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Sohla El-Waylly Is Cooking Through the Chaos

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Justin Wee

Sohla El-Waylly is in a funk right now, and she hopes that making pistachio macarons will get her out of it. “I’ve convinced myself I don’t know how to cook and that I’ve never known how to cook,” the chef, restaurateur and YouTube star tells me, Zooming in from her East Village apartment and bouncing her chatty seven-month-old daughter on her lap. It’s hard to imagine that El-Waylly, who taught viewers to cook a whole meal out of string cheese and once made a seven-course dining experience out of convenience store foods, could ever doubt her culinary prowess. But even the queen of the gastronomical puzzle questions herself sometimes.“I’m trying to make myself cook something new every day or something I haven’t made in a while, just to show myself, You can cook, what are you talking about? You’ve been doing this a long time.” The technically challenging macarons she’s making the day we speak – she’s using a Pierre Hermé recipe she used to love – are a bite-sized way to get her groove back.  

And it’s been a good groove. El-Waylly started her food career at the Culinary Institute of America in the late aughts and came up in the world of swanky New York City restaurants like Atera, Battersby, and Del Posto. She and her husband, fellow chef and restaurateur Ham El-Waylly, opened up the Brooklyn diner Hail Mary back in 2016. After the restaurant shuttered eleven months later, El-Waylly pivoted to food magazines, working at Serious Eats and later Bon Appetit, where she rose to prominence as the all-capable powerhouse of the test kitchen and famously exposed the publication’s systemic inequalities, including underpaying and undervaluing minority staff, before her resignation in 2020. 

El-Waylly has since forged a thriving and often whimsical solo career, including becoming a fixture at the New York Times Cooking channel, starring in Food52’s Off-Script With Sohla series, the History Channel’s Ancient Recipes with Sohla segment, and Babish Culinary Universe’s Stump Sohla series. The last few months have been a whirlwind for El-Waylly, who welcomed her daughter in September 2023 and released her bestselling cookbook Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook just one month later. (Does El-Waylly’s daughter know how good she’s eating? Absolutely not—most of her foods end up on the floor at the moment). The chef, who lives with her husband, daughter, their two dogs and one cat, is currently at work on her next cookbook and has been juggling the chaos of shoot days with the joys of motherhood. Here’s how she gets it done.

On being a new mom: 
I feel I’m finally settling into this life with a new person. It’s getting more fun because she can babble now. In the beginning all they do is scream at you, and she’s past that screaming-pooping phase, and she has a personality. She’s either very happy or very angry. She’s not a sad baby. She gets frustrated and has this angry grunt. I think she gets that from me. There’s still some screaming, but there’s smiles. There’s laughs. It’s really starting to hit that we have a child. It’s taken a long time.

On a typical morning routine: 
What’s really cool about my job is that there’s no routine and every day is pretty different. But the morning is the same, though the time it starts may vary. If it’s a normal day and I don’t have a shoot, the day might start around 7 a.m. But if there’s a shoot, probably around 5 a.m. The first thing we do is take care of the baby and feed her. Then we like to go on a little pack walk. We’re a sight to be seen: two dogs, two people, and now a stroller—the cat loves it when we all leave, then the home is hers. The pack walk is a really nice way to start the day, get the sun in your eyes and get a cup of coffee. Usually when I get home we try and get the baby down for a nap. I don’t eat right away. I’ll have a big quart of water with chia seeds and lemon juice, which is a habit I started when I was pregnant. (This is probably too much information, but when you get pregnant, you get constipated). It feels like I’m doing one good thing for myself.

On a typically atypical work day: 
The baby comes to a lot of things with us; we don’t have any childcare and trade her off. She joins me on all the meetings and shoots. I love shoot days. They start very early, and with her even earlier, because we have to get her ready to be a set baby. I also love workdays at home. During the day while watching her, I’ll usually be sitting on the floor next to her playmat or on my laptop writing recipes or doing research. I don’t get cooking until she gets down to sleep. It’s almost like I have a first workday and a second workday, and everything is interrupted by the baby. She’s the real boss now, so during her naps I might be able to squeeze in a workout or cook a quick recipe, but it’s a lot of computer stuff while she’s nearby. While she’s asleep, I’ll start recipe testing or shoot content. We initially tried to shoot content while she was awake, but you could hear all the baby sounds in the background. Our place is small.

