The chef and artist Laila Gohar moved to New York City 10 years ago, but it was only recently that she began to feel a longing for home. Gohar was born and raised in Cairo — where winters are mild, and summers come hot and quick — and makes a living creating interactive installations at fashion and art events (imagine, for example, cracking open a salt-baked pear with a wooden mallet at the recent Object & Thing design fair). Though she and her husband, Omar Sosa, one of the Barcelona-born co-founders of Apartamento magazine, have made a home for themselves in a cozy third-floor apartment on Spring Street in Manhattan, Gohar admits she still feels “very much like a foreigner” in the United States. Which is why, on a recent evening, she assembled some of her closest friends — including the fashion designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh, the actor and director Hailey Gates and the creative director Rafael Prieto — for dinner to celebrate an Egyptian holiday called Sham el-Nessim. The tradition, which means “smelling the breeze” in Arabic, is believed to be as old as the pharaohs, and celebrates the arrival of spring. Egyptians gather outdoors in public gardens, in zoos, in public spaces, on boats on the Nile and elsewhere, and feast on salted fermented fish, lettuce, beans and boiled eggs — all foods believed to be what was originally offered to the gods in ancient times. “In Cairo, it’s a really fun day,” explained Gohar. “There are people from all walks of life — it’s not a religious holiday — young and old, rich and poor, everyone celebrates the holiday.”
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Springtime is also more personally liberating for Gohar. “I shed my skin, it feels like a new year — it might be more significant than January for me. I really feel it in my body, my mood and my mind,” she said. Her guests were greeted with coupes of champagne (“Fiesta!” Sosa yelled when a cork hit the ceiling) until they were invited to sit at the couple’s custom Sam Stewart table, set with their wedding china — monogrammed porcelain plates by the Galician company Sargadelos — and hammered silver flatware, interspersed with amusing foot- and hand-shaped candles Sosa recently picked up on a trip to Nicosia, Cyprus. The chef Ignacio Mattos, another of Gohar’s guests, teasingly told me that he and his friend, the music producer Emile Haynie, had contemplated ordering a quick steak at Café Altro Paradiso, one of Mattos’s restaurants, before arriving. “But I told Emile, no, don’t — because Laila can cook,” he said. Gohar, over by the kitchen stove, raised an eyebrow to indicate she had heard him, but she was smiling. “Laila used to make elaborate feasts for us at home,” Nadia, her younger sister, also an artist, told me. Soon, the giant boule of bread was cut, plates were passed and the food was served at once. Gates and Mattos even began to shoot fava beans from their pods at each other, with more than a few landing on the brown shag carpet. But Gohar was unfussed. “Our lives are already so hectic in New York,” she later told me. “You can’t be stressing about a dinner party, you know? Like, what’s the point?” Here, her tips for springtime entertaining.
Gohar had been working in Paris and Milan, and returned to New York with just one day to prepare for the dinner. She sourced many of the meal’s ingredients from local downtown Manhattan shops, such as the rabbit from Ottomanelli & Sons in the West Village, meats and cheeses from Di Palo’s in Little Italy, and fresh ramps from the Union Square farmer’s market, but other ingredients — like the handsome fingerlike fava beans, the pecorino encrusted in gold strands of straw and the puntarella — were easier to pick up at a market in Milan. “I don’t want you to think I am totally ridiculous flying my produce in for a dinner,” she said, “It was just easier to bring back with me.” This was also true of the delicate candied desserts from Cucchi, one of Gohar’s favorite pastry shops in Milan, as well as a small pork rillette from Paris. (Though the classic French Gavottes, small chocolate wafers wrapped like bars of gold, were lifted from Mattos’s Café Altro Paradiso. “Those look familiar!” he observed.) Be sure, however, to check with the Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs and Border Protection on what you can and cannot bring into your port of entry.
Let Obsessions Take Over
“When we were little,” Nadia told me, “Laila used to practice making a dish over and over again. She used to make meringue every day for a long time. I remember once she was obsessed with chicken teriyaki. She made it over and over.” Laila, who studied international relations in college, and isn’t a formally trained chef, elaborated: “I get very obsessive about an ingredient. Usually it’s a very humble thing, like a potato or beans or whatever. And I become obsessed with making it until I find the way that I think makes sense and then I try that many, many times. Until it reaches a point where I think nothing I will do will make it better. Then I retire it.” This time around, Gohar’s mania landed on beans. They were a subtle but deliciously hearty presence at the dinner — she braised the rabbit in aromatics and wine, and served it alongside Rancho Gordo’s Marcella bean, a type of cannellini that gives a creamy texture when soaked and then slowly cooked.
Prep in Advance So You Can Enjoy Your Own Dinner
For Gohar, entertaining is not about being fussy. “Entertaining means a lot to me,” she said. “It’s a way of filling your life with people. In my house, my parents entertained all the time. Entertaining is about sharing, it’s about generosity. My way of entertaining is very stress-free. I think if you get stressed about it then it’s not what you should be spending your time doing. People will only ever relax if you’re having a good time.” Gohar prefers to get most of her prep done in advance. By the time the guests arrive, the table has been set, nearly all of the dishes have already been plated or cooked. Braised meats or seafood, as well as green salads and several sides that can be served at room temperature can help. “It’s about being present when your guests arrive,” Gohar said.
Play With Proportions
Much of Gohar’s work involves thinking creatively about food as an entity to be not merely consumed but also looked at, used or touched. A recent project in Milan involved hanging large clusters of cherry tomatoes from the ceiling as if from a giant vine; another in Paris meant lifting by crane a 13-foot-long piece of mortadella into the department store Galeries Lafayette (the leftovers were donated to charity). On her own dining table, Gohar simply paired seemingly incongruous elements: for instance, an enormous boule of bread from She Wolf Bakery alongside two dainty bowls of olives and almonds. On a geometrically decorated Astier de Villatte plate: pillowy stracciatella di bufala topped with small orbs of salmon roe.
For Dessert, Small Can Be Big
For the final course, Gohar arranged an overwhelming number of small plates of sweets on the table: candied celery, orange and strawberry; two lumpy loaves of marzipan meant to resemble potatoes; sesame cookies; several sugar candies shaped as miniature fruit; marrons glacés garnished with candied violet and more. “I like old lady dessert flavors. I like marzipan and meringue and candied fruit,” she said. Each guest was also served a Mont Blanc, a European dessert dating back to the 15th century, made with puréed sweetened chestnuts, a layer of meringue, cream and candied chestnut on top. Traditionally it is made to look like a snow-capped mountain, but Gohar relaxed the sweet’s traditional swirl. In addition, Gohar served an almond granita with whipped cream, which she topped with a single slice of chocolate biscotti. There was no centerpiece dessert, but no one was left wanting.