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Samin Nosrat Believes in You. (Even If You Oversalt.)

The author and star of Netflix’s ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ talks about food TV, cooking skills, comfort recipes, and the lessons of her breakout year

Alycea Tinoyan

Samin Nosrat is a teacher. In the three-part description that headlines her website, “writer” and “cook” play important roles in getting at what the 39-year-old Berkeley resident does, but “teacher” is undeniably at the core of her mission. Through writing, about cooking, Nosrat wants to teach us all to have a more informed, more intuitive relationship with food.

Nosrat’s 2017 cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, introduced readers to the Chez Panisse alumna’s gentle, conversational voice, which channels the complex science of the kitchen and its infinite applications into four basic building blocks. Nosrat’s 2018 Netflix show by the same name introduced viewers to the host’s voluble, expressive presence, which conveyed her grand unifying theory’s manifestation in four corresponding locations — for fat, Italy; for salt, Japan; for acid, Mexico; for heat, Berkeley — to the viewer at home. The result, which combines a travelogue with Julia Child–like cooking segments in a Berkeley kitchen, was one of the best shows of the year, food-related or not. Like any genuine innovation, Salt Fat Acid Heat is a bundle of contradictions that miraculously come together: globe-trotting and domestic, instructional and pleasurable, accessible and aspirational. The book had already made Nosrat into something of a cult figure among home-cooking enthusiasts. In just a few months since its October release, the show has made her into a full-on star.

Speaking to Nosrat over the phone on a brief respite from her post-release travels, the author-turned-TV-personality is almost relentlessly on-message. This doesn’t mean she’s didactic: One of the best parts of Salt Fat Acid Heat is how quietly subversive its focus is, turning our attention from (often white and male) celebrity chefs to a guest roster filled with older women and local artisans without ever explaining its M.O. Instead, it’s obvious how deeply ingrained Nosrat’s philosophy is into how she thinks and talks — not surprising, considering she’s been refining it since her days in restaurant kitchens. A simple question about how to fry an egg spins off into a wide-ranging, impromptu tutorial in technique and basic physics; a comparison to Ina Garten prompts a thoughtful consideration of making cooking seem appealing versus making it seem unattainable.

But like any good teacher, Nosrat’s deliberate, thoughtful side is refracted through her warmth. It’s her charisma that puts the pupil enough at ease to take in her lessons. Nosrat’s parents immigrated to the States from Iran, taking with them lessons about rice preparation and the many uses of yogurt she would take into adulthood. Still, Nosrat grew up in San Diego, as did I. Over the course of our interview, we discover we attended the same high school; when, in the course of figuring out whether we know any of the same people, I tell her I’m in my mid-20s, she exclaims, “I’m so proud of you!” I blush, and instantly recognize the feeling: a teacher whose approval I crave noting a job well done.

“All I wanted was for people to cook, and feel empowered to cook.”

You’ve talked about how you’d wanted to do a television show because it’s the most efficient way of reaching the most people with your message. Now that it’s been out a few months, has that panned out?

Yes. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined. Also, not to be too much of a Netflix fan, but I think there’s TV, and then there’s Netflix. The penetration is bananas. How far it goes; how many different countries. I have had to shut down emotionally, a little bit. [Rustling noise.] Now I’m just eating chocolate someone sent me, sorry. It’s sitting there, and I couldn’t resist it. But it’s really salty! [Laughs.]

I get so many messages, so many emails. Any way you think a person would try to reach me, they have. Even in New York, when I’m on the subway, people stop me. Everywhere I go, and everywhere I don’t go, I’m getting messages. But to me, I think some of the most beautiful and the most exciting and heartwarming [feedback] is when I go on Instagram and I just see how many people are making buttermilk chicken. All I wanted was for people to cook and feel empowered to cook. I am blown over by how many people I’ve reached and how many people are moved by it. ’Cause it is in some ways really overwhelming, the amount of attention that I’m getting, and the correspondence. It’s certainly more than I can handle, and I think it’s more than most any one person can handle. Sometimes I feel a little guilty that I’m not able to get back to everyone. But the remarkable thing is that it’s so positive, and people are just excited to tell me how the thing moved them. I can’t believe that. It’s crazy.

What about from other people in the culinary industry?

Oh, I mean, [it] also seems entirely positive. I finally met Dave Chang, which was really exciting. He was so warm and wonderful. It also is a little bit weird, ’cause I’ve never wanted to be a restaurant chef. I think people, as a public, as a culture, have a limited idea of what it means to be a professional cook. They’ll say, “What do you do?” I’ll say, “I’m a cook.” Then, people will be like, “Oh, so do you want to have a restaurant?” It’s just, that’s the expected trajectory. I’ve never wanted to have a restaurant. For a while, I ran one, and it was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done!

It’s not like I expected a cold reception, but I didn’t expect such a warm and wonderful reception from all of the really amazing professional chefs who’ve just had so much wonderful stuff to say. I think for a lot of them, it’s nice, ’cause they can just tell the people who come work for them, “Hey, go read this. Go watch this. That’s what you need to learn,” ’cause it really is universal.

