Food, art and entertainment: Culinary artist Laila Gohar on hosting visually compelling dinners

Laila Gohar creates complex installations that look as good as they taste. But when she celebrates with family and friends, she likes to keep it simple.

Harper's Bazaar India

I’ve never really celebrated traditional holidays, like Christmas or my birthday. For me, it always felt much more exciting to celebrate the first day of spring or dahlia season at the farmers’ market. This comes from my parents: We celebrated the holidays growing up, but they never placed a ton of emphasis on them. I’m the same way now with my son, who was born this past May.


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Still, entertaining is my way of life. It’s how I connect with the people I love. Making food is an obvious way of expressing your appreciation and gratitude for others. It’s also what I do professionally; I create installations out of food in traditionally non-food spaces like galleries and museums and in partnership with fashion brands for events. There’s so much opportunity with these kinds of experiences because you can really create a world and invite people into it. Last year, I made life-size chairs out of cake for the opening of an art show at Sotheby’s in Paris. I work a lot with the designer Simone Rocha; we have a similar sensibility even though our mediums are different. But more and more, I’m interested in doing installation-based work that’s not necessarily for a commercial purpose. This year, I made this piece called 'Baby Bread Bed' for a group show at MoMu, the fashion museum in Antwerp, Belgium. It was a blanket constructed from pieces of bread that were stitched together and was symbolic of a mother’s primal desire to keep her child warm and protected. I feel a huge sense of responsibility for what we leave behind on this earth; the thing about my work is that it is ephemeral, so it’s not going to exist forever.

I grew up in a big family in Cairo, Egypt, and my parents would often host these eclectic dinner parties. Their house had an open-door policy: If they were planning a dinner for 10, they could make room for 12. There was always a very diverse group of people at the parties, from colleagues my parents knew from work to our butcher. Cairo was full of embassies, so there were a lot of diplomats in the neighbourhood. My dad would sometimes befriend and invite them. It was this wild cast of people. I think that formed or informed my approach to entertaining.

For me, the most important aspects of hosting are to be flexible and generous. I never say no when people ask if they can bring a friend or two, so I make foods that can easily be adapted or increased at the last minute, and I always get a little bit more food than we need. My parents would grill a lot because if someone showed up with a few extra people, then they could just throw some more food on. Hospitality is a big part of our Middle Eastern culture. People really pride themselves on that. And if you’re not feeling relaxed and comfortable in your own home, then nobody else will.


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My boyfriend and I live in New York, where we have a chosen family with people from a lot of different backgrounds. I love making dishes that they’ve introduced me to when we all get together. My boyfriend is from Uruguay, and there’s a tradition there where families will come together one day at the end of the month to make ñoquis (gnocchi) at home. Historically, that was because people would run out of money by the end of the month, so they’d just have potatoes to work with. We like to do that with friends every once in a while because it gets everyone involved.

I love to make simple foods. I’m really happy if there’s fish, potatoes, and some cooked greens on the plate. I think that’s kind of a perfect meal. Sometimes my gatherings are more conceptual, but in general, I’m most interested in working with simple ingredients and figuring out how to make something really exciting with them.

One thing I like to do around the holidays is hosting an oyster party. Ordering oysters and having them at home is much more affordable than if you go to a restaurant. A lot of people don’t know how to shuck them, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy. I like hands-on projects that everyone can participate in. I think it breaks the ice and is a really nice way for guests to be able to help out.

When it comes to decorating, there’s no formula I follow; it’s more just about having a little bit of imagination. I am a visual person, so it’s important to make my dinner parties visually compelling. My sister Nadia and I have a brand called Gohar World that makes objects for entertaining, like glassware, linens, and decor. There’s a lot of humour in what we do. Most things that we make are definitely not necessities, but they inject a little bit of lightheartedness and beauty into everyday life. For example, we have something we call an egg chandelier, which looks like a candelabra but holds 11 eggs. Our holiday collection was inspired by a seafood fantasy and includes shell napkin rings and mother-of-pearl serving spoons.


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It’s very important that my son grows up in a home where there are people around and it’s always warm, both metaphorically and literally. Since he was born, I’ve tried to integrate him into every aspect of our life. We’re still having people over and hosting dinner parties, and he’s part of it all. I’ve really enjoyed helping him try new foods. I can’t imagine the first time I ever tried a lemon or something. That’s crazy; it must blow your mind.

Feature Image: @lailacooks/Instagram

This piece originally appeared in the December 2023/Jan 2024 print edition of Harper's Bazaar USA.