Simo Zbiri / Sommelier
"Life pays you back for the love and energy you put into it."
Born in Kenitra, Morocco, Simo Zbiri’s appreciation of wine and flavoursome food began at an early age. He also developed an early interest in style, and an appetite for life, thanks to having a wine connoisseur for a father, whom the young Simo took as a role model. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Simo became a sommelier, nor that he turned his knowledge, passion and palate into a way of life. He now runs two restaurants and is launching two wines of his own. His love of life fills him with drive, and fuels his desire to share his pleasures with everyone in the hope of delighting their senses. His life's motto: Do whatever you do with love, and do it because you love it. Otherwise it’s bullshit.
Interview by Siji Jabbar Photography by Jerome de Lint
Were you born a sommelier? I think so. I was tasting wine at nine. My dad was a wine connoisseur, and if there was any left in his glass when he left the table, I’d knock it straight back. My mum was an amazing cook – even better than my grandmother: French cuisine, Moroccan cuisine, a fusion of all sorts of spices and flavours. I didn’t even know what a sommelier was when I arrived in the Netherlands, but my palate was already well developed.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in a city called Kenitra, which is about 40km north of Rabat. The Americans had set up a navy and air force base there in the forties, and didn’t leave till the late 70s. And we’d previously been colonised by the French, so we grew up with an incredible mix of influences: vinyl, Elvis Presley, the blues, rock and roll, and surfing. I’m from Kenitra, but also from Mehdia Beach, and my life has been hugely influenced by beach culture. I’m a surfer; we all were. It’s one of the reasons I’m moving back; I miss the ocean.
How would people have described you as a child? Always friendly. My mum still remarks that no one ever came knocking to complain about me. I liked people, and liked having fun; I was a comic and a dreamer. I had no idea what I was going to be when I grew up, but I knew I’d always have fun. Just be who you are from the time you are a kid, and you won’t be afraid of life.
Your dad played quite a central role in your life. Tell us about him. He’s an amazing dandy; he’s always been an impressively sharp dresser. Nobody fucks with you when you dress that stylishly. Everything was always just so. Even his socks and underwear were ironed. But the main things for him were work, sports and family; and having friends over, or going over to friends’ places. Every Saturday. It was very social, adults together, kids together. The adults really dressed up for the occasion. And the cooking was serious – amazing food. At some point in the evening, the musical instruments would come out. My father is from the south, where you had this quite distinctive folk music, and the common instrument was this small drum. So you’d have about 15 people playing in synchrony. Tak, tak tak tak, tak, tak tak tak. And the tempo would rise and rise to a furious pace. Meanwhile, the women would be accompanying the men with song, singing about the prophet, about life — it was beautiful.
And how did your dad influence you? He had a strong personality. He was the chief of police, and later headed the border police at the airport. He was severe, so you didn’t mess with him or mess up at school, but he gave you all his love. I have two older sisters, but I think he was always waiting for a son, and once I came along, he had a best friend. He’s been the biggest influence in my life, and I’ve always had so much respect for him.
You studied literature. Why that? My parents weren’t rich, so I couldn’t go to the sort of university that offered lots of options. So I thought, well, I love French, English and literature, so I’ll do French and English literature. Languages are always useful.
You left to move to Amsterdam at the age of 25 anyway. Why? Things started to change in the mid-nineties. The regime became more conservative, society became less open-minded, people got stressed and all the elegance from my father’s generation tailed off. So the younger generation started leaving, heading off in all directions: San Francisco, Miami, Dubai, South of France, Australia. I know hardly anyone that stayed.
Why Amsterdam? I was actually considering California, because of surfing. That’s where most of my friends went. But I also had friends here, and we always had this idea of Amsterdam as an open-minded city. So Amsterdam it was.
How did your family feel about you leaving? My father got depressed. You don’t really have words for depression in Africa, but he was depressed for a year. He lost his appetite. When I told my parents two months ago that I was coming back home, he started to cry. He said, “I’ve been waiting for this day since you left.”
Your first job in Amsterdam was with the Intercontinental Hotels Group. Why hotels? I had two job offers before I arrived: one from Nike and one from the hotel group. I’m good with people so I chose the latter. I’m a born salesman. In high school, I used to buy imported clothes from wholesalers to sell to my friends. I had my little notebook. Buy a shirt for €3 and sell it for €15. Got no money now? No problem. Pay me when you can. We fished and dived for octopus during summer, and sold our catch to fishermen. You’re a salesman or you aren’t. They gave me this crib sheet when I started at the hotel group: Good morning, Reservations! Blah blah blah. Forget it. I’d pick up the phone and have a great conversation, walking and talking at the same time. And I kept hitting my targets, so they kept promoting me.
And this was where your wine education began? I had to visit hotels across Europe, Middle East and Africa. And I’d get a tour of each hotel and talk to the staff about what they did. But I always caught the attention of the sommeliers. We’d have a wine tasting and be talking about wine, and they’d always ask: are you a sommelier? So one day a sommelier I was meeting for the second time said: dude, you really should do something with your knowledge and palate. So that’s where it began: wine-tastings and placements.