Obviously, Netflix doesn’t release ratings —

I know! Much to my own chagrin.

— but I’m always curious what they tell the people who make shows for them in terms of feedback.

They haven’t told me anything. They also know I have the biggest mouth in the world, so they will never tell me anything! I have a dream of getting them all drunk and getting them to spill. I can tell, and what I could tell from pretty much the first day, was how positive the reception was, and how big and how far it seems to have reached. I just feel like I can tell from the tone. Even though there’s not been any explicit conversation about what comes next, the general feeling is [that] we get to continue working together. It’s all very reading between the lines. I think that the lines are telling me it’s positive, you know what I mean?

I kept trying to get numbers out of someone, and then I realized even if they did give me some number, I would have zero idea what it meant, ’cause I would have no context for what that meant between all the other shows of Netflix, between all the other food shows. At some point, I had to give up on the idea of hard facts. Now, I just read everyone’s auras.

“I can’t let people think that this is my house, because my whole message is you don’t need the fancy stuff to do this.”

I want to talk about the show’s influences; did you watch a lot of food TV prior to making your own show?

I grew up watching all the stuff that kids in the ’80s and ’90s were watching on the weekends. Yan Can Cook, and some Julia Child, and The Galloping Gourmet. Yeah. Then, in the ’90s, I remember when Food Network started. I would watch that Mario Batali show — I think it was Molto Mario — where there were three friends, and he was cooking for three people that were sitting at stools. They were kind of always chatting. I really liked that one when I was a kid. The original, original Naked Chef. The first two seasons of The Naked Chef, when Jamie Oliver was just a kid, and it was still very low-production value, and you could hear the director talking to him, and he was just cooking for his friends. It felt so loose. I loved that. Then I watched some Emeril.

But by the time I started cooking, things shifted much more to competition. And I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire season of a cooking competition. I loved watching some of the old Japanese Iron Chef, just for the campiness of it and the drama of it, but yeah. I’m a really serious consumer, so I’ll always give everything a chance, and people will talk about something, so I’ll go watch it. Once Anthony Bourdain had a show, I watched some, but I can’t say I was a super avid watcher until about two years ago, maybe three years ago. Some friends of mine were like, “It’s really good. He’s a great storyteller. You should go watch it.” I went back and started watching some. I really loved his episode where he went to Iran.

I did want to talk about Anthony Bourdain. There’s obviously been a lot of conversation around his legacy this year in the wake of his passing. But I wanted to ask whether and how his influence figured into the show.

Absolutely. We talked about the way he went into the world. I remember before we went to Italy, I wanted to watch his Italy episode. His guides take him to this kind of depressed, seaside town. He’s just sitting there with these locals, and they’re like, completely bickering. They definitely don’t know who he is. They don’t care who he is. They don’t care that he’s there with cameras. It was a very hilarious and beautiful glimpse into a place as it is.

What I loved was that there was no imposition of his self onto that place. He was just this bystander. I think a lot of it was kind of going over his head, too, but I loved that the Italian conversation between the locals was kept in, and that it was edited in such a delicate way. I very clearly remember sending that one around to everyone. But it’s more the way that this story’s told that I cared about, rather than that it was such beautiful cinematography or anything. That it was an outsider pulling back a curtain and having a glimpse into a place. I really, really liked that a lot.

The other stylistic through line I picked up on was that Ina Garten–style “I’m going to have my friends over in my beautiful kitchen” type show.

That’s so funny, ’cause I would have never, ever associated that. But I totally understand what you’re saying. I can’t say that that was one that we thought of. For me, I always ask why. Any time I’m going to do anything, write a column, write a book, make an episode, make a scene, or whatever, I always have to understand what it is that we’re going toward. What is the point of this? Why am I writing toward? What am I talking toward? If we’re cooking all this stuff, I’m like, “What’s the point?” People have to come over and share it. People are really why I cook, anyway. I think of course there’s a link to be made to Ina.

The reason I thought it was interesting was because the message of your show is so explicitly democratic. But you also make a beautiful-looking meal in a beautiful-looking space. There’s an aspirational aspect to it.

Totally. It’s something I’m very aware of. It’s complicated. But I was very aware of what was happening. I was aware that this was not — how do I explain this? OK.

For example, in Berkeley, when we were shooting, that’s not my house. That kitchen’s not my kitchen. But the house is ten times bigger than my little apartment. That kitchen’s way bigger, and at first, I insisted that we shoot in my own house, in my own little kitchen, but the entire crew couldn’t even fit in here. We had to scrap that and rent a house that had a big enough kitchen to shoot in. The whole time we were in that fancy house, I was so uncomfortable that I kept making jokes on camera about how it wasn’t my house, and if it were my house, I would do this, and if it were my house, I would do this. I made the director promise me to keep some of that in. I was just like, I can’t let people think that this is my house, because my whole message is you don’t need the fancy stuff to do this.

