Undefeated four-time world boxing champion and cooking extraordinaire Laila Ali can now add author to her resume.
The daughter of late boxing legend Muhammad Ali recently released her first cookbook, Food for Life, and she celebrated the book’s launch with a party at The Ponte Ristorante in West Hollywood with family and friends.
“We’ve been joking calling this my ‘book baby’ because I’ve developed it and nurtured it and now I’ve put it out there into the world,” Ali, 40, tells PEOPLE. “For me, it has been a labor of love.”
Among the attendees at the restaurant, owned by Ali’s former Chopped competitor and friend Scott Conant, were friends Tina Knowles Lawson, Garcelle Beauvais and Carson Kressley as well as Ali’s husband Curtis Conway, daughter Sydney, 6, and son Curtis Jr., 9.
As Ali directed, Jesi Haack Design played off the title of the book for decorating and created an organic living herb wall that served a dual purpose — as décor and also as a gift for guests to take home and plant. Each cocktail table had a copper colander filled with a mix of anemones, eucalyptus, kale, cabbage and more greenery designed by Bloominous.
“I think that the cover is really beautiful in itself so it was nice to have that as a big backdrop but not to get too overcrowded with other things,” Ali says. “I thought they did a beautiful job bringing in fresh herbs and flowers and really bringing the book to life in the space.”
Guests munched on The Ponte’s recreation of three of Laila’s recipes from her book, including smoky shrimp cobb salad, cheesy quinoa and rice bake and sock-it-to-me-honey cake as they listened to ’90s R&B.
Ali, who learned to cook when she was 9 years old, says that creating a cookbook of her own has always been a dream, and that she first started thinking about writing one when she was in her early 20s.
“I had written down a lot of my recipes back then, and then I lost them,” she says. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack after taking the time to do that so it has definitely been a dream come true to do a real cookbook. This is what I wanted originally when I was writing down those recipes, to have something to pass down to my family and my kids for generations to come.”
Though boxing runs in the family, the now retired boxer’s kids are starting to follow in her footsteps when it comes to cooking.
“They really took an interest in cooking when I first competed on Chopped [in 2013] because they remember me watching the show like a crazy person, trying to learn from it and practicing at home,” she says. “It became a game for them. We would play and judge. I noticed when you make it fun for kids, it makes them really get into it.”
When it comes to her recipes, Ali’s kids definitely have their favorites. Her daughter loves her greens, her son loves her spaghetti and both of them love taco Tuesdays.
“It’s not always an agreement with certain things, but I would say tacos and oven fried chicken wings are the pleaser for everybody,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like a short order cook in my house where I’m making different variations of meals.”
To Ali, it’s important that her kids see where their food comes from.
“I take them to farms and the farmer’s market and teach them that food doesn’t necessarily, unfortunately like a lot of people think, just come from a package or a drive-thru,” she says. “They know where food comes from so they respect food.”
Through Food for Life, Ali hopes to help other people take control of their health through the foods that they eat.
“There’s so many different levels when you think of healthy eating,” she says. “You got people who literally say, ‘I only eat organic vegetables and sprouts and nuts’ and things like that — I’m not one of those people. I choose everyday to eat the healthiest meal I can while still enjoying my food.”
Her book even includes a healthy take on the classic cheeseburger, which she named “The Greatest of All Time” in honor of her father, Muhammad.
“I remember when I was in the second or third grade, there was a little hole in the wall place he used to go to and they had the best burgers,” she says. “Like, they actually seasoned their meat with so many spices that the burger took on a flavor of it’s own. My father used to always order his burger a certain way — with mustard, onions and cheese.”
“Of course [with] my burger, I’m saying to use grass-fed beef and whole-wheat buns if you can,” she continues. “That wasn’t what they had at the hole in the wall but it was definitely inspired by my father.”
Though her father didn’t cook, Ali says he “loved a good home cooked meal.”
“He would rather have a home cooked meal than go to a restaurant any day,” she says. “We grew up with a cook, her name was Edith, and she was an amazing cook. That’s when I had my first taste of a real, home cooked meal. I think that inspired me to want to cook myself.”
As to how Ali came up with the title of her book, Food for Life, she explains, “food creates life and it’s supposed to fuel your life.”
“I divided up the chapters with fun names to fit different scenarios in your life whether you’re dealing with picky kids, dealing with entertaining, want to make a 30 minute meal or you’re having dessert,” she says. “There’s no trendy food theory — it’s really straightforward, clean eating that will always be in style no matter what’s going on.”