No one told Laila Gohar never to play with her food—or at least she wasn’t listening. The 31-year-old New York City-based food artist and cook has fashioned a career of making elaborate, strange, and evocative sculptures and multisensory edible art installations (Giacometti-style facial features made of butter and displayed on a beach; a cake inspired by Louise Bourgeois; a swan made entirely of shrimp) for her friends and dinner party guests as well as international clients such as Hermès and Comme des Garçons. With her culinary artwork in great demand, she travels almost constantly—this year she’s headed to Milan (twice), India, London, and Egypt to name a few.
Gohar could tell you about her three favorite pastry shops in Milan, the spots to avoid in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, and where to drink when you’re in Cairo—but will she? “I actually think that travel lists and that sort of thing are ruining the culture of discovery,” she says. “I think we now live in this world where everyone has a list of the curated places that they would like to go, and stumbling upon something rarely happens anymore. Those lists are often very helpful and cool, but there’s something that comes with really discovering a place and having a couple of not so great meals to just appreciate your next amazing one.”
As an example, she tells the story of wandering all over Tokyo, high and low, looking for a tea room that had been recommended to her. “I was so obsessed with finding it, I didn’t even realize it was right by my hotel. And had I not been so lost in the list, I probably would have just stumbled upon it. I think it’s part of how I ended up doing the type of work I do. In some ways, I always had a very intense passion for [food]. But also I think taking some different turns, going on a path a little bit less traveled and less curated brought me to what I do.”
While she was growing up in Cairo until age 18, Gohar’s father, then a war photographer and later a television executive, encouraged the family to travel. They went on trips to places like Finland and Tel Aviv. Around college age, Gohar became enamored with food, or maybe disappointed with it—with what it was missing—and so she set about remaking it as it could be. “I don’t know if there’s some greater mission behind [what I do],” she says. “It’s just more that I know how to communicate something using food when words fail me.” In lieu of hot potatoes, we had the following conversation with words.
Where was your last vacation, and where will your next vacation be? Japan. I was working in Shanghai, so I took a few days after to go to Tokyo because I had never been there. I could only be there for a few days, and I was only in Tokyo. But basically the day that I got back I was kind of depressed to be back, so I bought another ticket to return. I can never really plan things that far out in advance because of the nature of my work. But I looked at the calendar, gave myself a minute, and I was like, these days in March seem fine.
I’m not actually going back to Tokyo anymore. (This is why I can’t plan trips in advance!) Instead, I’ll return to Milan for the second time this year, and head to Paris, India, Egypt, London, and possibly Australia. All for work, except for Cairo, which is to visit my family.
The thing you can’t travel without? [Apparently] my retainer. I only wear it at night but I forgot it when I left for Japan, and when I came back it didn’t fit me anymore. It’s crazy how fast your teeth change.
What is your in-flight ritual? I don’t really have one. I used to think it was important to look really nice and presentable on airplanes. I think this was something I inherited from my parents. But now I’ve gotten kind of lazy. I mean, I would never wear sweats and I don’t really have a travel uniform, but [I tend to dress] slightly more comfortably.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt. I love the old-world-ness of it. Everything is perfect, but not too perfect.
What is your room service indulgence? I’m not really a burger person, but once a year I’ll just get a really intense craving for one and oftentimes it happens in hotel rooms. Even if their burger is kind of mediocre, it’s fine.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? I was with my sister in Berlin. It was the first time we traveled on our own—I must’ve been 13 years old and my dad thought it was a time to send us off on our own. He had this friend that was a consul to Berlin. We were staying in his residence and he gave us very strict clearance. Not strict but like clear instructions on how to get in and out. And, of course, the first night we went out and fucked it up and we came home really late. We were too ashamed to call him or to ring for the staff to wake up. So we just slept on a bench.
What is your favorite market in the world? I think the markets in Mexico city are really great. But I’m worried something bad is happening to markets [in general]. My husband is from Barcelona and we go there often. It’s one of the most visited destinations of course, but the [market now] caters to selfie-stick tourism and all. Where there used to be a beautiful little pharmacy, fishmonger, or shoe cobbler is now like a selfie stick store or a fidget spinner thing.
If you travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? I would go back to Cairo when I was growing up there. A lot of things have happened politically since then and Cairo has really changed. My parents have since left. My dad now lives in Guatemala and my mom is in Istanbul. I’m not really nostalgic but I miss everyday things.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Oh man, we are asking you for your Cairo list, ha. It definitely doesn’t exist. Well, okay, there are a bunch of bars around downtown that I really enjoy. They are more like pubs, I would say. You’d be the only foreigner in there. And they’re all a little similar but kind of distinct in their way—really dark and smoky and very Cairo. Stella bar is my favorite. Cafe Riche is a famous beer bar that brings in a mix of intellectuals, students, and taxi drivers. Also El Horreya Cafe and Cap d’Or.
There is also the Gayer-Anderson Museum, which was closed for a long time for restoration but recently reopened, and the Agriculture Museum which has a bunch of great taxidermy. Cairo Museum is also an incredible place, but they’re moving it. There’s a major population issue in Cairo and the city is expanding to the outskirts.
Which language do you wish you spoke? Italian? Or Farsi. I think Farsi is really beautiful. I speak Turkish and Arabic. And I feel like Farsi is the one that’s missing.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year? For a weekend, there’s a flight from New York to Dakar, Senegal, and it’s surprisingly not that far. I went to Dakar a couple of years ago and this friend of mine, named Yodit Eklund, just opened this tiny little hotel there called Seku-Bi. It’s so nice to be able to go somewhere that seems so far away and not so many hours.
For a week, I’m not sure. Maybe Mexico City. Or maybe I’d actually stay home for a minute.
And if I had a month or six months or a year, I think I’d spend it in Japan. There, I’m completely clueless in a really good way. And yet the order in the society, I think, makes it feel familiar. I’ve traveled a little bit throughout Asia, like to Bangkok, and the chaos [of somewhere like Tokyo] to me is also very familiar. I live in New York now, chaos. I thrive in chaos. I get it. I know how to cross the street when there’s no traffic light.
What’s your idea of travel hell? I think the chemistry of the people you travel with is really important. There are some people that I’m great friends with that I wouldn’t want to travel with. I think that our interests are slightly different. I think people’s most intense selves come out when they travel. It’s not so much about where you go, it’s more about who you go with.
Most treasured travel memento? I bring back all sorts of crazy shit—a lot of kitchenware, knives, glassware, cutlery, bedding—and I’ve gotten good at figuring out how to make sure things don’t break. When I travel with my husband, I’ll see something that I think I need and he’ll be like, ‘How are you going to bring that home?’ I don’t think about that. When there’s a will, there’s a way.
Why do you travel? It’s a wide world. Traveling really enriches you in a way that not many other things do. You are open to different experiences. That openness for me is really important, and that’s why—going back to the point we were making before—the curation of travel, the fact that everything that we’re fed right now is so curated, whether it’s on social media or the news, and we’re existing so much in this bubble that’s really curated for us, and I think that is killing discovery. I travel out of curiosity.