasty Turkey Chili, and a to-die-for Banh Mi.

How’d you get into cooking?

I grew up in Casablanca, Morocco. My father used to run an international company, and we always had guests in the home. We cook all day—you wake up, you start breakfast, you finish breakfast, you start lunch, then you take a nap and you start again. You are Middle Eastern, so you know, we make a lot of sides, we don’t just put out the meat and one thing. When I was around ten, I started to help make sides. When I was fifteen, my mom put me in charge.

Weren’t you in school?

Yes I was in school, but we’d have a lunch break from 12:00 to 2:00, and I would run to the house to be on time so I could start cooking.

I’m surprised. I didn’t think that parents from that culture would necessarily be supportive of a boy wanting to be in the kitchen.

My dad used to have a small Spanish restaurant in Casablanca, called Tarefa. He doesn’t have it anymore. He used to have paella, shrimp, all that stuff. In school, we’d all go and help.

Isn’t pork a major ingredient in a lot of Spanish food?

We used to eat pork when we were kids; my dad used to cook it. I started working with him, I’d try to help in the kitchen, because I didn’t really like cleaning. We’d sell a small pan of paella for three dollars, and you’d pay one dollar for the pan until you brought it back. We had a lot of regulars, and they always brought it back.

While his North-African upbringing is evident in some items—Chicken Shawarma, a Mediterranean plate, and Harira Soup—there are many standouts, including Fig & Spinach Salad, Salmon Burger, French Lentil & Butternut Squash Salad, a tasty Turkey Chili, and a to-die-for Banh Mi.

Did you go to culinary school?

I went to culinary school in Casablanca, they taught basic Moroccan cooking, and it was free through the government. I did the program for two years, and I moved to Spain. My father’s friend had a restaurant called La Barca, one of the best in Marbella. It is still there. I spent a year there, I started on salads and appetizers, an easy station. Then they moved me to sauté, and for the last three months I was there they had me go and get the fresh fish every day. And then I got a job in Tuscany.

Did you speak any Spanish or Italian?

I spoke French and Moroccan. I learned some Spanish in Spain and a lot of Italian in Italy. I spent a year in Tuscany, in a beautiful town called Montalcino. I worked at a restaurant called Sofia, which was really popular with locals. A friend’s grandmother taught me how to make pizza, pasta, and meatballs.

You realize that’s a foodie’s dream—go to Italy and have someone’s grandmother teach you how to cook.

I learned how to make cheese, too! From there I moved to Paris for three years.

And I’m guessing that was totally different.

Oh yeah. They taught me things at that restaurant—it was called Au Pied de Cochon—that I didn’t learn in Spain or in Italy. It was like going to school all over again. I had to work hard, and be really creative. The chef was one of the best chefs in Paris. He told me that there are no limits to cooking, just use your imagination. I still follow that direction today.

How’d you finally make it to the United States?

We opened Au Pied de Cochon at the Hotel Intercontinental in Atlanta. It was almost exactly what we had in France, except a few dishes, and was very highly rated. But it didn’t really work very well over here.

What brought you to Hilton Head Health?

I was looking for something like this, because when I moved to the States I used to go to the grocery store, and you can’t smell anything—you smell the pharmacy more than the fruits and the vegetables. And back home you pass fruits or vegetables and you smell them. Here, everything is refrigerated, and fruits don’t really taste like fruits. Bananas don’t smell like bananas. You cannot put tomatoes in the cooler! I started learning about nutrition and healthy cuisine. I was personally interested in the healthy way to cook and I was planning to help Americans to learn to eat better.

What is the new idea for cuisine at Hilton Head Health?

They wanted healthy cuisine, they needed calorie counts and balanced dishes with fiber, protein, and starch, with a focus on portion control. And they also wanted to create an a la cart menu; they had been doing banquet style. I made a lot of changes pretty quickly.

Everything I ate was delicious and some of the portions were surprisingly big. Also the chicken was so tender, I couldn’t believe it.

We make that the Persian way—with saffron, turmeric salt, and marinate it in mayonnaise. We replace the mayo with Greek yogurt, it gives it more protein.

What is it like to cook for people with food issues? I had cheese that in actuality isn’t cheese, and a seaweed salad with little or no seaweed in it. It’s like magic.

That is a vegan cheese made with cashews, and agar, smoked paprika for the flavor, and roasted red pepper for the color. For people with nut allergies, we replace cashews with sweet potato. I served it to a guest and she did not believe it was not real cheese. It is pretty easy to make. We also make gluten-free flatbread and pizza.

What about the seaweed?

My boss asked for something different, and I love seaweed but it is high in calories and we try to keep it low here. I thought seaweed and broccoli would work perfectly together. To add a bit of color, I added shredded carrots.

Any other tips?

Quail eggs, which we serve with smoked salmon at breakfast, are very healthy. They have more protein than regular eggs, and also more flavor and vitamins. And spices—we have shelves full of them, over fifty spices.

It’s your heritage.

That’s how we make more food taste better. Chives are very rich in fiber. People think it’s a garnish, but it has great benefits.

I’m surprised you don’t have your own garden here.

There’s nothing better than fresh herbs from your garden, and we are going to have one. I will plant all the herbs first. If I have more space I’ll plant vegetables, and I’d love to have some chickens here so we’d have our own eggs.

Doesn’t that pond have alligators? Do they eat herbs?

I don’t think so. They might eat chickens, but they can’t get up here from that pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rima Suqi

Rima Suqi

An avid world traveler raised in an international home, Rima has explored and covered emerging destinations in the Middle East and Africa, far-flung luxury resorts in French Polynesia, as well as those closer to home, and the burgeoning arts scene in Marfa, Texas. Rima has traveled to over 30 countries, writing about the trends and tastemakers for leading travel and lifestyle publications, and subjected herself to innumerable spa treatments — sometimes under very odd circumstances — all in the name of journalism. A weekly contributor to The New York Times Home section, Rima held the envious position of Best Bets Editor at New York Magazine for six years, and is regularly published in national magazines including T Magazine/The New York Times, Departures, Architectural Digest, Elle Décor and American Way. Her last book American Fashion: Designers at Home (Assouline) in partnership with CFDA, sold out three printings.