In Memoriam | Abdel Karim Chhibbane: 1958-2022In Memoriam | Sat Mar 11, 2023 | 9:37am
Karim Chhibbane was born in the Atlas Mountains outside of Marrakech, a member of the ethnic group known as Berbers, the first people of Morocco. When we first met, in 1980, I asked him how old he was, but he wasn’t sure. At the time of his birth, no records were kept for the people who were born and died in those mountain villages.
He’d come to Marrakech to learn English in the American school, and I spent many days in the souk at his small carpet shop, a trade he learned from his father. He already knew how to speak English quite well when we met, but I helped him get better through our conversations. People frequently came from the embassy in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to Karim’s shop for rugs, the finest in the souk, and he did much business with these clients.
Karim became my teacher when I started buying Moroccan carpets. I bought many of his special pieces, and I still treasure them. He visited me at my home in Ibiza, and we once drove from Barcelona to Amsterdam. Every day on that trip, he’d walk around just meeting and talking to all sorts of people.
On Friday nights, we would go to the French part of Marrakech to visit his favorite restaurant. They had such great wine, and we always finished a bottle or two. One time, we drank so much that, though I’m not sure how, we ended up back at his shop in the souk. We frantically measured, priced, and boxed up more than 200 pieces. The next day, we took them through customs at the airport and sent them off.
A few days later, I was back in Los Angeles, ready to receive the carpets and take them through customs. They all arrived in great shape, but one critical component was missing: Being a bit drunk that night, we’d forgotten to put the prices and sizes on all of the carpets! So I had to measure and price each one yet again. Only then could I bring the carpets home.
Would you believe that Karim was one of the toughest guys in Marrakech? He was really into karate, and his conditioning was amazing — all muscle. I used to have T-shirts made in Ibiza and then take them to Morocco to sell. Once, a guy in Marrakech wanted all of them to sell but then decided he didn’t want to pay me. After a few days of going back to the guy’s house and returning with no money, I told Karim. “I’ll come with you,” he said. When that man saw Karim, he suddenly had my money. Everyone seemed to know about Karim.
I visited his house many times for dinner. He learned to cook from his mother, as did his two brothers and two sisters, and he also studied in France. What fantastic meals we had! Couscous, tagine, lemon chicken, and much more. You would always leave his house stuffed. That’s one reason you could later find me at his restaurant in Santa Barbara every Friday night, sitting by myself and enjoying couscous with beautiful belly dancers to watch. They would remind me of how Karim always had a lady with him in Marrakech.
In the mid-1980s, Karim finally decided to come to California. I’d brought him over a few months earlier to see if he’d like it. He loved it. He arrived with his wife, Atika. They eventually had a son, Adam, who is in his mid-thirties. When they divorced, Karim took Adam to the San Fernando Valley. That’s where he met Kathy, whose son, Allie, attended school with Adam. Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, they moved to Santa Barbara.
Together, Karim and Kathy opened Chef Karim’s in Victoria Court in 1996, enjoying nearly 15 years of success. I could never believe my eyes when seeing the lines of people waiting to get in on weekend nights. People came all the way from Los Angeles just to eat his food. That sure put wide smiles on our faces.
Unfortunately, restaurants in Santa Barbara tend to come and go. Chef Karim’s closed in 2010 when the customers stopped coming, and he was hurt. He found work managing UCSB’s many campus restaurants for a while, but he was never very happy there.
Then he met a man who offered him a 50 percent stake in a restaurant. Where? Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places. Karim moved to Lincoln and helped build the place. But it never really took off and soon closed down too.
Karim moved back to Southern California, where he was with friends when his heart gave out on December 24 of last year. He was just 64 years old. Karim’s son, Adam, took his body back to Marrakech, where he was buried on February 6.
We all lost a very special friend, and I lost my brother.
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