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Sohla El-Waylly Talks Holiday Traditions And Her Path To Stardom

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Sohla El-Waylly loves a challenge, and that's on full display in her new YouTube series.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW REA: Ladies and gentlemen, today, Sohla El-Waylly is putting a spin on a boozy brunch. It's time to stump Sohla.

MCCAMMON: "Stump Sohla" is a project El-Waylly began after leaving Bon Appetit's video team and writing on Instagram about being turned into what she called a display of diversity while assisting mostly white, mostly less experienced editors without fair pay. I spoke with Sohla El-Waylly before Thanksgiving when a Southern take on crispy fried chicken was on her menu.

SOHLA EL-WAYLLY: So Thanksgiving was actually the first meal I was allowed to cook by myself because my mom thought Thanksgiving food was very easy because she usually makes, like, really elaborate things like multilayered lamb biryani or, you know, these huge whole goat roasts and whole fish and lots of spices. And it requires a lot of, like, different techniques and balancing of a lot of different spices. But Thanksgiving food is really a good place to start if you've never made a big meal before because it's salt, pepper, herbs and butter.

And I really liked how every year, I would get to see how I've grown by - like, Thanksgiving was, like, this marker of time. And, like, every year I'd be like, oh, leveling it up - and I'm going to blanch my own green beans this year. And then the next year, I would make my own crispy shallots. And it was just a really fun way to see how I progressed in cooking.

MCCAMMON: So right now, some people are cooking more at home because they have more time, or they don't want to go out. But other people, I imagine, especially if they're just having a small gathering for Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or Christmas this year, might not want to go through the whole process of cooking all this elaborate food for just a couple of people and want to use things like those instant mashed potatoes. Should we feel bad about that?

EL-WAYLLY: Oh, no, definitely not. I think that you can jazz it up a little. So those potato flakes - when they come out of the box, they kind of taste like the box. So I think a good way to get rid of that stale flavor is to toast it in a dry pan. You're not going to get any color on it. You just need to hit it with some heat, and it freshens it up and gets rid of that aroma. And then add milk and butter and cream, and it'll be delicious.

MCCAMMON: I had never thought of toasting potato flakes. So that's a really interesting - it's a really cool idea. Your Web series on YouTube is all about using ingredients and ideas creatively. It's called "Stump Sohla," and it kind of has this game-show-meets-cooking-show-meets-obstacle-course vibe, where, of course, the basic premise is you're given kind of a ridiculous cooking challenge. For example, my son's favorite episode is when you're tasked with making mac and cheese as it might have been back in the 18th century over an open fire. How did that concept come about?

EL-WAYLLY: I really feel like I do the most creative things when I have some kind of pressure, when I face some kind of obstacle. I personally - like, if I have everything available to me, I'm like a deer in the headlights and I freeze. So if you take a stove away from me or you tell me I only have 15 minutes or one hand to do something, I'd feel like I get much more creative, and I have a lot more fun. So we just wanted to create a way for there to be obstacles.

MCCAMMON: You posted a video recently where you had to cook a holiday meal for astronauts. This was one of your challenges.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah. Well, these challenges are kind of thrown at me spontaneously. I didn't, like, do research to see exactly what astronauts eat, but it was more like my fantasy of what they eat, which I imagine is just regular food that's freeze-dried. So I just made a full Thanksgiving spread and put it in a freeze dryer. I've never used one before, so it was really interesting to see how the freeze dryer changed the texture of things. Not everything just became crisp. They were all a little bit different. Like, the sweet potato casserole was super light and airy, like a puffed snack. And then the pumpkin pie had more of, like, a candy toffee kind of situation. So that was really fun.

MCCAMMON: That sounds delicious, actually. So, of course, you have "Stump Stohla" (ph) on YouTube. You also write a column for Food52 called "Off-Script With Sohla." But when you left Bon Appetit's Test Kitchen back in June, it was at a time when allegations were surfacing of inequitable pay and what staff members were calling a culture of racism. I should say that the publisher, Conde Nast, has denied that. But how has all of that and your decision to leave played into your career now?

EL-WAYLLY: I mean, it's been kind of a whirlwind. When I decided to post that stuff, I was just like, OK, this is cool; this is going to be the end of my career (laughter). I didn't think that anyone was going to support me. I was just - I knew it was something I needed to say. And I'm just kind of trying to make the most of it, take whatever opportunities I can. And I don't know. Hopefully, this can, like, move the industry forward in a better way.

MCCAMMON: As a woman of color who is making your way in this industry that is still, at the top tier, predominantly white and male, do you see yourself as a trailblazer?

EL-WAYLLY: I don't know. I don't know. I'm just trying to keep going. I mean, it's - sometimes it's uncomfortable when you're in a room and everyone is a white male. In this industry is the first time I really thought of myself as a brown person because I just thought of myself as a person who grew up in LA and moved to New York and likes to cook. So I've never been more aware of my ethnicity before now, and I'm just trying to find avenues where I can produce the content I want to do and cook the food I want to cook. And that's it.

MCCAMMON: As we continue through this very unusual holiday season, do you have any advice for people who are cooking at home and trying to maintain a festive atmosphere amidst all of it at a time when things are really different and we may not be able to continue some of the traditions we love or, most of all, see the people we love?

EL-WAYLLY: I mean, I guess just do what you can, you know? I don't think that - just because it's different doesn't mean it's not going to be fun and festive. I know for myself, we're planning to set up a bunch of Zoom calls with family for the holidays. I've decorated far too early for Christmas (laughter). I decorated before Thanksgiving 'cause it's just something - it's what I needed. And I think that if that's what you need - if you need flowers in your house to make you feel better, if you need to put up some Christmas lights in October - like, just do what you got to do, you know? We'll figure this out.

MCCAMMON: Sohla El-Waylly's Web series on YouTube is called "Stump Sohla."

Thanks so much for talking with us.

EL-WAYLLY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.