There’s a good chance you’ve already made one of Sohla El-Waylly’s recipes: the recipe developer, food personality and former restaurant chef has steadily cooked her way into the hearts and minds of food lovers everywhere. Her Bon Appetit cooking videos were a safe space for us all during the hardest COVID lockdown protocols, and after calling out Bon Appetit for their lack of equity and justice and severing ties with the media company, she’s gone on to reach new heights. From her New York Times YouTube cooking series (alongside her husband Hisham “Ham” El-Waylly) to her Ancient Recipes with Sohla television series on History Channel to her viral social media presence, her just-launched, first cookbook, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook feels like the cherry on top. We caught up with Sohla to talk all things cookbook, and got some exclusive tidbits in the process (including the dish she’d make to beat Bobby Flay!). Read on for the full interview.
Sohla’s cookbook, Start Here is now available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.
Your cookbook covers the basics but also goes into a lot of skilled techniques, who is the ideal reader you envisioned as you were writing it?
I think that the ideal reader is someone who’s very curious and ambitious, because it’s more than just recipes. The idea is for you to really gain your skill — it’s for someone who really genuinely wants to be better. I think this would be good for someone who just wants to be a better home cook, but even for someone who’s starting out and wants to have a professional culinary career because it’s for someone who really wants to get into the nitty gritty. I guess food nerds, this book is for the nerds out there. I’m here to represent you because I love you! [laughs]
If readers only take one thing away from the cookbook, what do you want that to be?
I want you to come away knowing that it’s okay to mess up and that you’re going to mess up. Whenever you’re learning a new recipe or a new technique, you should go into it knowing that you’re not going to be good at it. You’re going to mess up. And that’s okay. Anyone who’s good at anything was terrible first. And I think that you need to remember that because it can be very easy to get discouraged when you see all these like perfect pictures online or in a book or anywhere in shows. When you see Gordon Ramsay chopping an onion so quickly and perfectly, that’s not how he started out. And you can get there too. It’s just practice and you’ve just got to push through those mess ups.
Whenever you’re learning a new recipe or a new technique, you should go into it knowing that you’re not going to be good at it. You’re going to mess up. And that’s okay.
What’s a cooking mess up you made recently?
There’s so many [laughs]. I just recently made a pumpkin spice latte cheesecake recipe for my Substack because I’ve become obsessed with pumpkin spice lattes — I had one today, I had one yesterday, I want another one. I’m hooked! I was trying to figure out how to cook a cheesecake without a water bath because I feel like no matter how much you wrap the bottom, the crust gets soggy. So I tried to bake it in a regular cake pan and flip it out, and the whole thing broke. And I learned that does not work. We need a springform pan. So, I totally lost the whole cheesecake. It was still delicious, so I ate it. But I learned that there is a purpose to a springform pan. So, whenever I mess up, I end up learning something new. It doesn’t bug me, I’m cool with it. I think when you step away from the disappointment and the fact that you messed up and you analyze what just happened, you can learn a lot… Anyone who ‘does not make mistakes’ is lying to you.
What recipes are you most excited about in your cookbook?
One of my favourites is the Bisteeya-Inspired Phyllo Pie. I love Bisteeya, it’s a Moroccan pie that’s typically made by the braised poultry, and it takes a really long time and it’s a very long cooking process, but I want Bisteeya all the time. So I love this one because it’s a very quick way to get to those flavours. It took a while to figure out how to develop that. Sometimes the easiest recipes are the hardest ones to develop: it took a lot of time to figure out how to make this really complex, deep flavour fast so you can get there in 30 minutes and develop just as much flavour with just grilled chicken. I’m really happy with that recipe, I really hope people make that one.
Get the recipe: Sohla’s Bisteeya-Inspired Phyllo Pie
Another one is the Better Than Drake’s Coffee Cake [Editor’s note: Drake’s Coffee Cake is an American coffee cake topped with cinnamon-flavoured streusel that is not available in Canada]. I have a love for all these packaged coffee cakes, but the texture is very hard to accomplish in your home kitchen because it is impossibly soft. So it took a lot of tries to figure it out, and it is so soft and so delicate that you actually have to bake it upside down with the crumb on the bottom because you can’t put anything on top. It is perfect. It tastes just like a package cake which, for me, is the dream.
