Sohla El-Waylly Fights Her Self-Doubt in the Kitchen

Culture

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In a recent episode of the New York Times Cooking series Mystery Menu, Sohla El-Waylly and her husband, Ham El-Waylly, try to guess what sits inside a large paper bag. The duo must make a meal with one ingredient, in one hour. Sohla gently touches the bag and tilts her face. Maybe it’s a lobster claw? Too spongy, Ham points out. The answer comes to Sohla quickly. “Mushrooms?” she asks excitedly, her eyes widening and her smile growing bigger. Sure enough, she’s right.

Sohla El-Waylly is the expert here, but her enthusiasm makes the viewer feel like they’re in on the mystery. She’s deeply knowledgeable but not condescending, not just in this video, but also in her overall approach to food. She’s well-versed in the chemistry and careful attention that go into making complex dishes, both sweet and savory—but she’s more than happy to whip up a menu featuring Tajín as the star of the show.

For people who have been following the chef’s trajectory closely, El-Waylly’s career seems marked by two eras: before and after the 2020 Bon Appétit reckoning. Amid wider protests against racial inequality that year, people called for accountability across industries, including media. After Bon Appetit’s former editor in chief became embroiled in controversy, El-Waylly called for his resignation and spoke out about the ways in which she didn’t feel properly compensated, or recognized, for all her work at the magazine The internet lit up with support for her and the publication’s staff of color.

Fast forward three years, and cooking a mushroom-centric meal on Mystery Menu is just one of the many recent projects on El-Waylly’s plate. Her knack for experimentation resulted in series like Ancient Recipes with Sohla, on the History Channel and Stump Sohla on Andrew Rea’s channel, Binging with Babish. In 2022, El-Waylly was a judge on The Big Brunch, the cooking competition show created by Dan Levy; she also guest edited The Best American Food Writing 2022, focusing on stories that offered an entry point into larger cultural and political conversations. Even with all this momentum, El-Waylly still grappled with insecurities.

“I had this feeling that I was just getting these gigs because of this BA moment, you know, and that I didn’t really deserve it,” says El-Waylly. Her Big Brunch co-star, restaurateur Will Guidara, reassured her. “Will especially said something really poignant that sticks with me: Maybe I did get opportunities because of that, but I keep getting them because of how well I’m doing… It’s up to you to do the work and to do the work well, to continue getting opportunities.”

And that’s exactly what she did. In October, El-Waylly will release her first cookbook, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, with a foreword by Samin Nosrat and praise from Yotam Ottolenghi. It’s a fitting new project for someone who immersed herself in two major cookbooks growing up: Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and the 1988 cookbook At Home with the French Classics, by Richard Grausman.

“I’m here to teach you the way I’ve learned to cook, with nerdy deep dives and so much context behind the steps of every recipe,” she writes in the introduction for Start Here. The book guides readers through the basics, including how to cook through a recipe (“rely on sensory cues more than time cues”) and why measuring is vital to pastry cooking (“a heaped rather than level teaspoon of baking powder will totally F up your cake.”)

sohla el wayly photographed in studio in brooklyn, june 2023

Justin J Wee

The chef’s early teachers also get a shout-out in the cookbook: El-Waylly’s mom and Chef Erin McDowell of Apple Pie Bakery Cafe. In making raithas and cucumber salads, both cold prep dishes, she developed her palate with their guidance—long before she started developing her own recipes.

“I want people to know that you don’t magically overnight become good at something,” says El-Waylly. “And I feel like there’s this idea that it is easy and it happens fast because of the way food and a lot of things are portrayed on social media. So I want people to know that I sucked for a long time, and most people who are good at anything did.”

The book features sections called “What The Hell Happened?” at the bottom of especially difficult recipes, which the chef included based on questions that she gets often. The recipe for puff pastry includes questions like “Did the butter melt out of your pastry?” and “Did your pastry shrink after baking?” along with her advice on how to get a better result next time.

El-Waylly’s attention to detail comes through in the design of the book as well: The font is large and the numbers bold. On Instagram, El-Waylly calls herself a “bad reader,” explaining that the design choices are intended to make reading the book, while in the kitchen, much easier.

El-Waylly wants readers to feel like she’s coaching them through each recipe. She never wants to assume a reader’s skill level; in the book’s introduction, she says that knowing the “why” behind certain processes helped her learn what she knows today. Take, for instance, why the flavor of garlic depends on how you cut it: “When more of the cell walls are ruptured, the flavor becomes more intense, spicy, and pungent.”

I want people to know that you don’t magically overnight become good at something.”

Cooking is the bookend to her and Ham’s lives: a hobby, profession, collaboration and passion, all in one.

“All we do is talk about food, and our whole home is food,” says El-Waylly. “Like, there’s cookbooks behind me,” she says, referencing the shelf behind her, as we talk via Zoom. We turned our entire living room into a kitchen. Our second bedroom is more kitchen. We’re really set up to just explore food, 24/7. And since we are both in it, if one of us is kind of not in it, we can get the spark back through the other person.”

Just a few weeks before the book’s release, she marked another major milestone: welcoming their first child. Cooking was a major part of that process, too, this time through comfort TV. She and Ham rewatched Top Chef while she bounced on an exercise ball in the days leading up to the baby’s arrival—and they kept watching it during her 19 hours of labor.

When the baby was born, El-Waylly planned on taking six weeks off from work, but after “one week of staring at [the baby] nonstop,” she started dedicating her afternoons to work projects. Balance has become more important. In the summer of 2022, her schedule was so packed that she felt burned out and depressed. She’s been open about mental health before: Her “un-sad-myself-checklist” on Instagram includes ideas for how to try and get out of a period of feeling down.

Some days, El-Waylly feels like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. When those doubts cloud her vision, she tries to cook through them. “The only way to come back from it is to just go in the kitchen,” she says.

Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook: A Cookbook

Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook: A Cookbook

Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook: A Cookbook

Credit: Knopf
Headshot of Eva Recinos

Eva Recino’s work has appeared in LA Weekly, SF Weekly, ArtSlant, Complex, Hi-Fructose, PSFK and more.

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