On the ritual of family dinners: 
In the morning there’s baby stuff, then we have computer stuff. And at night we’re cooking, but it’s fine because we really like our work and don’t need to wind down from it. We try to always have dinner together. My husband’s opening a restaurant right now and his schedule is going to get crazy soon, so I don’t know how long we’ll be able to maintain that, but right now we like having dinner pretty early, around 5. The baby started eating solids. We have her in the high chair at the table with us and give her a mashed-up version of whatever we’re eating. She hates everything except meat and just wants to suck on a steak, so most of it ends up on the floor. It was just us before, and that’s fine, but something about having a baby at the table makes you feel like it’s a family now.

On the dish she can’t get enough of lately:
One of our favorite foods right now is this Japanese egg rice Ham makes. We prep out components to dishes, so we don’t ever really have completed meals in the freezer. He makes a big batch of tare; he’ll make or buy a bunch of bone broth, and you reduce it all the way down with soy sauce and get a really nice glaze situation. You can use it to glaze meat. But one of my favorite things is, he’ll cook rice, add the tare, and poach some eggs in there. It’s simple but comforting and fast. Or we’ll boil some soba and dip it in the tare and have a quick salad on the side. Our life revolves around bone broth in some form. If we don’t have it it feels like we don’t have food.

On the elusiveness of “making it”: 
I don’t think I’m ever going to make it. I just want to keep working. I don’t think I’m ever going to have that moment where I feel safe and secure. It almost feels like it’s going to slip away, that tomorrow everyone’s going to hate me and I’m not going to have work or know what to do or how to take care of this baby. It’s constant panic. I go to therapy for it. A big thing that’s impacted my life perspective is that I was briefly very broke. I was homeless for a little bit. It was really just a year, but that year of being hungry changed me. It was after that I got motivated and put everything into work. Being hungry like that can change you forever.

On superstition and (maybe) celebrating her wins: 
I’m really superstitious. I feel like if I celebrate something, something bad’s going to happen. That’s a bad thing. I got that from my parents. It’s an immigrant mentality: evil eye, touch wood, get happy about one thing, something else burns down. I would like to celebrate, maybe, but for the baby. We threw a big party when she started eating solids. I want to celebrate for her so she doesn’t have this stuff going on in her brain too.

On the advice she would give to her younger self: 
You can always learn something from anybody. You can learn from observing people around you. Everyone has something to teach you, even if it doesn’t feel related to your career path or goals. Pay attention. The people I’ve learned the most from weren’t even trying to teach me anything.

On throwing out the plan: 
A lot of people in culinary school or chefs I’ve worked with told me to have a plan. When I first started out, I had a goal to open a Michelin-star restaurant, and when I was chasing that, it led me to bad places and jobs I didn’t want to be in. When I let go of that plan and let life take me to interesting places and cool people, it got more interesting. So don’t worry about having a plan. It doesn’t matter. You’ll be OK. Just keep working.

On who helps her get it done:
The main person, number one, is my husband Ham. We’re partners in everything. We have a chat each night about what’s happening the next day and how we can support each other; we’re always trying to figure out how to help each other get things done. He’s the person I talk to if I’m working on a recipe. I’m working on my next book, and he’s the one I’m brainstorming concepts with, the person who shoots all my videos, who reads everything I write, who helps give me edits. We’re one person, basically.

Also my publicist, Hadley, and her team. We’re very good friends and she is my manager unofficially; the person I go to when I want advice on anything.  She has a smart, level-headed perspective on things when I get emotional. And then on every video shoot, there’s such a big team: food stylists, producers. Behind one video there’s fifty people. I could name everyone, but it would turn into an awards speech.

On ambition: 
I used to have a lot of goals. Now, I just feel really lucky that I have this flexible career that gives me time to spend with my daughter. She changes every day. The couple of weeks I was away for the book tour, I came back and she was a different baby. I want to be around as much as possible. I love that I have work that lets me take her to work with me. I just want this forever.

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Bindu Bansinath , 2024-05-06 13:00:24

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