Chef Sohla El-Waylly Talks 'The Big Brunch' & the Culture of Brunch

Instead of deconstructing the divisive meal, the HBO Max series focuses on the chefs behind it.

HBO Max

Hosted by Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy, the new HBO Max series The Big Brunch highlights how 10 chef contestants positively impact their communities while also creating distinctive (and delicious) dishes. Joining Levy as judges are restaurateur Will Guidara and chef Sohla El-Waylly. As a successful chef and authoritative voice in the food world, El-Waylly further cements her expertise throughout the eight-episode series by offering the chefs a blend of catered commendation and helpful criticism.

Moreover, The Big Brunch provides a picture of America's most cherished and hated meal: brunch. As someone who used to work brunch in restaurants, El-Waylly considered the challenging shift 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 to create reconstructed or elevated versions of breakfast staples.

"Especially during the pandemic, a lot of restaurants have shifted to embrace brunch because it's more hours and more opportunity for business. I think it's really changed from just being like, 'Oh, here's this thing we have to do on Sunday.' There are so many more all-day restaurants now. Especially in New York, there was this wave of all these diners that were so vital. It was hard to see them go, but I feel like, in the last few years, we've got all these all-day cafes that are filling that gap and really elevating what that meal can be," says El-Waylly.

While reworked 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 competition. It's a window into the lives of some of the country's most renowned chefs. "It's about these chefs who are all doing amazing things for their community. They're not just cooking to feed. They understand that food is more than food. It's about bringing people around the table. It's about bringing the community together," says El-Waylly about the allure of The Big Brunch. "I also got to know them more from 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 started filming the show at the tail end of 2021. Like many others during the onslaught of the pandemic, El-Waylly fell into despair from seeing deteriorating world conditions. She says, "A lot of things were happening 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. It wasn't just being around all these amazing people but being around all these amazing people who treated me with so much respect and as an equal." So, The Big Brunch proved to be the light at the end of the tunnel that gave El-Waylly newfound hope. "When we had our wrap party, I cried because I was like, 'Wow, having someone like you respect what I'm saying has made me believe in myself.' So, I guess it lifted that fog I was in. But on the flip side, I just cry a lot now, but they're happy tears," she states.

On the series, El-Waylly calls herself "the villain" of the show as the toughest judge out of her two counterparts. While El-Waylly was quick to offer praise commendations to the chef contestants, she didn't refrain from providing constructive criticism. Regarding 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 their previous performance—because a lot of people go up and down. So, I was focused on each plate and just being honest. Some dishes were just so good I didn't even have anything to say."

El-Waylly hopes viewers of The Big Brunch walk away feeling excitement and wonderment. She says, "I hope that the viewers get to know these chefs and that these chefs also become important in their lives. If you live in a community that's close to these chefs, go check them out. I want these chefs to get the attention they deserve because they're doing so many cool things."

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Gabrielle Pharms is a contributor to Thrillist.