clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ Doesn’t Need Recipes to Show Us a New Way to See Food

Samin Nosrat’s Netflix show is a faithful adaptation of her bestselling book and also a sign of food TV to come

Samin Nosrat cooking Netflix/Ringer illustration

It takes just a few seconds for Samin Nosrat’s new Netflix show Salt Fat Acid Heat to extract magic from the mundane. In an overhead shot, cream descends from a metal spout and into a cup of black coffee, the slow-motion dissolution of two liquids of different densities creating the gradient waves and micro-nebulas that we often ignore in what most would consider a banal morning routine. It’s a beautiful shot, very much influenced by the perspective that director David Gelb lent to his film Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the Chef’s Table series.

But the first overture of Salt Fat Acid Heat, and the first introduction to Nosrat’s core philosophies, begins long before that opening shot. It arrives in 2016, before the James Beard Award–winning cookbook the show is based on was even published. It arrives in an almost self-contained kitchen soliloquy at the end of “Water,” the second episode of Michael Pollan’s four-part Netflix food series Cooked.

“This is some of my favorite kinds of things to do, is just these little—” Nosrat’s voice trails off mid-sentence. She is framed, serenely, peeling garlic, picking herbs, and tending to a pot of beans as she muses about her values in a voice-over. “I mean, you almost could call them mindless tasks, but I actually like to think of them as mindful tasks. It’s about getting to that point in your own mind where this becomes pleasure instead of drudgery. As a culture, we have just gotten so far away from these little tasks. It seems like it’s getting in the way of life, but actually, this is life.”

Salt Fat Acid Heat is difficult to summarize. It is a cooking show that is resolute in its lack of recipes and eschews everything that could lead to instructional mimicry. It is a travel show that, while beautifully shot in locales like the Liguria region of Italy, the Shodo island of Japan, and the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, does not offer much of a road map for aspirational mimicry, either.

It is a show that has a very simple goal in mind—to convince the audience that they are capable of cooking great food—while honoring the laissez-faire ethos of the book upon which it’s based. “Pay attention to the techniques, the science, the stories, but don’t worry too much about committing it all to memory,” Nosrat writes in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s introduction. “Come back again later to revisit the concepts that are relevant to you.

It can all sound withholding and willfully obtuse to those looking for their next kitchen idol. But Nosrat’s goal, as simple as it sounds, isn’t to show you how to win the day. It’s to provide universal equipment for living—to help excavate the core knowledge of flavors that all grandmas seem to intuit naturally. There are little kernels of wisdom that can read like aphorisms. “Know your own salt,” Nosrat says at one point in the show, making a point that not all salts are equal in their levels of salinity. It’s a disarming thing to say, to suggest that personal bonds can be made with the most basic of elements in the kitchen. But that level of conscientiousness is exactly the endgame in mind.

Nosrat’s own moment of clarity happened in her early 20s as a low-level worker at the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse, where she would sit in on the daily menu-planning meetings when the chef would lay out their vision of the menu based on what was stocked in the inventory. But specific recipes were never given, only descriptions, places of origin, and other hyperspecific points of reference. From there, chefs were dispatched and sequestered to their stations. All the while, as she detailed on the Longform Podcast, a young Samin was left baffled at how the cooks there could simply conjure something from description, when she was having trouble even comprehending how to follow recipes from a cookbook. But the longer she worked in the environment, the more she realized that there was a universality to the dishes they were creating; they were simply variations on a theme. The book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was incepted by that realization, and the two decades since have been spent finding the best ways to articulate this unified theory.

Anthony Bourdain’s influence looms over all food television, fair or not, and SFAH stands out in the way it furthers the dialogue that Bourdain hoped to establish. The late food personality created several modern templates for culture-driven food programming, but Nosrat’s rendition in this post-Bourdain landscape is singular in the way it offers both voice and visibility to indigenous cultures. Despite exotic locales, the show’s visual production never goes out of its way to emphasize a sense of otherness. Nosrat serves as a tether, luring all parties to the center of the Venn diagram.

Across the docuseries’ four episodes, Nosrat often finds that the best way to learn is by playing the fool. She gets caught in nets laid to harvest olives from the Ligurian hills; she takes a healthy pinch of a Japanese specialty salt straight to the face and is exasperated by its salinity; she grows almost delirious after adding too much habanero-laced salsa to a bite of her taco. In those moments, she becomes a conduit for the viewer; Nosrat may be renowned as a culinary teacher, but her wide-eyed expressiveness projects a relatable naivete. Chefs are introduced on a first-name basis; they aren’t placed on any pedestal higher than ones given to butchers or farmers or homecooks. Unlike much of the personality-driven food shows to emerge over the past decade, deification in Salt Fat Acid Heat is left for the ingredients on display and the dialogue across cultures that the show consciously promotes.

Nosrat’s on-screen joviality makes it easy to project her potential future as the Julia Child or Ina Garten of her generation, but considering the specific purview of Salt Fat Acid Heat, I also see the distinct influence of Martin Yan (whom she has cited as an inspiration). Yan, a Chinese chef blessed with the gift of gab and a showman’s flair, was the host of Yan Can Cook, a series that has existed in one form or another since the 1980s. He was brilliant with a knife in his hands, turning something as routine as slicing onions into a race against bodily injury; he was an engaging, fluent speaker with more puns than could reasonably fit into his introductory monologues (but he’d jam them in there anyway). But more than anything else, he was hyper-aware of who he was talking to and cooking for, and that sense of responsibility was reflected in the way he framed his show. As an ambassador of Chinese food to an audience of largely white American households, he forged connections to highlight the similarities between cultures in a time when the ancestral link between pasta and chow mein weren’t as obvious as they are today. Those are the kinds of associations that Nosrat emphasizes, both in obvious and subtle ways, and one of the driving notions of her philosophy. It’s all in an effort to make the world a little bit smaller and the kitchen a little more accessible.

Not all of the associations made on the show are verbal; there is a metalanguage embedded within SFAH, one that relies on visual cues to make broader connections to the food being prepared. In “Salt,” the second episode of the series, Nosrat is shown how to marinate soft-boiled eggs in miso, which involves enveloping the egg in a densely packed layer of the intensely savory fermented soybean paste and leaving it to sit for several hours; the process resembles that of creating a Scotch egg (a soft-boiled egg encased in sausage), minus a few steps. One episode later, in “Acid,” Nosrat is shown how to make pavo en escabeche (turkey slowly cooked in sour oranges), which, as we learn, is customarily served with boulder-sized meatballs stuffed with whole eggs.

The enveloped egg becomes a motif that bridges Japanese, Mexican, and Western European cultures, but also becomes something of a metaphor for the newly born cook. A soft-boiled egg, over time, will absorb the characteristics of its surroundings.