Sohla El-Waylly has already made a name for herself in the food world. Her resumé includes several years’ experience at fine-dining establishments in New York, an on-camera job at Bon Appétit (and a news-making decision to leave the brand in 2020), a YouTube series with the History Channel, a stint as a judge on the HBO Max cooking competition show The Big Brunch, and a prolific social media presence. Still, she’s ready to add one more item to the list: on Oct. 31, El-Waylly will publish her debut cookbook, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook.
She hopes it will have staying power. “A lot of the internet content can feel like I put in so much work and then it’s just gone in the air,” she says. “I go back to my cookbooks over and over again—I’d love to be that in someone’s home.”
Start Here is the book El-Waylly wishes she’d had when she was first learning: a practical and comprehensive guide for anyone looking to improve their skills. It’s not Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the book El-Waylly loves but remembers struggling to digest when she was just starting out in the kitchen. “I wanted my book to have the chill vibes of a friend teaching you how to cook,” she says. In a dozen sections over more than 600 pages, El-Waylly walks readers through recipes both savory and sweet, from lemon risotto to egg tacos to funfetti cake. Throughout, she instructs with a gentle hand, reminding home cooks that it’s perfectly acceptable to fail—making mistakes, she writes, is often the way to gain fundamental skills and confidence in the kitchen.
El-Waylly spent two years developing the concept, testing the recipes, and writing the copy for Start Here. It was a project she turned to in 2020, around the same time she found herself in the media spotlight as a leader in speaking out against racism and pay discrimination at Bon Appétit. Her voice was crucial in sparking a necessary dialogue about how people of color are treated in both the restaurant and food media industries. El-Waylly has carried the impact of that time with her. “I spent two years in a state of being overwhelmed, and it’s just finally tapering off,” she says. “I had a lot of panic attacks and didn’t sleep for a while. I was very stressed and anxious.” Over the last six months, she has found some relief through being intentional about disconnecting from the internet and focusing on her mental health.
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Now, she’s excited that she’ll get to see her cookbook out in the world this fall. El-Waylly and her team shot all the photographs for Start Here over a chaotic three-week period in the East Village apartment she shares with her husband Ham El-Waylly, their two dogs, and one cat. Their refrigerator wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the ingredients she needed, so they bought a giant Yeti cooler and stored it outside, constantly running to buy more ice from a nearby bodega. That by-the-seat-of-her-pants approach to problem solving is one of the qualities that makes El-Waylly, and Start Here, so appealing.
El-Waylly spoke to TIME about the process of creating her first cookbook, the restaurant job she couldn’t hack, and the importance of messing up.
In the book, you write about how your confidence in the kitchen comes from failing. How did you come to that realization?
A lot of people reach out to me and say they think they can’t cook because they did something wrong. But everyone who is an amazing cook now started exactly where you did. It was really emotional for me when I started cooking professionally—at my first internship in New York, I remember going home and crying almost every night. I’m really glad I pushed through because once you get through all those failures, nothing is scary anymore.
It can be hard to allow yourself to fail and not beat yourself up for it. What do you say to yourself when you’ve made a mistake?
When I fail now, I try to think about it as an opportunity. I once worked at this fancy molecular Nordic gastronomy restaurant and the chef wanted me to develop Japanese cheesecake using this stinky, runny cheese. Cheesecake is usually made with Philadelphia cream cheese, which has stabilizers, so trying to make it with this other cheese was so hard. I spent weeks working on it and no matter what I did, the bottom layer would fall and form this rind. Ultimately, he loved that, because when you cut into it, it looked like a bloomy rind cheese. It ended up being the dish he served, the one that was not technically correct. Sometimes you just have to let go of the thing you’re trying to make—your failure is going to be something cooler.
Speaking of failures and cheesecake, you also write that you once got fired from the Cheesecake Factory. What happened?
I was a hostess—it was a very intense place to host. They’re so busy. When I worked there, it was before they had a POS [point-of-sale] system, so everything was done on a giant laminated piece of paper, and I was so bad at following it. I did not have patience for the customers. I was 19 or 20, and it was a terrifying job. People need to tip the hostess every time they go to a restaurant. Throw them an extra $10.
What was the recipe in Start Here that took the most tries to get right?
There’s a layer cake and buttercream in the “After Party” section of the book—it took a lot of tries because I wanted to make sure that you could customize it in every way. I made a version of it with every kind of inclusion and substitution, so you have a foolproof recipe that you can play with and get creative.
What did you do with all those test cakes?
It’s very easy to give people cake. We’ve gotten to know all our neighbors and the small businesses on our block—the dry cleaner, the bodega, the optometrist. It’s really fun now because when we walk down the street with our dogs, everyone is like, “Oh, hey!” It’s turned into small town vibes because we’ve shared so much cake.
What’s the one recipe in the book you hope most people will try?
One of my favorites is the lemony potatoes, because it’s really simple. They’re braised and jammy and really flavorful because there’s so much lemon and butter. It’s a great one to learn—seasoning a potato is already difficult because it’s bland, and then we’re balancing so much acid and fat. On the pastry side, I really love the coffee cake, which is the hardest recipe in the book. You’re going to have to work your way up to it. I love box-mix cake and that recipe comes the closest to that super fluffy, tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
You write a lot about your first memories of cooking with your mother. What’s your favorite thing to cook together?
Parathas. I have a recipe for it in the book, but it’s a pretty long process. You knead the dough, then it’s rolled, folded, rolled again, and then twice cooked. It takes a long time and is a labor of love—it’s a really fun thing to do on a Sunday morning because it’s technical and a lot of work, but you can also chit chat while you are doing it. It doesn’t require super intense focus.
Why did you decide to include both savory and sweet recipes in Start Here?
When I was working on the proposal, I was initially aiming for a savory book, but because I have so much experience in pastry, I ended up having so many pastries in it that I decided to do a pastry book. It was my agent who said, “Why don’t you just stick them together?” It was a great move because it’s old fashioned how we have this divide. Being able to do both has created so many opportunities for me in my life and career. Everyone should cook everything. It’s fun. Why not?
Correction: March 15
The original version of this story misstated the cuisine of the restaurant where El-Waylly worked. It is Nordic, not Japanese.
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