IOWA CITY — Hicham Chehouani of Iowa City has acted, modeled and even surfed professionally.
But, he said, he’s always returned to his roots — cuisine.
Chehouani is the chef and owner of Crêpes de Luxe Cafe, a small eatery at 309 E. College St. that serves a blend of French and Moroccan cuisine. Chehouani’s culinary skills have taken him all over the world — and become a staple of the Iowa City food community.
The 47-year-old traces his culinary skills to his childhood. He was born in Morocco and grew up in France, and his mom — who nannied for a wealthy family — always let him help out while she was cooking.
And to Chehouani, that person-to-person, family atmosphere is important to instill at his café, while cooking, and beyond.
He invites his workers over for Sunday meals and teaches his two kids — ages 6 and 4 — how to prepare the perfect crêpe or Moroccan dish. He traveled often to and from Morocco to visit his father, who has Alzheimer’s, until the coronavirus pandemic made international travel both a financial strain and a public health risk. He’d cook his dad his favorite dishes — which often included fish — to curate a sense of home. Even while on vacation, he’d find ways to connect with others through his cuisine. On his last trip to Mexico, Chehouani said, another chef asked him into the kitchen — and Chehouani couldn’t resist.
First drawn to the U.S. to pursue a dream in modeling and acting — he did three years of cinema work abroad — Chehouani said he never imagined he’d open a crêperie. He crisscrossed the country from Chicago to Los Angeles in search of modeling and acting work in the early 2000s. But unexpected costs — hundreds of dollars worth of makeup, for example — prompted him to reconsider that career path. He moved to the Quad Cities before landing in Iowa City and deciding to stay.
“I did acting, I did modeling, I did all kinds of stuff, but I always came back to the cooking,” he said. “I decided, ‘This is my roots.’ ”
In the mid-2000s, he set up a cart on the Iowa City Ped Mall selling crêpes in the morning and kebabs in the evening, but he wanted to take the next step. In 2009, he opened Crêpes De Luxe, which serves a variety of savory and sweet crepes artfully designed with sweeping strokes of glazes and sauces.
Monica Moen, owner of hotelVetro in Iowa City, met Chehouani while he served kebabs and crepes on the Ped Mall. She describes Chehouani as kind, compassionate and dedicated to going above and beyond what he promises.
The two families formed a quick and lasting friendship soon after meeting. She’s ordered catering from Chehouani for events at hotelVetro, fundraisers and other events. She even traveled to Morocco with Chehouani for a family visit, and they attended an international jazz festival.
She said she recognizes his dedication and compassion — it’s what her family instilled in her, too.
“As a child of immigrants to America, I see his incredible resilience and commitment to offering people the best that he can provide,” Moen said.
His restaurant is one of several Black-owned Iowa City businesses that have seen a boost from Black Lives Matter movements after campaigns such as the July 7 #BlackoutTuesday. Posters outside his business read “Black Lives Matter,” “Black owned business” and “say their names.”
To Chehouani, the support is offsetting fallout from the pandemic — his café is receiving more publicity and he’s seeing a small jump in sales.
But he has to ask — why now? As a Black immigrant, Chehouani said he has faced what at times seemed like insurmountable barriers to opening and maintaining his business. While he appreciates the support, he says he wishes it wouldn’t have had to come in response to killings of Black people.
“(The support) is amazing. That is helping us with our name, we are getting advertisements, we’re getting support from a lot of people. But why now? Why not before like everybody else? Why didn’t we get this help a long time ago?”
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