Sohla El-Waylly, Food Wizard
The food editor is finally running her own show
ohla?” the video begins. “Do you have a minute?” The stars of Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen have so many questions, and Sohla El-Waylly is like their own human Alexa: Sohla, how do you temper chocolate? Sohla, how do you pronounce turmeric? Sohla, what’s a dosa? El-Waylly appears on command—busy, patient, with a neatly cut bob—to answer. The fan-made Sohla supercuts (there are many) did what Bon Appétit failed to do: reframe the narrative so that the background actor might actually be the star. “The Test Kitchen is really fun as long as you play your role, and I didn’t like the role I was put in,” El-Waylly says. “It became increasingly frustrating to become a sidekick to people with significantly less experience than me.”
The meteoric popularity of the embattled
Test Kitchen was built in part on the vision that it was like The Office—but tastier. Unlike much of the show’s talent, El-Waylly came in with a wealth of professional experience, including two years of culinary school, and gigs at fine-dining establishments in New York, and a stint running her own restaurant. She joined Bon Appétit in the summer of 2019 as an assistant culinary editor, a junior position that meant she was supposed to cross-test other people’s recipes. Quickly, though, she began developing her own and, as the Test Kitchen universe expanded, appearing in videos. On-camera, El-Waylly was nerdy but kind of punk, with a bone-dry wit. To viewers, she looked like an integral part of the ensemble—at least until earlier this summer, when, amid allegations of racism and unequal pay at
Bon Appétit, she posted on social media that she hadn’t been paid at all for her video appearances. “Working in a place like that, you can’t say ‘no,’” she says. “You never know if another opportunity will come your way.” (A representative for Condé Nast stated that all employees who appeared in videos were paid but didn’t provide details on how El-Waylly was compensated.)
After leaving the Test Kitchen along with many of her co-workers, she has been saying “yes” to everything. She’s writing a cookbook, guest-judging on cooking shows, and, on this October morning, filming an episode of the web series she now stars in,
Stump Sohla. “This show is just doing things that entertain me,” she says, as she dips M&M’s into royal icing in the basement of
Andrew Rea’s five-story Brooklyn townhouse, where he is expanding his YouTube channel, Binging with Babish. The concept is simple. Give her something to cook, with an obstacle—for example, 18th-century macaroni and cheese or a seven-course tasting menu made from ingredients sourced at a bodega. Today, the theme is “scary candy,” which means she will try to tuck surprises into chocolate. (No razor blades, she swears.) “She is unflappable,” says Rea.
“I like challenges. It doesn’t put me in a head-spin or anything,” El-Waylly says. “I like it when all of a sudden you walk in a restaurant and all the walk-ins are down and everything is rotten. That gives me jolts of excitement.” There is an acute pleasure to seeing El-Waylly solve harebrained gastronomic puzzles, like that of watching an Olympic pole vaulter clear the bar in slow motion. In a way, this is how she has cooked for much of her career in haute cuisine kitchens, including at Atera, the severe, hyperconceptual Tribeca restaurant where food often looked like objects. The chef would want a Japanese-style cheesecake made from Harbison cheese on the menu, and she would make it. (It’s harder than it sounds.) “The time I learned the most in restaurants was when I was alone in a basement,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone teach me in the professional settings. My mom really taught me everything.”
From an early age, El-Waylly was in the kitchen alongside her mother, Salma Banu. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, where her parents owned and operated Baskin-Robbins ice-cream stores.
She gets her sense of adventure from Banu, who liked to go to a specialty market, pick an unfamiliar ingredient, and figure out how to cook with it. She ate with the multicultural sensibility of the city: Fish balls went into a Bangladeshi-style korma; raita topped a za’atar-spackled manakish. Her mother hosted elaborate multicourse feasts on the weekend. “My mom’s like a chef,” she says. “She is. She didn’t know the names of knife cuts, but I remember having an indepth conversation about how you cut potatoes for different stews so the potato cooks at the same time as the protein. That’s a complex thought that, once you understand, you can translate to any dish.”
