Chef, restaurateur, media personality, and The Big Brunch judge Sohla El-Waylly officially has two babies out in the world. First, her actual baby, a daughter born to her and her husband, Hisham “Ham” El-Waylly, earlier this year and her literary baby, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA)-trained chef’s first cookbook, released on Oct. 31. So, needless to say, it’s a busy time for the gourmand. When I gently ask how everything is going, she casually shrugs and laughs a little. “It’s fine,” she says reassuringly. “I prepared for the worst, so it’s all about expectations. We just don’t get any sleep.”
“I feel like the restaurant industry probably prepped you for very little sleep and high stress,” I offer.
“Actually, that’s what we’ve been saying to ourselves!” she agrees. “It’s not harder than brunch doubles.”
El-Waylly spoke to Romper about this new chapter, the first foods she fell in love with (including which foods her parents could bribe her with), restaurant trends she’s excited about (and over), and which beloved breakfast cereal is “trash.”
As well-prepared as you were for parenthood, even when it’s going well it’s hard when it’s new. Is there any particular food that’s getting you through right now?
Every day I start my day with oatmeal and we use oatmeal from Anson Mills. It’s stone cut, not steel cut, and it’s like totally different. So it has a lot of texture, like a steel cut oat, but it cooks as fast as a rolled oat. Everyone should get these because not only is the texture amazing, it cooks quickly and it’s very flavorful and it’s supposed to be good for lactation. So I start my day every day with a bowl of those oats. I like it savory though, so I cook it with some bone broth from Brodo, get a little extra protein in there, top it with a poached egg and a little bit of soy sauce, and it feels really fancy and luxurious, but it’s so fast and you can do it one handed.
Did you have any cravings while you were pregnant?
I was really into all of the childhood favorites that I hadn’t had in a long time. I had my first Pop-Tart in a long time. They’re not as good as I remember. Eggo Waffles, same thing. But the one thing that I do think is as good as I remember maybe better is breakfast cereal. Before getting on here, I had a bowl of Lucky Charms and I was talking to my husband about how I think it might be one of my top favorite cereals. It’s going to be Lucky Charms, Captain Crunch... We did a non-scientific test with Cocoa Krispies and Cocoa Puffs to see which made the best chocolate milk. Cocoa Puffs are trash.
When you think about the food culture in your family growing up, what comes to mind? Did you eat together? Were there special rituals or traditions that you had?
We always ate together at the table. Both my parents worked a lot, but we always came together for dinnertime. And my mom mostly did a traditional Bangladeshi spread. She experimented a lot though, so it wasn’t always Bangladeshi. I would say it was 75% of the time. And it’s like a big table of food. So at the core of it, you have rice and dal, it’s like a really basic lentil soup that you pour over the rice and there’d always be a bunch of limes on the side. I like to squeeze a lot of lime on it; I like it very tart. Some kind of yogurt. It can be as simple as just salted yogurt, or my mom would get elaborate sometimes and do pomegranate and cucumber and spices and all that so you can really play around with it. And then meat, a stewed fish and two or three sautéed vegetables. So it was a really big spread that was on the table pretty much every night.
Wow. How did she have time for that and work?
Well, the great thing with a lot of this kind of food is it keeps, so she wouldn’t cook everything every day. So maybe she’d make a couple things and then have a couple things from the night before carryover. So every day she’d make the rice and dal and raita, and then there’d be a few things left over and a few things that she’d make that day. And then it always felt like a new meal because you weren’t having the exact same spread.
Are there other comfort foods that you associate with childhood?
One of my favorite comfort foods is dosa, which is a fermented pancake from South Asia. Historically, it’s been made with a lot of different things, but nowadays you see it made with the blend of rice and lentils, it’s fermented, and then you spread it out just like a crepe and it cooks up really crispy and there’s a lot of different fillings. But my favorite was the most traditional masala dosa, which has a spiced potato filling and it has some coconut chutney on the side.
We didn’t have it a lot. My mom didn’t make it at home, but we always had it when we went out. One of my least favorite things as a kid was that I hated shopping a lot. My parents loved shopping, so they would bribe me to go and not throw a fit by feeding me dosas.
What kind of shopping?
Specifically for Indian clothes. I hated it. It’s very itchy. I’m not a girly girl. So the idea of having to put on all these colorful sequin things all day long, it was my nightmare. So before one of those shopping trips, it was always dosas, and it’s still one of my favorite foods.
What is your first restaurant memory?
There was this Chinese restaurant we went to all the time. My dad loves Chinese food and there was a Chinese restaurant near us that was Halal. My family would practice the follow the Halal dietary guidelines. I’m not Muslim as an adult, but as a kid you don’t have a choice. It was my dad’s favorite place and they would get a whole steamed fish; you’d pour over the hot oil and it sizzles table-side. It’s very dramatic.
Do you have a favorite meal of the day?
Oh, breakfast. I’m very hungry at the second I wake up, so it’s great that I’ve got this favorite oatmeal down. I don’t have to think about it and in a few minutes I have a really nice hot meal.
So The Big Brunch must have been a really good moment for you just getting to eat breakfast at work all the time.
With the drinks. That was nice.
What is a trend in restaurants now that you’re just over?
I feel like everyone just recently discovered mortadella. I really love mortadella. But look, everyone’s putting mortadella on everything and we need to just relax for a second. It’s like bacon from the 90s. I'm surprised I haven’t seen a mortadella dessert.
Can you tell me just a little bit about the book and how it came together and what you hope for it when it’s in other people’s hands?
I really wanted this book to kind of feel like culinary school in a book. So it’s very technique focused because I personally, in my day-to-day life, I don’t cook from recipes. So I want to set you up with the skills and the knowledge that ultimately you don’t have to cook from recipes either. So each chapter is focused on a technique and it’s kind of like a lesson. And I think about the recipes in there as ways for you to practice the technique. But there are tons of delicious recipes in there, and you can just flip through it and find weeknight meal inspiration.
Ideally, if you go through the book and you take your time to learn all these techniques, you eventually don’t need a recipe anymore. And you can just go to the store and look at a piece of fish and think about what to do with it and figure it out on your own. Because that’s when I feel like cooking is the most fun. When you feel like you’re free from measurements and recipes and you can just riff confidently.
What’s your advice for people who lack confidence in the kitchen?
I think, first of all, know that you are going to do it wrong, and that’s fine. I think it’s important to remember that everyone who’s amazing, who you see doing amazing stuff, they messed up a lot in the beginning. And you learn so much more from messing up than following a recipe perfectly and doing it. So I think just don’t be afraid of messing up. It’s just food, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s not a big deal. Maybe you won’t have the most delicious meal, but it’ll still be food. You’ll eat it and then you have another meal to try again.
Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook is available now wherever books are sold.