Meet the Chef/Owner: Sohaila's Kitchen

Published on May 12, 2023

Sohaila of Sohaila's Kitchen serving a bowl of Butter Chicken inside her merchant stall

From the dining hall of a Pakistani boarding school to Silicon Valley celebrations to a cozy food stall in Lenexa, Sohaila’s Kitchen is the product of a journey as rich, vibrant and filled with love as each authentic dish on its menu.

The seeds of the Lenexa Public Market’s beloved Pakistani restaurant sprouted from a predicament so many will relate to: Sohaila Humayon’s boarding school lunches were just terrible.

“I was like ten years old when my parents sent me to Pakistan, to boarding school, because the schools in Kuwait at that time were not very good,” Sohaila recalled.

“I think it was in 1974, when I was in high school, I realized this passion to cook because the food in the boarding was not very good at all. Then eventually, living in the boarding for like ten, eleven years, I got to know everyone, the chef, everyone. So once in a while, I would go into the kitchen and the dining area and go try some food on my own. I would have a group of rowdy girls like myself, and that’s where we started learning to keep for ourselves and then not depend on the dining room food.”

“I was more into appetizers, like cutlets, like samosas, like sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, club sandwiches. During Ramadan, we would fast from sunrise to sunset. At sunset, we would break our fast with an elaborate, lavish meal. We don’t do any dinner, we do the snacks. So I would make tons of snacks, and we would enjoy. My father, he did not fast at all, but he would be the first one sitting at the table to enjoy the snacks. And everybody loved my food.”

“I was not into doing food food. I learned how to properly cook after my father died. That was in 1982.”

“He was a great cook in his life.”

Sohaila’s voice is full of infectious joy as she tells stories about her father’s passion for cooking.

“When people would walk into our house, they would get the aroma of the cardamom. The cloves and the cinnamon sticks. He would make food with all these spices and our house would be filled with…aroma.”

He enjoyed making recipes inspired by the authentic dishes of his Mughal heritage, and some could be a little too adventurous for new palates. Sohaila laughs as she recalls less-commonly used parts of a cow or meatballs with eggs inside.

“My father would say, “Just enjoy it, don’t look!”

His daughter, in contrast, takes a dedicated, hands-on approach to ensure her dishes are exquisitely delicious and eye-catching: expertly drizzling sauce, sprinkling herbs, adding a precisely crispy garnish.

“I leave after closing, and [my daughter] has told me so many times, “Mom, you have help. You can go home.” And I said no. I’m so passionate about the presentation of my food. When people look at it, I was them to say, “Oh, wow!”

“When I was growing up,” Sohaila recalled, “getting food from dining out, getting food catered from outside, was meant to be very low. “Oh, she’s not capable. That’s why she got food from outside.””

Having excellent cooks in the household, especially to dazzle guests, was a strong point of pride – even an expectation – during Sohaila’s childhood. But an ocean and several decades away, superb catering was exactly what the corporations and start-ups along the California coast were looking for.

Sohaila got married and moved from Lahore, Pakistan, to San Francisco, CA in 1985. After many years as a dedicated stay at home mother, Sohaila started her own catering business to support her family amidst a challenging economy in California.

“She catered to some of the biggest tech companies in the area,” said Sohaila’s daughter Amna. “She was very successful. She had to turn down order because it was a smaller operation. She had what today we call a ghost kitchen. Back then, it was a kitchen in the back of a meat shop. She was a very well-known caterer – she was booked seven days a week for years and years. And she did that as a means to put food on our table. We were going through really hard times, and her friends said, “You’re so good, you’re like the best cook in the world. Why don’t you monetize on it?””

Years later, that opportunity opened up for her again. Marriage and college brought Sohaila’s children to the Kansas City area, and she and husband Pervais followed in 2011. When the Lenexa Public Market announced it was opening as an incubator for small local food concepts in 2017, Sohaila’s youngest daughter quickly took notice.

Amna is a self-described “a jack of all trades for Sohaila’s Kitchen.” Her roles over the years have included owner, social media/advertising specialist, accountant and server – all while maintaining a full-time job elsewhere.

Her biggest role in Sohaila’s Kitchen: founder. Sohaila was working as a nanny when Amna started emailing the Market manager each week, talking about her mother’s culinary skills and asking them to give Sohaila a chance.

“It was so early, but I saw that this would be a perfect place for someone like her… What’s so crazy, is that she always said, “I want something small, something really little,” And I was like, “Mom, what do you mean by that? Restaurants aren’t small.” And it’s like God was listening the whole time, all these years, because she finally got that. Something small, but also mighty, you know?”
They came in for a tasting and were quickly invited to return as a pop-up restaurant starting in April 2018.

“We were upstairs in the kitchen, and the lines would warp around,”Amna said. “And we just didn’t know what the heck to do . I had no idea. I was just running with it, you know, with just basic business and startup knowledge, and people seemed to love it. So we were like, “OK, well, I need to learn a little more.” And that’s when we opened the stall in August.”

