Sohla El-Waylly’s Debut Cookbook Is So Much More than Recipes — It’s a “One-Stop Culinary School”

published Nov 8, 2023
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Start Here By Sohla El-Waylly
Credit: Penguin Random House

Sohla El-Waylly is no stranger to walking people through a slightly complicated recipe. In fact, the chef, culinary creator, video producer, and author has been making recipes and food more understandable and accessible for quite some time now. El-Waylly’s ethos for making cooking more approachable for home cooks is most recently evident in her debut cookbook, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook.

While El-Waylly first captured an audience via her educational yet quirky video series on Bon Appétit magazine’s YouTube channel, she’s been in the food business for years. Before having bylines in The New York Times, Food52, and Serious Eats, El-Waylly first studied culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The chef then went on to work at various restaurants in New York City, including Michelin-starred Del Posto, Atera, and Battersby. 

Since her work in media, El-Waylly has gone on to appear on various shows such as HBO Max’s The Big Brunch, alongside Schitt’s Creek star and executive producer, Dan Levy, as well as Ancient Recipes with Sohla on the History Channel. El-Waylly also recently partnered with Coca-Cola early this year to host a globally inspired feast with the residents of NYC. Now, however, the TIME 100 Next Honoree is delving into the world of cookbooks, and her first one is all about starting with the basics.

A Look into Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook

The first thing you’ll notice about the book, aside from its weight and glossy cover, is that it’s not set up like any regular cookbook. While you’ll still find an organized table of contents and delicious, easy-to-follow recipes like Chicken Thighs with Zucchini & Salsa Verde, Bravas Potato Salad, and Sohla’s favorite Turmeric Potatoes with a Whole Lotta Lemon, it’s also filled with bigger lessons on techniques (think: steaming and poaching, temperature management, cooking with dry heat, caramelizing, and cake-making). “Think of this as a one-stop culinary school in a book (without years of inescapable debt!),” she says right in the beginning. 

Questions with Sohla El-Waylly on Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook

Was being a cookbook author always a long-term goal? Did you ever imagine yourself making one?

You know, I never imagined any of this would happen, honestly! I’ve always wanted to do all these food things as a kid, but it felt like this unachievable fantasy, like when you dream about being a rock star. I’ve gotten the opportunity to work on this book, but also have an amazing publisher that was supportive in letting me execute my vision. With a lot of cookbook authors, there’s often a lot of fighting and pushback to do what they wanna do. I had an amazing publisher and editor and the whole experience has been so cool. 

How did you decide on the overall direction, audience, recipes, and feel of the book?

I really wanted to make the cookbook that I wished I had when I was starting out, because a lot of books just give you steps to follow. And I’m really bad at that. I don’t know if it’s that I don’t understand [a particular step] or if I’m just always like, “Tell me why or I’m not gonna do it” kind of person. So the cookbook is really focusing on teaching you the “whys,” not just the “hows.” I want to give people in-depth knowledge, so you’re not walking away with just a bunch of recipes, but with a deep understanding of these techniques that you can apply in different places so you can become smart.

Where did you pull inspiration from in terms of which types of recipes you wanted to develop and share with fans?

Well, it was really important to me that each recipe taught you a technique. I think recipes are a good way to get your foot into cooking, and become confident. But ultimately I want you to be able to break away from the recipes. So I chose recipes that could thoroughly teach you how to do something like sear, steam, or whip cream and sugar together.

Then within those recipes, the cultural influences are just ones that reflect my personal background. I’m Bangladeshi, so there’s a lot of that in there. And then I grew up in Los Angeles and I live in New York, so there’s a lot of [inspiration to pull from]. I’ve been lucky to be able to be around a lot of really delicious food from around the world. I wanted it all to feel very accessible. Because I don’t like this narrative that food from around the world is hard.

What do you think might be some misconceptions that people have related to recipe development?

I don’t think people get how much work goes into recipe development. It is a lot of trial and error and it takes a lot of energy and empathy to be a good recipe developer. I have to put myself in someone else’s shoes. [For example] as a professional I have a more well-equipped kitchen than the average person. I have so many bowls! I know you don’t have this many bowls. I was thinking about stuff like [that], or what kind of stuff people are using, how much time they realistically have. I’m OK with spending three hours on dinner, but most people are not. [So it does] require taking myself outside of myself, and also quite a bit of testing. After I tested and developed the recipes in this book, they went to my husband for testing, and also I got an outside recipe tester.

What are some misconceptions, or perhaps misunderstandings, you think people have related to being a BIPOC person working on food media today?

When I started out, it was incredibly frustrating because I had to deal with two conflicting things. All people initially wanted from me were recipes that were Bangladeshi, because there was an assumption that I’m an expert in that cuisine. [This] was frustrating because I grew up here, and I studied French food and I worked in Italian restaurants and Thai restaurants. So I really wanted to have the same freedom as my white colleagues to make whatever I was inspired by. 

The second thing was constantly being told to put fewer ingredients in something or put fewer spices or being told that it’s hard for people to find cardamom. Which is not true. So [there was] a lot of pushback. I had to be quite aggressive from day one with defending my recipes. I think that that is tough when you’re starting out — to know how much you can push. My one bit of advice to give anyone who might be starting out is [to] make sure that you believe in the stuff you’re putting out there. Because I put out some recipes in the beginning that I’d feel really ashamed of now because I really was steamrolled.

Is there one recipe, if you can choose one, maybe two, in particular in the cookbook that you’re excited to share with readers and fans? 

Well, there’s a lot. Okay. So the first thing that comes to mind is these lemony potatoes [Turmeric Potatoes with a Whole Lotta Lemon, page 173] that I’ve made a ton of times. And it’s very simple: It’s just potato, lemon, butter, and salt. But they’re really good because the potatoes are actually braised in the lemon juice, so they become really bright, and then it gets broiled for a little bit of char. It has like really complex flavor even though it’s just three ingredients. And I love it because it is cheap, easy, and it’s something that [has] become a staple in my rotation, because it goes with so many things!

Buy: Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, $40.50