Meet the Secret Weapon Behind Portland’s Hottest Restaurant
To make the magic that is Tusk’s Middle Eastern menu, chef Sam Smith calls on Mehdi Boujrada of specialty food retailer Villa Jerada.
Ask chef Sam Smith about the vibrant dishes at Tusk in Portland, Oregon, (one of our Restaurants of the Year), and you’ll hear the same name come up again and again: Mehdi Boujrada.
He’s the founder, owner and sometimes delivery guy behind Villa Jerada, a Seattle-based online retailer of spices, condiments and oils sourced from his native Morocco.
15 years ago, the dream of living in MTV-ified America led Boujrada to quit business school and wait tables at his half-brothers’ Italian restaurants in Portland.
But the subpar supermarket versions of harissa and other Moroccan staples pushed him to start researching better replacements and bring them back to his new home. It began with some initial legwork from his parents. His dad once got stuck in customs for hours, ferrying over a tagine. (“It”s glazed and just looks medieval,” says Boujrada. “It’s not Le Creuset.”) His mom stuffed olives, oranges, dried mint and semolina into carry-on suitcases when she visited.
“My humble culture has a very rich culinary and agricultural past, but ask anyone and they have no idea,” says Boujrada. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t we give value to the ingredient, which will give value to the cuisine itself?”
So Boujrada began calling his family and friends back home—saffron growers, olive oil makers—importing their products and convincing chefs to try his findings after knocking on restaurant doors. Mutual customers introduced Boujrada to Smith, and the bromance began.
“We’ve learned a lot from Sam since I didn’t grow up with a lot of spices, like sumac and how it tastes like cherries,” he says. “He told us about things, and we dug for it. It’s an interesting chemistry of learning and sharing.”
Now the two continue to collaborate on Smith’s biggest hit, Tusk, digging around for Moroccan treasures, like a new charmoula that recently launched on the site.
“We’re not trying to be hipster with everything cool, but we’re trying to make sure every single product is good,” says Boujrada.