La Mamounia’s latest costume looks as stylish as ever, and more than ready to hang out in the post-covid sun, writes Andrew Harris
If, like me, you are a bit fond of grand dame hotels, La Mamounia in Marrakech will suck you in in the blink of an eye. The never-ending celebrity appeal that dates back to its inception in 1923 often cites Winston Churchill as a staunch admirer. Looking towards the pink-hued Atlas Mountains, he pointed out to Franklin D Roosevelt, whom he had drawn there after the Casablanca conference of 1943, that he thought it was “the most beautiful place. of the whole world”.
Hitchcock was also enamored enough to shoot his 1956 thriller, The man who knew too much, at the property, Churchill, was the man who knew a surprisingly opulent grand hotel when faced with one.
La Mamounia has undergone several transformations since its first deco-orientalist incarnation, and the hotel has taken advantage of the year 2020 of the dangerous life, where Morocco was quick to apply strict countermeasures against the covid, to undertake its latest design overhaul of the JouinManku studio based in Paris.
Confined in common areas, it is inaugurating two new dining areas under the supervision of the famous New York chef of Alsatian origin Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku have built a stellar reputation for surprisingly imaginative conceptual design. I had met them before at the launch of an intensively designed cruise ship (a supposedly billion dollar ship) that set sail amidst spectacular examples of their work. They were back at La Mamounia for its relaunch. Just like Jean-Georges and Pierre Hermé; for many, the quintessential pastry chef in the world.
The legend of La Mamounia begins with a garden; The 20 acre secret oasis of serenity that still sits behind the hotel. A wedding gift from Sultan Mohamed III to his son Prince Moulay Mamoun at the 18the century (hence the name of the hotel), this timeless corner of horticultural paradise includes 700-year-old olive trees, 5,000 rose bushes, imposing date palms and a vast arsat (kitchen garden).
Birds at the perfect height chirp through the shifting rays of sunlight as if they were rehearsing for the ornithological Mercury Music Awards.
The gardens remain the heart, if not the soul, of the hotel. In recent times, luxury hotel brands have struggled to establish themselves in the emerging cool capital of North Africa. But with the Koutoubia Mosque and the famous mad scrum of Jemaa el-Fnaa, just a few steps away, La Mamounia, contentedly spread out in the center of Marrakech, has its prime mover advantage as a birthright. .
While the tradition and impeccable service standards of the 600 employees are ingrained in the hotel’s DNA, Jouin and Manku introduced a design motif capable of speaking to the Instagram generation without disrupting all the old-fashioned glamor of the hotel. ‘Omar Sharif.
The lights are “redesigned to stay forever suspended in an endless present”, while “everything must change so that everything can stay the same” (in fact lifted from that of Di Lampedusa, the leopard). There is, however, no doubt about their ability to create spellbinding spaces and, as was so succinctly demonstrated at La Mamounia, to successfully integrate them into existing spaces.
Pierre Hermé’s tea room has acquired one of their brands extraordinary objects, a huge glass chandelier suspended above the soft murmurs of a new fountain. The simplicity of light and water embedded in Islamic architecture, explains Sanjit, was fundamental in their inspiration for La Mamounia.
The former Churchill Bar, now transformed into a smaller but seductive and sensual space, worshiping everything related to champagne and caviar, allows the creation of a 20-seat cinema. Marrakech and its surroundings have long been a prime filming location, with ‘The Churchill’ becoming a networking night honeymoon during the Marrakech Film Festival.
In his increasingly successful 20th year, the big Hollywood beasts he constantly attracts are now just one step away from a lavishly appointed screening room.
The spectacular 28-meter by 28-meter pool slab exudes an unassailable aquatic allure from its expansive green setting. As for the majestic spa and hammam (larger than the average for boutique hotels), design pinches and folds are postponed for the moment.
The poolside pavilion, however, where guests, around a shady breakfast or lunch, study their comrades across the water, who casually study them back, is sprinkled of JouinManku fairy dust.
Another huge chandelier hovers above the lava stone gas stations, towering over an elegant space that wouldn’t look out of place in an Emirati palace. Antechamber, showcase of Pierre Hermé’s talents, the “sugar temple”, as Sanjit calls it, synergizes the creativity of Hermé and JouinManku while the perfection of the pastry is placed on copper hammered by hand like Bond St.
Next to the swimming pool, three imposing structures resembling giant lanterns immediately catch the eye. Unmasked as nothing more mysterious than super stylish spaces of shaded seclusion, they form a dramatic demarcation between the pool and the property in which guests can also dine discreetly. An underground area below becomes a wine library, where up to 12 guests can stage a private assault on some of the world’s most coveted wines.
But the meat of the 2020 re-design sandwich is undoubtedly the famous cook and his two restaurants: L’Assie, specializing in Southeast Asian cuisine, and an Italian restaurant, L’Italien. Seven years spent cooking in the Far East where, as a young chef, he evokes a “gastronomic epiphany”, is as much the hallmark of the work of Jean-Georges Vongerichten as the previous seven years of training in the French culinary art. This is a French chef, not necessarily guaranteed to be accompanied by a French restaurant.
“In a way, I felt like French cuisine was meant to blend in with Asian cuisine,” he explains to me in a hastily summoned conversation. Indeed, from Jean-Georges, his flagship Manhattan restaurant and one of only four in NY to boast of four coveted New York Times stars, he is perhaps the most prominent representative of Franco-Asian fusion. Does he still consider himself an arbiter of French haute cuisine? “I am a citizen of the world”, he replies, followed by “a cook of the world”.
And he certainly is that. The Asian and The Italian, where covid constraints meant Vongerichten coordinated their installation by Zoom, represent restaurants 40 and 41 in a burgeoning global food empire. He admits that in normal times, nearly a third of his life is spent on travel, but from which he is constantly inspired. When he announced that he had been busy preparing a 17-course menu for us for that evening’s inaugural dinner at L’Italien, it seemed right and appropriate to encourage his seemingly limitless energy towards the stove.
All lingering worries about overworked top chefs spending too much time in the air instead of in the kitchen vaporized somewhere between class one and two as “the world’s cook” dug deep into his craft. to offer truly superlative cuisine. At L’Italien, Jouin and Manku have created a delightfully uplifting and light-infused space around an open kitchen that blends seamlessly into the adjacent gardens.
At L’Assie, they opened up the original Moroccan backdrop and allowed their sophisticated design skills to reshape the room into a gorgeous and irrepressibly romantic oriental restaurant.
Patrick Jouin had previously indicated that a primary ambition at La Mamounia had been to match the standards that Jean-Georges set for himself. He can sleep peacefully.
La Mamounia’s latest costume looks as stylish as ever, and more than ready to hang out in the post-covid sun.
Rates at La Mamounia start at MAD 5,500 (£ 450) pn in a classic Hivernage room. www.mamounia.com
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