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Sohla El-Waylly prioritized accessibility and technique for her ‘fun school’ debut cookbook

Sohla El-Waylly will be discussing her debut cookbook, "Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook," at a Harvard Book Store event Monday.Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/Justin J Wee

Sohla El-Waylly wants to get everyone in the kitchen. The chef and media personality is known for judging the cooking competition “The Big Brunch,” hosting video series with the History Channel and the New York Times Cooking (for which she also writes recipes). She told the Globe in a recent interview that her following spans ages and degrees of expertise, so when it was time to pen her debut cookbook, she wanted anyone to be able to use it.

“Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook,” released in late October, is designed to teach and reinforce essential kitchen skills, with “culinary lessons” on techniques like steaming and poaching and working with dough. The 656-page, 200-plus recipe cookbook is meant to be a “fun school,” El-Waylly said, and the kind of accessible entry point she would have enjoyed as a beginner. Recipes, that are both savory and sweet, include Black Sesame and Nori Rice Pilaf, Double Dill Tahdig, Spiced Oatmeal Pecan Date Cookies, and Strawberries and Cream Pavlova.


On Monday, El-Waylly will discuss “Start Here” with Flour Bakery co-owner Joanne Chang and Harvard Book Store at First Parish in Cambridge. (The event is now sold out and on standby.) She spoke to the Globe about writing the cookbook and why she, a Culinary Institute of America alumna, thinks people don’t need attend culinary school to become expert cooks.

Q. What gave you the initial push or internal motivation to write this cookbook?

A. I was very disappointed by my culinary school education, so I wanted to give people something that felt like a culinary education but in a book. My goal was to make a book that really teaches you [and] breaks everything down. A lot of cookbooks, when I started cooking, were really difficult for me because you have to learn a new language when you’re reading a cookbook: words like “sauté” and “cream” and “sweat.” They don’t mean a whole lot if you’ve never read a cookbook before. So, I wanted to make a cookbook that demystifies all that, because I remember being confused when I was starting out; especially because the kind of food my mom cooked at home did not look like the food in these books that I had. It felt extra intimidating and alienating. I wanted to make a book that anyone can understand.


Q. How did you ensure there was enough variety in the recipe selection so that people are learning different types of techniques and cooking different types of foods?

A. I initially had a lot of different spreadsheets. Everything was really strategic. I had core techniques I wanted to teach and then I had cuisines I wanted to represent. I also had another spreadsheet that showed what percentage of dishes were vegetarian or vegan or gluten free. I thought a lot about dietary restrictions and allergies. And then I tried to do all of that with a limited pantry because I didn’t want people to have to go online to buy some random spice for one dish.

Q. Can you talk about putting the book together stylistically?

A. The design was really motivated by accessibility — clear fonts that are easy to read. The font and the dimensions of the book are a little bit bigger than a typical cookbook, but it’s because I want you to be able to put it on your counter and work from it. That’s why the team worked hard to have these lay-flat pages, so you don’t need to put anything to hold the pages down. And we [chose] to have big, bold step numbers and page numbers, because I always want you to know where you are. I’m personally a really bad reader, so a lot of cookbooks I find very hard to read. I often miss steps and I miss ingredients. A lot of times I even have to fully rewrite a recipe before I can make it.


Q. Have you had interesting reactions so far from people who’ve bought the cookbook and started using it?

A. I met a girl who’s legally blind and she said this is the first cookbook she can read because the font is so big. That was great. That means we achieved a goal.

Q. What recipe did you have the most fun writing?

A. The add-anything drop cookies. That is just a fun recipe that I didn’t cry over. And I love that it lets people be creative. It’s a really solid drop cookie recipe that you can mix in one bowl. It doesn’t have to chill, and you can add anything to it. I have a few suggestions of mix-ins, but I really hope people use it to get creative and get crazy. Like, throw Doritos in there, I don’t know. That was just a pure fun recipe and I hope people get crazy with it.


Interview has been edited and condensed.

Sohla El-Waylly in conversation with Joanne Chang

Nov. 13, 6 p.m., Meetinghouse at First Parish in Cambridge, 1446 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. Standby. harvard.com/event/sohla_el-waylly_at_the_brattle_theatre

Abigail Lee can be reached at abigail.lee@globe.com.