“You know how on these things online, everyone’s apartments look so perfect? I don’t get it! Has that person been cleaning for 2 weeks?” Laila Gohar is tidying her (already tidy) apartment, as if it even matters. Laila is the woman behind Sunday Supper—which I guess you could call a catering company, but it has a bit more soul than that. It’s really an organized version of what Laila has been doing forever: bringing people together through food. Growing up in Cairo, Laila was encouraged to eat 5 colors daily, something evident her cooking today. Vibrant, beautiful, slightly eccentric—her food is a pure product of who she is. Laila’s story is about creating something to be enjoyed, shared, and loved—a venture that gets far closer to the meaning of perfect than a tidy apartment.

“As a kid I was encouraged to try whatever I wanted. The conversation was never ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ It was, ‘What are into right now?’ I think the former question pressures people into needing to know what they’re going to do for the rest of their years. I still don’t know what I’m going to for the rest of my life. I know what I’m doing today and maybe what I’m doing tomorrow—but that’s the extent of it. Growing up, it was less about success and career and more about following what speaks to you, even if it’s just a phase.

There’s nothing wrong with having a phase, getting over it and doing something else.

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I have always loved to cook. My earliest memories are from making food, really just throwing stuff together, and my parents acting as if it was the best thing they’d ever put in their mouth. As a kid you need that recognition—and as an adult too. In school I was a bit of a troublemaker. I kept breaking the rules and got myself suspended, which meant two days of sitting in a little room doing schoolwork, not allowed to go outside. My dad spoke with the principal and asked if I could be suspended in the library (no) or the arts center (no). So my dad said, OK, I’m going to be suspended with her. He didn’t go to work for the next two days, and sat in that little room talking with me until 3PM. I remember feeling so proud that my dad had another solution, that the whole school could see he had my back. Things like that really stay with you—they become part of your backbone. I felt so supported—not that I could go around doing what I wanted—but that if I made a mistake, it wasn’t the end of the world.

I left Cairo around my 18th birthday and went to the University of Miami. It was one of the most important experiences of my life. I didn’t know anyone in the state of Florida and felt completely alone, but was able to create myself from nothing. When you’re 18, who you think you are is not who you’re going to be for long—so it was a really explorative time, during which I felt young and totally invincible.

I started working at a friend’s arts studio, and would make lunch for the four of us. Over time, our friends and neighbors starting joining us to eat, and it became this very informal pay what you can thing. It wasn’t some art project/underground supper club—we needed to have lunch and so I made lunch. Once it began to receive press, I decided that it had lived it’s course. I took on a few other jobs afterwards, most of which I got fired from, then got a job in New York in food journalism and moved here. No matter where I’ve lived—whether in Miami, Paris or New York, I’ve always had people over for dinner.

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My family was always hosting dinner parties, my dad cooking and my mom entertaining, so it’s just what I thought was normal. One day, a friend of mine at a large tech company asked if I could cater a 150 person brunch they were having. I was like ‘No, you’re insane. What are you talking about? I’m going to mess up your party for sure.’ In the end though, I agreed. I made up the whole thing as I went along—from the menu to the amount of food we’d need—and it worked out. From there I started catering on the side, until it turned into what I do full time. Since then, I’ve carved out this niche for myself where I mostly cater for art and design related events.

People think that my job is glamorous. They’ll see something online and think I’m cool or something lame like that. In reality, my job involves lifting tons of heavy boxes full of food and equipment, hauling them to events, and spending hours and hours in a hot kitchen in the middle of a New York summer. It’s not pretty. People assume things happen overnight because of what we project on social media—it looks as though things are happening really fast and really positively. But there are good days and there are bad days. There are days when I feel like, ‘This is great, I’m onto something good!’ And there are other days or weeks when I think, ‘What have I done?’ I don’t know where this is going and I don’t have a plan.

The success obsessed culture here can make those times harder. There’s so much focus on building yourself as a brand. Like, do it really hard and do it all the time and throw your business cards at people. I’m not like that at all.

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For me, being the
best at my job is not the
most important thing.

Sure, it’s important, but so is being good to the people I love. It’s a combination of things that makes me happy. I think in a society like New York, you tend to forget about those other elements of happiness. People undermine the importance of a vacation or a 45 minute lunch break—they feel guilty for indulging in those things. But for me, they are essential. In some ways you can’t blame people for feeling that way; life is expensive and it’s super competitive. It’s so easy to look at the person next to you and think they have it all figured out. There’s something very PG about this country. Ask anyone how they’re doing and they’ll say, ‘Fine, thanks!’ When in reality they feel like a hot mess and that their life has imploded. Real emotions are being masked a lot of the time, and it leads you to assume you’re in the shit by yourself. But things are not what they appear.

For example, people assume I’m really savvy in branding and marketing for Sunday Supper because of the press I’ve received. But I’m not good at that side of things at all. I don’t mean to sound like one of those people who’s like, I woke up and my company was successful. But I’ve been really lucky in that I have amazing friends who work in media who have written about it, which has helped me gain exposure. I never had a marketing strategy, or knew that you were supposed to think about what your brand feels like. I just put out images and said things that I felt represented me and what I do, and the brand evolved as I did. I think if you’re honest, people know. If you’re not honest, people know. Or they will eventually.

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I believe if you love food,
you love life.

Some people are not that interested in it—the ones who are like, ‘Yeah, I’ll eat whatever.’ Not to sound judgmental, but I always suspect that those people don’t fully embrace life. Food is literally at the core of our existence—how can you not love it? Food has become such an important form of expression for me. I’m a very intense person—a little black and white, for better or worse. If I’m angry, I’m angry, and if I love, I love a lot.

Being this way, it has been especially important for me to find something that I believed in and wanted. I’m really thankful to know what I like to do, to know what moves me. Not everyone has the luxury to know what they really love. I cook because I must, and I let it consume me. It’s the way I know how to love people.”

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Laila’s #OKREALTALK Tips

  • Less: ‘rest of your life’. More: ‘right now’.
  • Nothing wrong with a phase.
  • What you do should be a product of who you are.
  • Do it because you must.
ok

sundaysupperny.com

i. @lailacooks


Photography by Amy Woodside

As told to Amy Woodside, May 2015