Food, art and entertainment: Culinary artist Laila Gohar on hosting visually compelling dinners

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I never really celebrated traditional holidays, like Christmas or my birthday. For me, it was always much more exciting to celebrate the first day of spring or dahlia season at the farmers market. This comes from my parents: we celebrated the holidays growing up, but they never gave them much importance. I am the same now with my son, born last May.

However, entertaining is my way of life. It's how I connect with the people I love. Preparing food is an obvious way to express your appreciation and gratitude to others. This is also what I do professionally; I create installations using food in traditionally non-food spaces like galleries and museums and in partnership with fashion brands for events. There are so many opportunities with these kinds of experiences because you can really create a world and invite people into it. Last year I made life-size chairs with a cake for the opening of an art exhibition at Sotheby's in Paris. I work a lot with the designer Simone Rocha; we have a similar sensitivity even if our mediums are different. But more and more, I'm interested in doing installation-based work that doesn't necessarily have a commercial purpose. This year I created this piece called “Baby Bread Bed” for a group exhibition at MoMu, the fashion museum in Antwerp, Belgium. It was a blanket made from pieces of bread sewn together and symbolized a mother's primal desire to keep her child warm and protected. I feel an enormous sense of responsibility for what we leave behind on this earth; the problem with my work is that it's ephemeral, so it won't exist forever.

I grew up in a large family in Cairo, Egypt, and my parents often hosted these eclectic dinner parties. Their house had an open-door policy: if they planned a dinner for 10 people, they could make room for 12 people. There was always a very diverse group of people at the parties, from work colleagues my parents knew to our butcher. Cairo is full of embassies, so there were a lot of diplomats in the area. My father would sometimes befriend them and invite them over. It was this wild group of people. I think that shaped or informed my approach to entertainment.

For me, the most important aspects of hosting are being flexible and generous. I never say no when people ask if they can bring a friend or two, so I prepare food that can easily be adapted or increased at the last minute, and I always get a little more food than we needed. we need. My parents did a lot of grilling because if someone showed up with a few extra people, they could just throw a little more food on there. Hospitality is an integral part of our Middle Eastern culture. People are really proud of it. And if you don't feel relaxed and comfortable in your own home, no one else will.

My boyfriend and I live in New York, where we have a select family with people from very different backgrounds. I love making the dishes they introduce me to when we all get together. My boyfriend is from Uruguay and there is a tradition there where families get together one day at the end of the month to make ñoquis (gnocchi) at home. Historically, this was because people ran out of money at the end of the month and therefore only had potatoes to work with. We like to do this with friends from time to time because it involves everyone.

I like to prepare simple dishes. I'm really happy if there are fish, potatoes and cooked green vegetables on the plate. I think it's kind of a perfect meal. Sometimes my meetings are more conceptual, but generally I'm more interested in working with simple ingredients and figuring out how to create something really exciting with them.

One thing I love to do during the holidays is host an oyster party. Ordering oysters and having them at home is much more affordable than if you go to a restaurant. Many people don't know how to shuck them, but once you get the hang of it, it's really easy. I like hands-on projects that everyone can participate in. I think it breaks the ice and is a really good way for guests to be able to help.

When it comes to decorating, I'm not formulaic; it's just a matter of having a little imagination. I'm a visual person, so it's important to make my dinners visually compelling. My sister Nadia and I have a brand called Gohar World that makes entertaining items, like glassware, linens, and decor. There's a lot of humor in what we do. Most of the things we make are certainly not necessities, but they inject a little lightness and beauty into everyday life. For example, we have something we call an egg chandelier, which looks like a candelabra but has 11 eggs in it. Our holiday collection is inspired by a seafood fantasy and includes seashell napkin rings and mother-of-pearl serving spoons.

It is very important that my son grows up in a house where there are people and where it is always warm, both metaphorically and literally. Since his birth, I have tried to incorporate him into every aspect of our lives. We're always having people over and having dinners, and he's a part of it all. I really enjoyed helping him try new foods. I can't imagine the first time I tried a lemon or something. It's crazy; It must blow your mind.

Featured image: @lailacooks/Instagram

This piece originally appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 print edition of Harper's Bazaar USA.

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