Why did you interrupt this to move into the restaurant business? I already had the idea of combining food and wine, but I didn’t have a clue about setting up a restaurant. Fortunately, a good friend of mine was about to open a Moroccan restaurant, and he asked me to join him. Perfect. I quit the hotel group and began managing Mamouche. We did everything together: wake up early, go to the market to buy ingredients for the day, decide the recipes with the chefs, serve the food, organise the staff, wine pairing, everything. So my education in wine and food continued, and it was the best education I could have wished for.
When a wine distribution company asked me to be its full-time sommelier, I left the restaurant. From then on it was wine all day, every day. We travelled, imported Moroccan wines and sold to Michelin-starred restaurants. Having worked at Mamouche, I knew how wine salesmen operated when they came to us, so I knew how not to sell your wine. I’d take restaurateurs for dinner and make sure we’re having a good time, so that when I said I had a wine that would be perfect for them, they were all ears. It was great fun, but the dream was always to own my own restaurant.
What makes a good sommelier? Love. I get lots of people coming to see me at Thirty5ive because they want to become sommeliers. And I always say, that’s fine, but you need to have something already. It can’t just be that you like the idea of being a sommelier and think taking some courses will make you one. It’s your nose, your eyes, your palate, your heart and memory. Just taste, and feel it. Love it. I feel the same about whatever you do in life: do it with love, and do it because you love it. Otherwise it’s bullshit.
What was the concept for Thirty5ive? I envisaged Thirty5ive as a place for wine lovers that served amazing food to go with the wine. So we have crazy dishes: small portions with lots of flavour. We might pour you four different wines, both white and red, and I’ll suggest you try a bit of this dish with that wine, and a bit of that with this one. This idea that you should only drink red or white with certain dishes makes no sense. That’s all in your head. A restaurant isn’t just a place to visit, order, eat, say thank you and leave. It’s a place where people connect, share, talk and enjoy food, wine and music. This is life, and this is how it should be. There’s this beautiful Moroccan saying that goes: a beautiful person is beautiful for others; the ugly person is ugly for himself.
If you’re negative all the time, no one gives a shit. Of course life is full of struggle, too, but I don’t dwell on things that don’t work out. I just move on.
Speaking of struggles, starting a first business is often a daunting prospect. What doubts or hurdles did you have to overcome? None. Zero doubts. And I have this with every decision I take. Start and go for it. I’m an entrepreneur. In fact, we set up Thirty5ive and Eastside, the brunch place, at the same time, and were planning to open place number three. I had the concept and everything, but I didn’t have the right people. You cannot do things by yourself. You need a team with the same ambition, so you can grow together.
The restaurant business isn’t easy, though. Any downsides? You can easily become a slave to it. It’s very hard work, so big respect to everyone in the business. You have to keep the quality of what you’re doing high. Every day. Not just today and relax tomorrow. So you have to have real passion for it. And if you want to take the business to the next level… pfft. I sometimes find myself lying in bed thinking, oh my God. But within five minutes, something kicks in: get up motherfucker. Move! Nobody else is going to kick your arse; you have to do that yourself.
So what would you say makes a good entrepreneur? The ability to push yourself. You have this image of the person that you want to be, and you have to go for it completely. And it’s a journey. Actually in the end, you don’t turn out to be that person you imagined, because you just go and go until you die. You want to keep being better than you were yesterday. This morning, for instance, I was up at seven. Went to the office to check on something. The weather was good, so I went for a run. Then had a shower just before you arrived. Everything is calculated. Once thinking like this becomes routine, time becomes the most precious thing in your life.
Where does this drive come from, do you think? I think it has something to do with wanting to get as much out of life as possible before it’s gone. It’s not that you’re scared of death, but you’re aware that it is there. So you have to grab life from the moment you open your eyes.
I pray twice a day – before bed and when I wake up. And I pray because I’m really thankful that I’m still here. It’s a beautiful new day, a new journey in your life. And once you feel this every day, things come to you.
I had a near miss about three years ago. Amsterdam-Casablanca. The plane dropped suddenly and repeatedly, and the oxygen masks came down. Everyone went quiet. There was an old Moroccan woman next to me. I grabbed her hand and said look at me. Pray with me. And we prayed, looking straight into each other’s eyes. I told her: it’s okay. I had a huge smile on my face. This is it, I thought. This is how easily your life ends, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Scream? Cry? I was praying to thank God for everything. The plane landed and bounced three times. And as soon as it was clear that we were safe, I thought to myself: it’s a new life. Don’t waste it. Whatever you’ve got, enjoy it now. Tomorrow you might be dead, gone in a second. That’s why I’m not a wine collector.
Speaking of wine, you’re launching one of your own soon. Why? Two, actually. Wine is a way of life, and my life would be boring without wine. Wine is natural, and it’s physical. I don’t see myself doing anything else but getting bigger and bigger in the wine business.