Still, her becoming a chef was not the immigrant parent’s dream. El-Waylly went to UC Irvine, where she studied economics, and worked at Cheesecake Factory on the side. After graduation, she backpacked around Europe. She had a lot of social anxiety, but food was the way she connected with people. “I’d do a big English breakfast for everyone at the hostel, and then they would be my friend and be like, ‘Come sleep over at my apartment,’” she says.
When she got back to L.A., she knew she wanted to be a chef, but she didn’t know how to start. So she did the thing they say to do, which is go door-knocking. She went to all the white-tablecloth restaurants at the time—Providence, Mélisse, Hatfield’s. She would wash dishes, she told them. For free! “It was straight-up ‘no,’ she says. “One chef even said, ‘Why don’t you just get married? You shouldn’t be here.’”
Casual chauvinism was the rule of kitchens everywhere. In 2008, she began a program at the Culinary Institute of America— something she doesn’t recommend. She says that when she was at CIA, a dean sexually harassed her, and when she spoke up, a female dean told her, “That’s what happens in the real world. You better get used to it.” After graduation, her classmate and nowhusband Ham El-Waylly continued to work as a line cook, but she was pushed toward the front of house and, eventually, pastry, where many talented female cooks end up. “It’s lonely when you’re the only woman in the kitchen, and you don’t act the way they want you to act,” she says. “I’m not going to sit by and watch you kick someone down the stairs. It makes you very unpopular.”
In 2016, Sohla and Ham decided to open their own restaurant. They met with investors who wanted them to make “brown food,” like chai-and-chaat or shawarma. The idea made them queasy, so they decided to take a chance on themselves and open a neo-diner in Greenpoint. They called it Hail Mary. They’d make the food they wanted to eat— fried chicken, koshari, burgers—the way they
wanted to make it, with care. They offered triple-fried potatoes that took a full-time worker an entire 12-hour shift to prepare. They paid the dishwasher a living wage. It was wild and utterly impractical.
The restaurant lasted about a year, which was pretty good considering they started off with enough money to keep them afloat for two months. “A lot of people complained, “Why is this burger $15?” she remembers. “But it’s grass-fed meat that’s ground every single day with homemade American cheese, homemade bread, homemade pickles. And that is really stupid, because no one can tell those things. We didn’t put it on the menu because we were like, ‘The food is going to speak for itself.’ And it really, really doesn’t.”
When Hail Mary folded, El-Waylly made her way into food media—first at Serious Eats and then Bon Appétit. The eventual Test Kitchen blowup was unavoidable. “Sohla’s never changed,” says Ham. “She’s not one to eat her words if she sees something wrong.” After a photo of the former editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport minstreling as a Puerto Rican surfaced, there was never a question that she would speak up about the culture of racism at Bon Appétit. During an all-staff Zoom meeting, she asked him point-blank if he was going to resign. “He was like, ‘Maybe. Maybe I should help fix this and then go.’ And I’m like, ‘No, man. You got to go.’”
She and Ham planned for worst-case scenarios: Sohla would get fired; they would have to move in with his father in New Jersey; they’d experience total social opprobrium from the food world. “She had been silenced and ignored so many times we really didn’t think this time would be any different,” he says. But during the summer, Rapoport stepped down. El-Waylly was offered a fair contract for video work, with back pay. But the entire experience, including learning that others weren’t getting fair contracts, ultimately led to her decision to walk away from Test Kitchen. (She stayed on as a freelance contributing editor.) “We should all be getting paid fairly,” she says.
On Stump Sohla, they’re still figuring out what works, but there’s an audience—the pilot has more than 2 million views. (Under the YouTube model, she gets a direct cut of the profits.) The bodega episode began to hit on something because it allowed her imagination to roam. At their best, her concoctions are joyful and strangely familiar: a vegetable “Fun Dip” from powdered spices, spaghetti carbonara reimagined as a dessert. Toni Morrison once famously said, “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” When El-Waylly is alone in the kitchen, those distractions slip away. It’s just her and a liquid sablé made of dehydrated Twinkies.