Zizi Hattab’s soul kitchen

The future of cooking has the kind, tenacious smile of Zineb “Zizi” Hattab. Ten years ago she left a safe salary as a software engineer in Lichtenstein to embrace her passion for cooking. After training with some of the world’s top chefs, today the guests of her two restaurants Kle and Dar, in Zurich, swear they can taste the love in the delicious plant-based meals she prepares.

Hi Zizi. What’s on the menu today?

Every day we have seasonal vegetables. At the moment we have beets, carrots, potatoes and cabbage. All of this survives winter in Switzerland. It’s good for creativity.

How did you decide to stick to regional food?

We could fly in anything from around the world—passion fruit, pineapples— but choose not to. I really like to know who grows our products. Some of our suppliers we’ve known for a long time, others get recommended by someone we trust, others knock at our door to show us what they have. Then there’s Alessandro, my sous-chef, who enjoys going on long bike rides: sometimes he sees a farm somewhere, stops to have a look and ends up making a connection.

You and your partners opened Kle in January 2020, right before the beginning of the pandemic in Europe. Did this make things more difficult?

When you make a business plan you don’t expect to have a pandemic. So, yes, it was a shock, but it also gave us the opportunity to figure out what we really wanted to do. Luckily in Switzerland we received a lot of financial support, so we used that time to rework our menu based on the feedback we had received from guests in our first months open. We are quite stable now, but it’s going to take a while before we are really back to normal.

Is it complex to run a vegan restaurant?

Chemically, animal products like sashimi or a steak give a kind of satisfaction that is hard to receive from vegetables alone, so we need to work a bit harder. We were lucky because, since the day we opened, people who have walked into our restaurant have been interested in what we do and surprised to find not just the classic avocado toast on the menu, but things they did not even know were vegan. It was like sharing our philosophy with them.

​Zineb “Zizi” Hattab was born in Barcelona to Moroccan parents and grew up in Spain. She worked with Andreas Caminada in Fürstenau, Massimo Bottura in Modena, the Roca brothers in Girona, Josean Alija in Bilbao and Daniela Soto-Innes in New York. She owns and operates two restaurants in Zurich: Kle, a former neighbourhood restaurant that she opened in 2020, and Dar, a Moroccan restaurant that she took over in 2021. Also in 2021, French restaurant guide Gault Millau assigned 15 points to her kitchen.

Do you think we are all going vegan in the near future?

Every purchase we make, we’re putting money in a certain box, and if this box doesn’t have such a bad impact on the place in which we live, then it’s better. In the future I don’t think we are all going to be vegan, but it’ll be more normal to eat less meat or to buy it at the farmer’s next door, instead of at the supermarket.

You were born in Barcelona to Moroccan parents and now live in Zurich. Which role does each of these cultural influences play in your work as a chef? 

Everywhere I’ve been is a part of me. Morocco is my roots. Spain is where I grew up. Italy was a strong influence. Then New York was a big change in my mindset. My food is my journey, I take the best of everything. I don’t like to put labels or limit myself. I mix all these influences and change all the time.

How do you juggle your work and your family life? 

I was raised in a traditional family and was expected to get married early and have children. It was a personal choice to break with that pattern and follow what I love. And I’m very lucky to have a partner that supports me. I think everyone should get their own chance at doing what they love. Many in our generation have been raised to fulfil someone else’s wishes. I hope that the next generations can put an end to this.

Name one thing that you learned from each of the chefs you worked with.

From Massimo Bottura the importance of art and being exposed to other fields. From Andreas Caminada precision and never being satisfied. From Daniela Soto-Innes the importance of self-care. If you give, give, give, you get drained. I love my job so much that it doesn’t feel like work, but I make a point of switching off to read and exercise three or four times a week. I tell my team to do the same. My sous chef is a triathlete, but we also have a professional skier and many other people who are into sports. It’s a way for all of us to be happier and mentally present.

What’s your favourite moment during your daily routine as a chef?

When I step back for a second and see that the team is doing great without me.

Talking about your previous career as a software engineer, is there anything in the way computers operate that you apply in your daily work in the kitchen?

The operational side is very different. As a software engineer, you’re sitting all day in front of your laptop and a project can last for a year. In the kitchen, you’re always on your feet, cooking, and delivery time is today. But the mentality is the same. When software doesn’t work, you have to change something. The same happens with a recipe. It’s about problem solving.

V-ZUG is your technology partner in the kitchen. Which appliances do you have and how do they make your work easier?

I have two V-ZUG ovens at Kle: a Combi-Steam XSL and a Combair SLP. It’s good to have both of them because depending on the menu we may need one in steamer mode and the other one on dry. The combination also works very well for pastry. They are great and don’t take up a lot of space in the kitchen, which is good, because our kitchen is very small.

Do you think kitchens have changed compared to the model that Anthony Bourdain exposed in his 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential?

In restaurants most of the chefs are still alpha males, who surround themselves with more alpha males. It is very much a white, male-dominated world, but I believe the overall mentality is changing: new generations are less tolerant of bad behaviour and are much more sensitive to each other’s feelings. I also have male chefs, but they’re all very much in touch with their emotional intelligence. We are here to support each other. When everybody pushes each other up, the whole team improves.

Does this attitude also reflect in the food you serve?

Our customers always say that they can taste the love in the food. I believe it. We put much more effort into the food being tasty than trendy, and I guess people can feel it. It touches their heart.

Zizi knows how to sprinkle her recipes with a little bit of extra love. From dry herbs to local flowers and exotic seeds, take a look at the spices she uses more often to leave her guests in awe.

CUMIN These seeds can be used whole or ground to give an earthy, aromatic character to any recipe. Zizi uses cumin to marinate vegetables before grilling. It smells like home to her, as it gives her food a Moroccan touch. MINT An amazing herb in every way, its leaves have a fresh, aromatic flavour with a cool aftertaste. Zizi uses it for sweet and savoury dishes, hot drinks and cocktails, and loves a big fresh handful of mint inside her tea, Touareg-style. CARDAMOM Strong and resinous, cardamom has a unique flavour within the spice cabinet. Zizi first tasted it at the house of an Indian high-school friend and immediately fell in love. Today she uses it in pastry and ice cream. TARRAGON One of the four herbs of French cooking, it brings a distinct, surprising flavour to any dish, although Zizi recommends using it in a measured way. She especially loves it fresh in salads or blended to make a vinaigrette. TURMERIC Tasty, colourful, extremely nutritious and with known health benefits, turmeric tastes a bit like mustard and adds a slightly bitter flavour to any dish. Zizi adds it to soups, tagines, custards, rice dishes and dry rubs. CORNFLOWER A flower native to Europe, its raw or dried petals grow in the wild and can be used to garnish salads, drinks or desserts. Zizi appreciates it for both its beautiful colour and subtle floral flavour.