I already have two vineyards waiting for my return, and a third I’m in talks with. The local farmers know about the local wines and grapes, but I’ve been exposed to wines from everywhere. And I want to take this knowledge home. I already have ideas about some wines I’d like to mix, and what spices I’d like to add, how I’d like to oak it, and I can already taste what I have in mind.
Will your wines ever be perfect? That’s the challenge. Everyone has his own palate. It’s like using different colours to make a painting. It’s really an art. And it’s organic.
Art comes from within, and so criticism can sometimes feel personal. How do you take criticism? You learn from honest criticism, but if someone’s just fucking with you… People who know nothing about food or wine can ruin your life without thinking. People like that, I don’t want at Thirty5ive. I know what I’m doing, I trust my judgement, and I trust my staff. Competition is good, too. Keeps you on your toes.
The wine and restaurants make sense, but you’re also getting involved in a solar panel business in Morocco. Where does that fit in? It could be solar panels it could be something completely different. It’s just sales. Give me the product and I’ll inhale it and sell it. So this just came my way, and I thought why not. Let’s go. And I know that once I’m in Morocco, something else will come my way. But wine and food are my heart. The rest is just business. You have to do something to reach something; it’s a bridge, and you need these bridges in business.
Despite the Dutch reputation for open-mindedness, the indigenous Dutch haven’t generally welcomed Moroccans with open arms. Has being Moroccan ever been a liability in your time in the Netherlands? No. I love this country: liberal, peaceful people, on the whole, but I just don’t understand the attitude to life. And I stopped trying to understand a few years ago.
This country is open-minded, but not as open-minded as everybody likes to believe. There’s always this opposition to Moroccans, Turkish people, Surinamese, etc. When I arrived I started to notice this and I thought: fine. I’m going to reach the level I want to reach, and I’m going to do it without speaking Dutch. It was because of this opposition. And then you get into a million discussions with people about this as you try to explain the what, why and how. Until I realised, this is never-ending. So I started telling people: I’m successful and I don’t want to speak Dutch. How about that? Your greatest asset in this business is the person that you are, and that has nothing to do with speaking Dutch. I have my friends, my family, and my people … you become selective about whom you do anything with.
Is this why you’re going back home? There’s no place like Amsterdam but the more comfortable I feel here and the more I love the city, the more I miss my country. You can’t have everything. To have the life I will have in Morocco, I had to pass through Amsterdam. If I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have the life I’m going to have now. But I’ve never forgotten where I’m from for a second, and I know where I’m going.
Everyone that left is now returning, including all eighteen of in my WhatsApp group. Getting old with your people, in your own country. Amazing. We’re going home — our parents are done and the country needs us, our city needs us.
When did you decide? The decision’s been looming for the past eight months. I was about to step into yet another business. Some other friends wanted to set up two restaurants, and had asked me to join them. I was already getting excited, but then I caught myself just in time. What am I doing, I thought. Who is here? Nobody. Just me. My mum is sick, my dad is getting old, I’m getting older and I want to start a family; something goes off in your head and suddenly you want to become a father. I need to pass this love and energy on to someone. And my son or daughter will pass it on. And just like that, I needed to go home. And the moment you go with life, life rewards you. The moment I decided, my wife-to-be was there, and the solar opportunity arrived. It has to do with energy and love. Life pays you back for the love and energy you put into it. I really believe this.
What does the future look like? Well, I already know what I’ll be doing in ten years. I’ll have a farm to grow my own fruit and veg. And on the farm I’ll have a vegetarian restaurant that serves fresh, seasonal food. It’s going to be close to the ocean, so it’ll be vegetarian but with seafood. I’ll have a small vineyard for producing my natural wine. Small bungalows in the middle of the vineyard for my bed and breakfast. This is where and how I’ll retire, as a farmer. Land Rover, surfboards, family, earth, cooking, having people over. I want to reach a level where my friends and everyone in the family is okay, and my life and work are okay. That’s it. That’s the last stop. Farming surfer dude.
What would surprise someone who knew you when you were 10? Nothing. I see people who knew me when I was ten, and they always say I haven’t changed. I have the same smile. We have dinner, catch up. I get a hug; I love you man; you haven’t changed a bit. I am what I am, and I’m never going to change.
What advice would you give anyone considering the leap into the uncertainty of self-employment? Don’t be scared. Just do it with all your heart. Do it with love. If you fail, do something else. It’s supposed to be like that; business is like gambling. But you have to give it everything you’ve got. I studied a lot. But if you ask me, I learned from life. Learning has to come out of interest.
Finally, you can share a meal and a bottle of wine at one of your restaurants with any figure from history, or anyone currently living. Who would you choose, and why? My father. No doubt. I would live to have that with him. And I will. He stopped drinking years ago. He went to Mecca, and he stopped. But I’m going to make it happen. He’s my father.