Come Dine With Me... Laila Gohar
The Cairo-born, New York-based conceptual chef-slash-artist (with impeccable taste) known for her experimental and genre-defying culinary skills--think gigantic towers of langoustines, edible roses inside fish-shaped champagne jellies and sculptural busts made entirely from chocolate--cooks up a delicious storm for us in NYC...
What are you cooking for us today?
I made a tomato aïoli tartine, and socca with a fennel salad.
What’s on your grocery list?
- 4 heirloom tomatoes from farmer’s market
- 1 head fennel
- 5 oz ricotta salata
- 5 lemon
- 1 orange
- 1 red onion
- 1 bunch parsley
- 1 bunch mint
- 1 bag garbanzo bean floor
- 1 sourdough bread loaf (good one! From farmers market)
- bottle of olive oil
How would you describe what you do? Would you consider yourself more of an artist or a chef?
I consider myself an artist, and I use food as my medium for telling stories.
Where are you originally from and how did you end up in New York City?
I’m from Cairo and came to NYC for work.
How did you get your start creatively? Why food?
It was an evolution that led to this work. Food was always the thing that I felt comfortable around. Growing up my Mom wasn't much of a cook, but my Dad was very inventive in the kitchen. When I was a kid we used to have really lively dinner parties that I think shaped a part of me.
There’s a transfer of emotion that happens that I think is unique to food. If you put a plate of food in front of someone, no matter the circumstance, they will always feel something.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Tasting mangoes when I was a little kid with my Dad in Egypt.
What’s the craziest culinary project you’ve ever executed?
The Galeries Lafayette opening in Paris. [For the opening Laila created twenty edible sculptures, which included a 1.5 tonne sausage flown in from Bologna, butter sculptures in the shape of hands, and gigantic towers of langoustines.] For me, playing with scale is very interesting and the store allowed me to experiment with a large scale format. It was really magical to see everything come to life. Oftentimes I spend months conceptualizing a project and it's always a very special moment when it all comes together.
Favourite thing to eat?
It really depends on my mood. Generally I like straightforward and somewhat simple food.
What would be your last meal?
Having a last meal sounds sad. I wouldn’t eat because I would be sad. If it wasn’t sad, I would eat a really good piece of bread.
If you had only four things you could eat for the rest of your life what would they be?
Lemon, olive oil, anchovies, and tomato (if I could have a fifth it would be potato or a sixth it would be bread).
What’s your favourite restaurant?
It’s hard to call anything a favourite, but I really enjoy Café Altro Paradiso in New York.
What do you eat there?
Five dream dinner guests?
Louise Bourgeois, Khalil Gibran and a few close friends.
Any tips for easy dinner party entertaining?
Don’t stress. Your guests will only have a good time if you are. Cook things that you already know how to make. Give people enough to drink and they’ll be fine.
What music do you cook and create to?
Depends on how I’m feeling. On holiday, reggae. In the middle of the winter, Leonard Cohen.
What makes you laugh, makes you cry, gives you goosebumps?
Laugh: my sister. Cry: emotions. Gives me goosebumps: sometimes when I spend a lot of time thinking about projects and then see them realized it gives me goosebumps.
When you’re not working, what do you do for fun?
Cook for friends and read. I have lots of favourite books, but one that really speaks to me is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. With hosting it’s really about creating the environment and then letting the people do the rest. I really enjoy creating environments where people can come together and just feel like it's okay to be themselves. I have friends over several times a week. People sometimes ask if I’m too tired to host after a long day of work or two nights in a row, but it doesn't really happen like that. I'm always down! It's very natural for me.
What’s your idea of happiness?
Hard to answer that, as I think it changes. My new studio makes me happy. I just recently moved studios from Brooklyn to Chinatown, and I live a five minute bike ride away. So that's been really nice.
If you could spend one month anywhere, where would it be?
In the south of Spain.
What’s your greatest achievement?
I’m proud that I can create a space where people really work with things they love and feel fulfilled. The type of work I do is fairly nontraditional, as is the way I have created this career. So it's really humbling to be able to share that with people and bring on people that are equally excited about doing this type of work, who didn't necessarily realize that this was a career path.
What would be your perfect day?
A spontaneous day with people that I love.
Photography by Jonathan Middleton
Interview by Georgia Graham
Styling by Sally Bottomley