2017 New York City Rising Star Chefs Ham & Sohla El-Waylly of Hail Mary

2017 New York City Rising Star Chefs Ham & Sohla El-Waylly of Hail Mary
January 2017

Long before they were married chefs and business partners, Ham El-Waylly and Sohla Muzib’s lives were intertwined with food and restaurants—it was all in the family. American-born Sohla was raised by her Bengali parents in Los Angeles, where a Baskin Robbins was the family business. Meanwhile, 8,000 miles away in Qatar, Ham was growing up as an ad-hoc secretary, firing off  emails and doing random tasks for his Egyptian father, who ran a chain of Mongolian grills and imported Western food products. Ham’s first real job was at a shawarma stand in Doha, and though he had chef-y aspirations, he first had to satisfy parental expectations and earn a college degree—like a good Bolivian son (his mother is from Bolivia). After moving to Piscataway, New Jersey, and graduating from Middlesex Community College with an associate degree in business, Ham enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America.

Back in L.A., Sohla had started to work for another chain, Outback Steak. She too had kitchen ambitions, but after knocking on doors throughout the city’s more formidable establishments and being continually refused a chance to stage, she finally decided to enroll at the CIA in 2008, where she met Ham. Only after that did the kitchens of Del Posto and Atera open up to Sohla. Ham was making the rounds in New York City, as well, having staged at wd~50 and cooked at Corton. He and Sohla then spent four years at Empellon with mentor Alex Stupak.

In 2016, the couple opened Hail Mary in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Americana fuses with their formal training and international influences. Sohla is all business and pastry, even returning to her ice cream roots, and on the savory side Ham delves deep into his culinary heritage and their mutual love for the American diner.      

Interview with New York City Rising Stars Ham & Sohla El-Wallyl of Hail Mary

Sean Kenniff: Tell me a little about your background?
Ham El-Waylly:
I grew up in Qatar. My mom’s Bolivian, and my dad is Egyptian. Both Sohla and my parents are industry, so there was no escaping it. My dad owns a service chain for Monglian grills in the Middle East. Her parents own a Baskin-Robbins in Los Angles. In typical brown family fashion, I was looped into doing a lot of random stuff, like acting as my dad’s secretary. After 18 years in Qatar, we  moved to Pascataway, New Jersey. In order to get the family blessing, I needed an associates degree in a real field. I went to Middlesex Community College for business and then went to Culinary Institute of America.

SK: Tell me about opening the restaurant.
We got married and spent about a year and a half looking for spaces in Manhattan and realized we didn’t have enough money to open anything in Manhattan. We are the sole owners and business partners here. We did some research on Greenpoint and loved the landlord. We noticed more and more how vital having a great landlord is. He’s super supportive, our number one fan. He eats two fried burratta a week.

SK: What were your first serious cooking jobs? 
I graduated CIA in 2010 and went to wd~50. I synced up with Alex Stupak and got a gig at Empellon. I started as a cook and eventually became a chef. I spent four years at Empellon. I left briefly to work at Corton the summer it closed and went back to Empellon. I learned from Alex that you can have all the passion in the world, but you have to offset those skills with business acumen. It can't all be art house.

SK: What was the opening process here?
It was a challenge to gets this place open. Budget for one. We worked with very limited funds and that dictated our look. My wife designed the restaurant. We sanded the floors and repainted. Her aesthetic is grandma-chic. It’s like you’re going to grandma’s house except she’s tripping on acid. It stretches from front and back of house. We don’t have front of house, no chef de cuisine, and no sous chef— we are everything. You ask, “How do you find good line cooks?” You don’t—you make them.

SK: What’s your approach to staffing?
Sohla takes care of cocktails, the business, and front of house. And I take care of the back of house. But there’s a lot of overlap. She makes cakes, breads, desserts, and ice cream.  She runs the bulk of the business.