A New York Chef on How to Make Your Thanksgiving Table Look More Avant-Garde

Laila Gohar, the Egyptian chef and food installation artist, says Thanksgiving meals are all about the details.

Laila Gohar

When you see Laila Gohar’s name on a dinner invitation, you know you’re in for something special. The Egyptian-born chef and food installation artist has worked with brands like Opening Ceremony and Jason Wu to create dining experiences that include baguettes hanging from the ceiling, sugar cookies hanging on the wall like art, and interactive eating experiences that will leave you not only full but also inspired.

“I work with food to create installations that break the norms of social etiquette and fine dining,” she said. “And to encourage a playfulness, while often tapping into memories. I think of food as a tool for communication. I’m fascinated with historic methods of food preparation and food’s role in society as a whole.”

In addition to working with fashion brands on special events, her business also hosts installations in the art world as well. In December, she’ll be heading to Art Basel to set up a Jewish Deli installation in the gift shop of the Deauville Hotel where the fair takes place. “I thought it would be interesting to do an appropriation of Katz’s Delicatessen,” she said. “Miami Beach used to be full of great Jewish delis but almost all of them have closed due to gentrification.”

On Instagram, Gohar keeps followers updated with her many projects, as well as her pet lamb, Ziki, which she’s raising in her Soho apartment.

What’s your background and do you have any Thanksgiving traditions? I’m from Egypt. I was born and raised in Cairo. My mother’s family is originally Turkish. We didn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving growing up because it’s not a holiday there. Since moving to the United States almost 10 years ago now, I’ve been doing Friendsgivings for my other foreign friends. It’s just a hodgepodge of different recipes and traditions. I don’t really like turkey; usually there’s another meat like duck or roast chicken.

What will you be doing for Thanksgiving this year? I’m flying out to Miami the next day so want to keep it sort of low key. I might just do a last minute orphan friendsgiving at my place. Or go to a friend’s house.

How much do you prep for a big meal like Thanksgiving? I’m a really last minute planner. I usually shop at the Union Square Farmers Market for almost everything. I will probably do several vegetables; whatever looks good when I’m there and then a duck. I keep everything really organized when it comes to the actual cooking though, and have my mise en place. Everything is done before guests arrive so I don’t have to be running around like a headless chicken. It’s usually heavy prep the day before, so that the day of is really easy.

Is the presentation of food just as important as the cooking to you? Details are very important to me. You don’t need to spend a ton of money on stuff but just keeping in mind little details is nice. I don’t like things that are too fussy. My eyes are very tired of the precious shabby chic/beautiful/moody/mess blogger type of aesthetic. You know what I mean? So I don’t go that route.

Courtesy Laila Gohar

Ever had a major Thanksgiving blunder? Several years ago, I was getting ready for a friendsgiving dinner at an ex-boyfriends house. I was cooking like 12 chickens in a little oven and there was tons of smoke. The alarm went off and I couldn’t manage to turn it off. Within a few minutes the fire department came. I guess they must be used to turkey situations so they were pretty relaxed about the whole thing. Nothing burned though!

What is your secret to a good meal experience? Don’t make anything you haven’t made before. Give yourself adequate time to prep. Try to finish everything before guests arrive and just hold things till they’re ready to be served. Alcohol is important. As is music (at the write volume). Relax. If you’re stressed, guests will be too. Also no meal is perfect, and you are no Martha Stewart. Embrace things that go wrong. It ends up more memorable.

What does your dream meal look like? Good bread, good wine, nothing overly cooked. Just simple, fresh food that is combined in an interesting way. I think the best cooks retain the integrity of the ingredients and don’t over process things. It’s a matter of understanding flavor pairings and showing restraint.

What do you do with leftovers? Thanksgiving okonomiyaki!

Courtesy Laila Gohar