“I’m just like…a food person,” laughs Sohla El-Waylly. “Maybe a breakfast aficionado? Ms. Breakfast?”
The multi-hyphenate food personality, speaking to me in a rare pocket of spare time (read: nap time), thanks to her new role as mother-of-one, finds it difficult to define herself.
“No, no,” she stops herself. “Today I’m an author!”
The LA-born chef, restaurateur, and YouTube personality was worn many hats over the last decade. After graduaring The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), El-Waylly worked at a number of Michelin-starred New York institutions (such as Atera and Del Posto) before opening a diner, Hail Mary, in Brooklyn in 2016.
“That was a really brief life, the restaurant,” she says, alluding to the struggles Hail Mary faced without the backing of outside investors, closing just eleven-months after it launched. “So I pivoted into food media.
“You know, you don’t learn a lot about how to cook in culinary school, but you do get some great networking.”
With stints at Serious Eats, Bon Appétit, Food52 and New York Times Cooking under her belt, Sohla El-Waylly was eventually able to secure the long-term goal; her very first cookbook, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, which hits shelves worldwide this week.
“I always wanted to make the book that I wish I had when I started,” she says.
With over 200 meticulously-crafted recipes, Start Here a comprehensive guide that caters to chefs of all levels, with a strong focus on skill-building.
“I really wanted to focus on technique because I’m a big nerd,” she laughs, “so this is for all my other fellow food nerds out there.
“If you really want to know about, you know, protein coagulation and fat matrices, this book is gonna give you that—and I feel like that was a hole in the market.”
The foreword written by the esteemed chef and author Samin Nosrat, who hails the book as the guide she wished she had when she began her own culinary journey.
Still, El-Waylly isn’t quite as bothered about chefs reading the book as the everyday home cook.
“The main thing I want people to take away from it isn’t a technique or a recipe,” she says. “I want them to leave knowing that it’s okay to mess up in the kitchen, that you should be comfortable with failing. I think that’s a thing that really hinders people’s growth and development when doing anything creative—but you’re gonna mess up. It’s just inevitable.
“You’ve gotta be confident and keep moving forward. Everyone who was ever good at anything started out terrible.”
Everyone, perhaps, bar El-Waylly herself.
Beyond the book, she continues to build a fanbase as a judge on the HBO Max series, The Big Brunch. Created and hosted by Dan Levy, this show champions undiscovered culinary talents, offering them a platform to share their stories while competing for a $300,000 cash prize.
“I really enjoyed my time at The Big Brunch,” says El-Wayly. “I really enjoyed seeing how Dan [Levy] is on set. He treats everyone with so much respect, he walks in and he says hello to everybody, so I learned a lot about how to be a good leader.”
The competition, centered around the magical brunching hours between 11am-3pm, put El-Waylly and fellow judge Will Guidara in the pivotal role in unearthing culinary gems.
“From hanging out with Will [Guidara], too, I learned about how to just be a good person,” she continues. “He’s just, like…
“He’s one of those people who looks at you and makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world. Whenever I interact with people now I tell myself, like, what would Will Guidara do? What would Dan Levy do? They’re just really good people, so it was so fun to be stuck next to them behind a booth for twelve hours a day.”
Her television journey didn’t stop there, either. In the History’s Channel’s Ancient Recipes with Sohla, El-Waylly dives into the historical origins of beloved dishes, recreating them using ancient cooking techniques and ingredients.
“Food is culture and culture is food. It’s kind of like—you know that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda is talking to the Anne Hathaway character about her blue sweater?”
Of course I do, I say. It’s the millennial woman’s Roman Empire. “Exactly!” she laughs.
“It’s not blue, it’s cerulean,” she falls into her best Meryl Streep impression. “It was first on this runway, years ago, and it trickled down into this whole thing…
“That’s kind of how food is,” she snaps back to Sohla. “You can’t eat a sandwich. thoughtlessly. Like someone figured out how to make this bread and turn it into this like industrial slice. There’s a history behind this smoked turkey breast and how Turkey is indigenous to America,” she trails off for a few minutes, deep into our shared passion.
“That’s what I love about food. That’s one of the main reasons I loved writing this book.”
With a second book inevitable (“thinking of the next one takes the stress away from launching this one!”), new breakfast-themed episodes of Ancient Recipes with Sohla being released, and a dedicated Breakfast Food Masterclass coming out in a few weeks (“apparently I’m like, the spokesperson for breakfast?”), it’s fair to say another exciting new chapter, ever-so-appropriately, starts here for Sohla El-Waylly.