Chef Sohla El-Waylly Talks HBO Max’s Big Brunch

Hosted by Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy, the new HBO Max series The big brunch highlights how 10 nominee chefs are positively impacting their communities while creating distinctive (and delicious) dishes. Joining Levy as judges are restaurateur Will Guidara and chef Sohla El-Waylly. As a successful chef and an authoritative voice in the food world, El-Waylly further cements her expertise throughout the eight-episode series by offering chefs a mix of kudos and helpful critiques.

In addition, The big brunch paints a picture of America’s most loved and hated meal: brunch. As someone who used to work brunch in restaurants, El-Waylly considered the difficult change among the times she hated because “everyone is hungover, the customers and the cooks.” . However, many restaurants across the country have embraced brunch as an opportunity to capitalize on the trend of creating rebuilt or upgraded versions of breakfast staples.

“Especially during the pandemic, a lot of restaurants have turned to brunch because it’s more hours and more business opportunities. I think it’s really different to be like, ‘Oh, here’s this thing we have to do on Sunday.’ There are so many more restaurants open all day now. Especially in New York, there was this wave of all these diners who were so vital. It was hard to see them go, but I feel like, for the past few years, we’ve had all these all-day cafes that fill that void and really enhance what that meal can be,” says El-Waylly.

While revamped brunch classics remain the trend, the stories behind the creators of these dishes are unique. That’s the beauty of The big brunch. It’s more than just a food contest. It’s a window into the lives of some of the country’s most renowned chefs. “It’s about these chefs who all do amazing things for their community. They don’t just cook for food. They understand that food is more than food. It’s about bringing people together around the table. It’s about bringing the community together,” El-Waylly says of the appeal of The big brunch. “I also got to know them better by watching the show rather than being on it because they did these amazing little biographical vignettes. Seeing them in their element with their families and communities was great.”

El-Waylly began filming the show in late 2021. Like many others during the onslaught of the pandemic, El-Waylly fell into despair upon witnessing deteriorating global conditions. She says, “A lot of things were going on in the world that made me lose hope. So with the show, I went into it depressed and numb. Now I’m a different person. Amazing people but being surrounded by all these amazing people who have treated me with such respect and as an equal.” So, The big brunch turned out to be the light at the end of the tunnel that gave El-Waylly new hope. “When we had our closing party, I cried because I was like, ‘Wow, having someone like you who respects what I say has made me believe in myself.’ So, I guess that lifted the fog that I was in. But on the other hand, I cry a lot now, but those are tears of joy,” she says.

In the series, El-Waylly calls herself “the villainess” of the series as the tougher judge of her two counterparts. While El-Waylly was quick to offer praise to the candidate leaders, she didn’t hold back from providing constructive criticism. When it came to her judging process, she avoided overthinking and focused on the dish of each round. El-Waylly adds, “For me, it was important that it was about each plate in front of me and not how I felt about the chef or his previous performance, because a lot of people go up and down. So I was concentrated in every plate and just to be honest some of the dishes were so good I didn’t even have anything to say.

El-Waylly hopes viewers of The big brunch leave feeling excited and amazed. She says, “I hope viewers will get to know these chiefs and that these chiefs will also become important in their lives. If you live in a community close to these chiefs, go see them. I want these chiefs to get attention they deserve because they do so many cool things.”

Gabrielle Pharms is a contributor to Thrillist.

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