Sohla El-Waylly's Debut Cookbook Gives Us All Permission to Be Imperfect

The beloved chef and editor makes her mark with 'Start Here' — a nearly 580-page book that's bound to stand the test of time.

Sohla El-Waylly

Justin Wee

The moment I cracked open Sohla El-Waylly's new cookbook, Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, I had a gut feeling that it would be my favorite book of the year, and possibly the decade. With its meld of clear step-by-step photo technique, recipe instruction that accounts for every possible user error, goofy-yet-instructional asides and essays, and absolutely killer recipes, this book feels like cooking school in paper form — if your instructor happened to be a kind, funny, charismatic genius. 

Millions of viewers were captivated by the restaurateur, chef, and food editor's superior skill, knowledge, and wit in her appearances throughout Bon Appetit's YouTube universe. When she left the publication in 2020, her fans followed her to a new show, Stump Sohla, on the Binging with Babish network, plus Ancient Recipes with Sohla on History Channel, and The Big Brunch on the channel now known as MAX. As well, El-Waylly kept busy writing and creating recipes for Food52, the New York Times, and Serious Eats. With El-Waylly's debut cookbook — a 578-page tome packed with over 200 recipes and techniques (and nearly as many informative, hilarious, essential guides, asides, and troubleshooting tips) — fans will find what feels like the essence of El-Waylly's culinary style and expertise in a substantive guidebook for cooks of every level.

Just days before the book’s publication date, I had a chance to speak with the sleep-deprived mom of a newborn about anxiety, authority, and the freedom to be imperfect.

Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Kat Kinsman: So how are you feeling right now?

Sohla El-Waylly: It's weird when you are working on something and then when it's done, it feels a little anticlimactic. I feel like I should be having a big party and celebrating wildly, but I guess it's been done for a minute. I'm thinking maybe it'll hit later when I see people cooking out of it. Right now I just feel guilty for not feeling more excited.

KK: For those of us who are receiving it, it's very exciting. I think part of the resonance of it is that it's big and substantial in a time where so much of food culture is really ephemeral. TikToks disappear in the blink of an eye. What was it that drove you to do something so metaphorically and physically weighty?

SE-W: So much of the stuff I do is online where nothing really lasts. There might be really good recipes that I make that just after a couple of months just vanish into the wild of the internet. I wanted to focus on making something that might be more timeless, but it was a little scary because I don't think the book is very cool at all, and there's so many really cool books out there. But I'm hoping what it lacks in coolness, it has in, I don't know …

KK: I've always prized warmth above being cool. I'm curious about your relationship with cookbooks while you were growing up.

Sohla El-Waylly

If you're starting out as a cook, where do you even look?

— Sohla El-Waylly

SE-W: We didn't have a lot of money, and cookbooks are kind of a luxury, so I only had a couple and they were gifts and they were super precious to me. The first one was the Better Homes and Garden Kids Cookbook. I read it over and over and over again and I made every recipe out of there multiple times. When I'm feeling down, I still go through it. It feels very nostalgic and comforting. My second book was another gift and it was Mastering the French Classics by Richard Grossman. He has lots of little tips in the margins and it's a very dense book. There's a lot of really good info in there and it gives you lots of ways to adapt stuff. And I made every variation and I feel like I know him.

It was really special just having a couple of books and a couple of sources for recipes because right now we're just getting slammed with hundreds and hundreds of recipes coming at us from all over the place. And it's hard to appreciate any of it. If you're starting out as a cook, where do you even look?

KK: There's authority that comes because people trust you and feel like they know you. Did you feel particular pressure to make a statement with this book?

SE-W: Whenever I thought of it as a book, I would freak out. There were a lot of emotional kinds and lows. I had a lot of anxiety attacks. After I finished the manuscript, I fell into a really big burnout, depression, and it took a few months to dig out of it. The only way I could get through it was to think about just one paragraph at a time, or one sentence at a time. I kept telling myself that it wasn't a book, that it was 12 Serious Eats articles, which are very long and intense, and I used to have to write two of those a week. 

KK: There's so much voice and personality anywhere I flip. First of all, I want to eat the thing, but also I'm laughing while reading it. I loved, "I like bananas because they grow and change with me."

SE-W: I was really high when I wrote that.

KK: Was it ever hard for you to give yourself permission to have a voice and be funny?  You're definitely giving your readers permission to have their own spin on things and to be imperfect.

SE-W: Actually, there are a lot of personal bits that I cut that my editor wanted me to keep because I was worried that I didn't want the book to be too much about me. I wanted it to be about the food. But now that it's out, I really regret it. It was just another extra 20 pages of the funniest bits, but it's a little bit scary putting that much personal stuff out. Maybe in the next book.

KK: I really appreciated the personal parts. You were talking about almost not graduating from high school because of absences, and it was the same for me. I had anxiety and depression and I was out for a very long time and I always felt like I was playing catch up, so it's been a hard thing throughout my life to see myself as an authority on anything. Did you ever think that you would be the teacher you are? 

Sohla El-Waylly

No, I actually screwed up a lot and you'll be fine.

— Sohla El-Waylly

SE-W: I never thought I would be doing this in a million years. My goal was always to be a fancy restaurant chef. I wanted to have a Michelin star restaurant. I would draw blueprints of it — when I was a kid, I took a drafting class so I could make them official. After the restaurant closed, it was like all of my hopes and dreams were crushed and I decided to just let go and see what would come up next. I applied to every single job and I took the first one. I let go of the wheel and that's how I ended up here. 

I think it was for the best because when I was chasing this very specific thing, I was very unhappy. I ended up in jobs I hated that I stayed in because I thought it would take me to the next thing. The past few years, I've just been taking jobs that are fun and where I learn things and where I'm with people I like. As soon as it stops being fun and I stop learning, I leave. It's led me to a much better place.

KK: What brought you joy while you were working on the book? 

SE-W: It's a very tedious thing, but I used to make sprinkles at our restaurant. They're all piped by hand, one at a time, and so many employees quit over it. But when I was really stressed and I had been up for several days just working on a paragraph, nothing was more fun than piping some sprinkles and fully turning off my brain and playing with food color and making little squiggles. 

KK: Is there a particular recipe that you let yourself dream that people will be making?

SE-W: Not really a recipe. My main hope is that people realize it's okay to fuck up. I'm a huge fuck-up. Everyone looks at me and thinks that I have my life together and I don't. And I'll meet a lot of young girls on the sidewalk who'll come up to me and they'll be so hard on themselves. They didn't get into the college they want to and they think their life is over. It's like, "No, I actually screwed up a lot and you'll be fine." I think where people mess up is when you keep going. A winner is just someone who didn't lose the last time.

Sohla El-Waylly

I've done harder things.

— Sohla El-Waylly

KK: Is there a mantra or anything like that that keeps you going?

SE-W: I've done harder things.

KK: I think that's the name of the memoir that I decided you are writing. Everyone would buy it. Is there a recipe you were almost nervous to put in the book? 

SE-W: I really love rice and I had to fight for all the rice in the book. [My editors] wanted more pasta. I really hope people take away an appreciation for rice. Make the tahdig. It's very hard. It does take a lot of practice. You really got to get to know your burner. You're not going to get it on the first try. 

I've been making it for years and I still don't get it every time. My husband's stepmother is an amazing Persian cook and every time she makes tahdig, she gets nervous. But when it's right, it's amazing and it's so magical that it's just rice. I hope people try that and they try it over and over again. It is a really fun thing to constantly keep trying to make it better.

Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook is available now wherever books are sold.

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