Sohla El-Waylly, Food Wiz­ard

The food edi­tor is fi­nally run­ning her own show

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - By E. Alex Jung

“S

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.

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