The little stall in the growing food fall was a shift from Sohaila’s massive catering jobs.

“When I started catering in 2002 in California, it’s not how I’m cooking right now, like this,” said Sohaila. “It was totally different. But then again, people there were typical Pakistani/Indian people. So I just focused on the traditional way to serve and cook for them, because these people wanted authentic Pakistani. Here, I have twisted a lot against my wishes. Amna said, “Mom, you have to cater to the need of the community.” Otherwise, our food is very rich.”

But the biggest change was the pace and consistency of business.

“I would just sit and wait for people, and I would say, “Where are you guys? When are you coming?”” Sohaila said. “And I just kept repeating myself: “Amna, this is not my cup of tea. My catering would be booked throughout the month.” And with this, I had to sit and wait. I said, “I’m just sitting and waiting for dimes and pennies to show up. I cooked so much food, nobody’s here.” She said, “Mom, it will happen. You have to be patient.” That’s right. Yes, she was right.”

Sohaila’s Kitchen has seen its hours, menu and dedicated following all expand over the last several years. They’ve attracted the attention of cooking shows, food blogs, culinary magazines and diners who have discovered a new love of Pakistani cuisine.

Butter chicken, chicken karahi, karahi keema, biryani, samosas, and mango lassi are just a few of the dishes on Sohaila’s menu. She also offers different specials every single weekend of the month! While these dishes keep the crowds coming, Amna said it’s especially rewarding to see customers enjoy more traditional recipes.

“I would say my regulars love butter chicken, but people who embrace our culture and my mom’s true cooking, they love everything but butter chicken,” Amna said.

“They love the biryani, they love the keema. They say none of the flavors in these dishes are like what you can get anywhere else.”

“Butter chicken, people compare it to tomato bisque. It’s familiar. But people who really, like, immerse themselves in our cooking love the biryani and her monthly specials. Haleem is a very authentic Pakistani dish, and people have it marked on their calendar.”

Haleem – a thick meat, lentil and pounded wheat stew – is one of four rotating dishes that are served on Fridays and Saturdays once a month. Fridays and Saturdays are also when you’ll want to stop by to try the biryani – basmati rice with exotic spices layered in a thick gravy with chicken.

“Our food is not simple,” Sohaila said. “We have to have a pinch of saffron here, a cardamom there, a star anise there.”

You’ll find any dish at Sohaila’s Kitchen is an enticing mix of perfectly paired spices, authentic recipes and intangible qualities that make each meal there unique.
Every bite of the traditional recipes and snippet of welcoming conversation, for example, have helped customers learn more about Sohaila’s Pakistani culture.

“People would approach the stall, and sometimes it would be really positive, and sometimes it would be very cautious, and other times negative,” Amna said. “Like “Who are you, and what kind of food is this? I’ve never heard of Pakistani food? What is that?” Over the years, people have gotten to know us, not just our culture, but also our values. We’re able to offer such diverse dishes that really speak to my mom and her upbringing and her background.”

“That trust has been built. It took some time, and that’s OK. You know, people can be scared of new things, and we get that.”

“I think for me, when we first started this, that was a big goal of mine – to add diversity to Lenexa, Kansas. Breaking barriers through food,” said Amna. “That was my number one goal. I was like, “Mom, you can cook, and I want to be the other part of this business, which is empowering people.” My mom does so many community-driven projects that focus on doing just that – feeding people, doing work for the underserved communities in Kansas City. So it’s not just a restaurant. I think it’s a lot more than that.”

This is also a true family business – it’s not just Sohaila in the kitchen. On any given day, you’ll often spot Sohaila’s husband Pervaiz and son Ammad helping out at the stall. Their best-selling butter chicken was crafted by daughter Ayesha, who took care to ensure this popular dish had the right mix of unique flavors that her mom’s restaurant is known for.

“Our tagline is “Main ingredients: heart and soul,”” Amna said. “People say – like in our Google reviews – people say “We literally taste the love in this food.” How many places can you say that about when you go to eat somewhere, you know? We want them to feel like they just ate a really heartwarming meal that makes them feel at home.”

Sohaila’s passion and joy for her craft are a tremendous part of what makes each bowl so delicious.

“Her day is not complete unless she has cooked something from scratch,” Amna said. “Mom had a really tough battle with breast cancer in 2011. When she was going through a very difficult, challenging treatment, we didn’t just eat out and fend for ourselves. She took a chair and put it in the kitchen. She sat down in the chair, and she would be instructing me and my dad, and she felt like herself I that moment. Everything else was taken away from her during that year of treatment, and the only time she felt like herself is when she was helping us cook.”

“We all say she truly has a gift, but it’s not just a task for her. Some people go through the motions of their work. She enjoys every part of it. It’s part of the fabric of her life.”

“I’m happy where I am today. Every day, I ask “My God, give me more strength and health to work,” Sohaila said.

“I am very happy, and I go home happy.”