Sometimes the easiest recipes are the hardest ones to develop
What’s your go-to cookbook?
Well, my favourite food book is not necessarily a cookbook, but it’s On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. I’ve read that one a bunch of times and I love it because he goes deep into so many techniques. Every time I read it, I take something away because it is very dense, so it’s really impossible to absorb all the information. I love it because it answers a lot of like food questions for me. He talks about random things that you wouldn’t think about, like anthocyanins, which is the thing that makes cabbage purple and how it becomes blue in alkaline solutions and it’s like, ‘Oh, I like knowing that in case I want to make something blue’ [laughs].
That educational aspect comes through in your cookbook too, what did you learn while writing your cookbook?
So much. I did a lot of research to make this cookbook because not all of this was in my brain, you know? The places where I learned the most was with bread. I made a lot of bread but I hadn’t thought about it that intensely. Reading about the different kinds of wheat and the way all purpose flour is produced in the U.S. and how flour is different in different parts of the world, which affects regional bread, I found that very interesting. And the whole section on grains was really fun to work on because there are so many grains, beans and legumes out there. It can feel a little intimidating because nowadays you can find all of that on the shelves and learning that you can cook them all the same way felt really freeing, like we can go forth and make fonio. You know how to make it, it’s just like cooking pasta!
You made some significant style choices in your book, like big fonts, big numbers and wide margins. Why was that important to you?
Well, I’m really bad at reading. I’m one of those people that I’ve rarely been able to read a whole book. And cookbooks are especially hard to read if you’re not good at reading because there’s numbers and fractions and words and oftentimes different fonts. So I really wanted to make a cookbook I could read. With a lot of the way cookbooks are designed, if I want to cook out of a cookbook, I actually have to rewrite the recipe. I’ll rewrite or retype the recipe and highlight it and add underlines to make it easier for me to read. So I wanted to design a book like that where it already has those little things that I add for myself to make it easier to read.
It has wide margins because I like to write in all of my books and leave notes for myself. Like, sometimes you think you know better than the recipe, and, like, there’s this one brittle recipe where I thought it needed more peanuts. And then I wrote a note to myself. ‘This has exactly the right amount of nuts, don’t add more.’ It’s nice to find those notes.
My goal is if I can read it, hopefully there’s other people who can too. So it has really big, bold numbers and we picked a very clean, simple font, which was a difficult decision because a lot of people are doing very cool, trendy things with cookbook styling. So I still feel very insecure about it, it’s very plain Jane, but I think that it’ll be easy to work out of, and hopefully that trumps the fact that maybe it’s not the coolest book in town.
My goal is if I can read it, hopefully there’s other people who can too.
Along with launching this cookbook, you also just had a baby recently! Have you noticed any parallels in bringing your baby into the world and bringing your cookbook into the world?
Well, making a cookbook is really hard, but once you make it, game over. Making a baby wasn’t that hard, but now the hard work begins, so they’re completely opposite in terms of the process. As for parallels, I guess the main thing is I look at both of them and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, I did that, weird!’ It’s very surreal.
If you could collaborate with any Food Network chef, who would it be?
Oh, it would have to be Bobby Flay! I feel like I’ve talked about Bobby Flay publicly a lot. It might come off as a joke, but I’m actually a really big fan of Bobby Flay. I like watching Beat Bobby Flay all the time. We went to his restaurant GATO in New York and we were like, ‘wow, this is really good. He’s like, legit.’ Bobby Flay seems like he’s a lot of fun and I like how it feels, when watching Beat Bobby Flay, that he can do everything, so that’s cool.
What dish would you make to beat Bobby Flay?
Oh, I don’t know because he makes everything! My husband and I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and we’re like, ‘it can’t be like South Asian because he knows chilies. It can’t be Latin because that’s like his happy place.’ Maybe some pastry. I think pastry trips him up. I think that he would struggle with a soufflé. A soufflé!
Maybe we can make it happen!
You guys are the ones who can make it happen! [laughs]
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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