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.