In Laila Gohar’s world tomatoes hang from the ceiling, towering pyramids of langoustine compete for attention against mortadella sausages the length of a king size bed, and butter arrives in the shape of an outstretched hand or a pair of floating lips. “Food has always been a language that I can communicate in,” says the genre-defying, conceptual cook-slash-designer-slash-artist, who can also be found as @lailacooks on Instagram.
"For me, it all comes from a strong sense of fantasy. I use my imagination to create all sorts of outlandish scenarios outside of every day norms. Convincing people that they need a two-meter-long sausage at an event can be hard—and I never really know how we’re going to pull anything off—but with the right imagination it generally always works out in the end.” In Gohar’s world, “ideas are always first,” and practical matters of execution come much later.
By her own admission, she’s never “had much time for the conventional way of doing things, anyway.” Born and raised in Egypt, she studied in Miami after high school, before moving to New York City a decade ago. Home today is a whimsically furnished flat in downtown Manhattan, which she shares with her husband, Omar Sosa, (one of the co-founders of interiors magazine, Apartamento) and a giant PVC foot. The couple are known for hosting intimate weekly dinner parties for a close-knit circle of friends—a diverse group of creative nomads including former Semaine tastemakers Ana Kras (who directed the video of Gohar cooking potatoes with salsa verde on this page) and the designer, Maryam Nassir Zadeh.
Gohar’s natural flair for hosting is at the root of her inimitable success today. Back in Miami she started cooking for some friends who owned an art gallery. “No one in my environment was saying to be a cook, so I never really considered it as a career at the time. I thought I had to get a ‘serious’ job,” she recalls. In New York, she worked as a recipe tester and food journalist, before starting a now defunct supper club and catering business, called Sunday Suppers. Business was booming, and soon requests for large scale food experiences from Facebook, Tiffany & Co., and LVMH began to roll in. The otherworldly nature of Gohar’s cooking style and avant-garde presentation was unparalleled, and the audience—plus her clients—were immediately hooked. Six-foot-tall marshmallow mountains and dehydrated fruit leathers hanging from towel rods are, it turns out, hard not to love.
In this week’s Semaine Gohar distills her magic formula for throwing the perfect dinner party at home (hint: an overflowing bar helps), and discusses the unexpected foods that will always have her heart. Read on for the full Q&A below.
Semaine: How did growing up in Egypt shape your interest in food?
Laila: “I always say that I feel more Mediterranean than anything else. That way of life, the ingredients that I’m drawn to—it defines who I am and what I cook. I feel most at home in that area of the world, and I feel culturally similar as well. My husband is from Spain and we share that cultural commonality with many of our friends in New York."
Semaine: Which foods do you love the most…or hate?
Laila: “I’ve never been a picky eater, and I won’t turn my nose up at anything. I’m not hard to impress at all, so long as it’s seasoned properly. My mom was a horrible cook when I was younger. She could only make three things—and none of them were good. My dad was much better. He didn’t cook often, but he was inventive. I think if you care more about what you’re making, there’s a better chance of it being tasty.
Semaine: Why food, specifically
Laila: “I’ve always worked with food in different capacities. It’s just something that I’m drawn to, although I’ve never trained professionally. With my installations, I love the ephemeral quality that food brings. We all need to eat so there’s a simplicity to it in that sense also. Sometimes I have to encourage a friend to go and take the first bite at an event, but then I love watching as other people start to go up and consume it. They are always so gentle at first. A concept that might have been in the back of my mind for years and taken months to bring to life can be gone in a few minutes. There’s kind of a beauty to it.”
Semaine: How do you dress for a day in the kitchen?
Laila: “I don’t think much about fashion, and I don’t know that much about it, either. I wear what makes me feel good, and have maybe only two favorite designers—Simone Rocha and Maryam Nassir Zadeh. I wear whatever I feel like to cook in also. Be it head-to-white or a long dress—it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I’ll put an apron on, but not every day.”
Semaine: Can you describe your creative process?
Laila: “The majority of my time is spent researching and coming up with ideas. The concepting period is more than half of the work. Then it’s just about practical elements and execution. Every job is different, but I typically don’t know how it will all come together. Sometimes I hold on to an idea for a long time before I finally find the right opportunity to execute it. Other times, I’ll come up with something completely new. I look for inspiration all around, but it’s mostly people’s way with and hospitality around food that inspires me the most.”
Semaine: Dream collaborator, alive or dead?
Laila: “There are so many. If Louise Bourgeoise was still alive I would love to work with her. Also the artist Etel Adnan, Mary Oliver, and Stanley Kubrik. My dream dinner guest is Guy Debord. I’d make pasta or whatever I felt like on the day.”
Semaine: How do you relax?
Laila: “I work in a pretty frantic manner. I don’t care if it’s the weekend or the middle of the night. But in the summer—every summer—my husband and I take a full month and a half off. We always go back to the Mediterranean and sail around Greece and Turkey with a group of friends. My life is either full throttle or I’m doing nothing at all.”
Semaine: Music in the kitchen, yes or no?
Laila: “Always, yes. I love to listen to lots of reggae and jazz when I cook. It brings a good vibe.”
Semaine: How do you eat at home?
Laila: “I eat really simply when I’m alone. I like quite plain, primitive foods. I don’t eat breakfast, but I’ll start each day with a coffee. It comes in waves, but sometimes I get these obsessions with a specific food which can last a long time—sometimes years. I’ve been obsessed with eggs and potatoes, but right now I’m in a bean phase. I especially love different types of heirloom ones from a brand called Rancho Gordo.”
Semaine: Most unlikely indulgence?
Laila: “Hot dogs are in my top five most favorite foods ever. I appreciate a really good one, but I also love a dirty water dog. Also, greasy, messy hangover food.”
Semaine: What does success feel like for you?
Laila: “I’m very humbled by and thankful for all the press and support I get. I’ve never had any kind of career strategy. I just do what I do and it seems to work. I’m not trying to make it sound easy, but in some ways, I’m lucky that people have approached me and asked me to do things—I’ve never had to seek out a job. I hold myself to an almost impossibly high standard and it’s really important to me to make good work, though. Of course it’s nice to get recognition, but if you’re pleased with yourself there’s no better feeling of success.”
By Elsa de Berker for Semaine.