On the other hand, I also like reading the glossy magazines. I also really loved watching Chef’s Table because it was so cinematic and beautiful. That was a huge inspiration for me. I feel like Chef’s Table paved a path for what I understood to be possible in food TV. I had never seen food TV made in such an incredibly cinematic way before. I knew I wanted to tell that kind of very beautiful story. It’s a struggle that lives on inside of me as a philosophical and culinary daughter of Alice Waters, in whose restaurant I was trained. I’m so grateful to have been trained in all of the senses, in aesthetics, in the finer things that I didn’t necessarily have access to as a kid. That my world could be opened, and I could know about this stuff, and how good a strawberry can taste.

Yet, I am also — not upset, but let’s say bothered, and always aware that everyone doesn’t have access to that. I had to decide a long time ago that my message was not going to be “local, organic, and seasonal.” That wasn’t going to be how I wrote my book and talked about my show. It’s why when we went to the grocery store, we didn’t shoot in the organic section, because I feel like my thing is just get people to cook. Get people to see the value in cooking. That it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Maybe eventually they’ll make their way to the organic section. Maybe eventually, they’ll make their way to the farmer’s market. Maybe when they’re in search of the beautiful strawberry, they’ll figure out a way to get to that farmer. But that doesn’t need to be what I pound over people’s heads at this time.

You’d originally planned on filming the “Acid” episode in Iran but weren’t ultimately able to go. What kinds of dishes, places, and people did you plan on featuring there?

I have a bunch of different Iranian friends who live in the States who work on food stuff. We asked them to help connect us to a sheep’s milk yogurt maker and a sheep’s milk cheese maker. We were going to do sour dairy. We were going to do sour oranges, which actually come from Iran. They come from the north of Iran originally and made their way through the spice trade to Mexico, so that was a really nice through line for me, to be able to still talk about this ingredient that’s really important in my family’s cooking. We were going to do pomegranates, and there’s a lot of molasses in northern Iran — pomegranate molasses and sour orange molasses, and sour grapes molasses — that are important in the ingredients in the cooking. There’s just a lot of yogurt in everything Iranian, and also dried limes.

The north of Iran is such a beautiful, almost rain forest kind of climate. It’s very green. It’s on the Caspian Sea. I was really excited to get to show a landscape and a climate and a place and a people that don’t really ever get shown to the West, and certainly exist outside of what is a limited idea of what Iran is, looks like, and feels like for people. I was really heartbroken to not be able to do it. It was absolutely the right thing to do, to not go there at that time. But I look forward to the day when I do get to tell that story, and I know I’m going to do it at some point.

“The most important thing is not doing what I do. It’s tasting and paying attention.”

Do you see any difference between your identity as a home cook and as a professional one? Is there a difference for you between cooking in public and cooking in private?

Oh, no. No, no. I have to go cook a fancy dinner for Thursday in L.A., and I’m having my own levels of anxiety, because I’m like, “Do these people know that I’m not Dave Chang? Do they know that I’m not some great chef?” Yeah, of course I could pull off dinner for 16 people really easily, and it will be special and fun and delicious, but I don’t have tweezers. I don’t show up with a whole entourage. I do all the shopping myself. In a lot of ways, what you saw on the show really is, in every way, I think, it really is me. There’s not some other me that I pull out when the cameras aren’t there. Very often, at home, I make even simpler stuff than I made on camera. My most go-to thing is I just make rice with broccoli and tofu. That’s what I make when I can’t be bothered to make anything else.

I read that you don’t have a dishwasher in your home kitchen. I don’t either, and I’m terrible about letting dishes pile up. Do you have any advice for being better about that?

I mean, I hate doing dishes. After all these years, I still don’t follow my own advice, which is [to] wash things before they get caked on. But I really just hate putting those other dishes away. I think part of it, and same thing with my clothes, is that my apartment is so small that I don’t really have an appropriate place for everything. Part of the reason I hate putting things away is that it’s just always this jigsaw puzzle that’s really stressful. I think the only advice I have is to work hard, so one day you can afford a dishwasher and proper cabinetry. [Laughs.]

I’m asking this question on behalf of a Ringer colleague with multiple small children: Is there a dish in your repertoire that, in your opinion, has the highest ratio of payoff to effort?

I learned this from my friend Mara, and it is so easy and so delicious, and her kids eat it. I don’t know if it’s because she’s a hippie, and her kids are hippies, or if it’s just genuinely delicious. I mean, it is genuinely delicious. I wrote a column about it in January, actually, so the recipe’s online. I call it Mara’s Tofu. [Laughs.] She takes medium-firm tofu, and she slices it into maybe, I don’t know, half-inch thick slices. Then she drizzles it with brown liquid aminos, which is sort of the hippie version of soy sauce. You could use soy sauce, too. Then she fries it in coconut oil. Something about the coconut oil gets so hot that the outside of the tofu gets very lacy and crisp and golden brown, and because it’s medium-firm tofu, the inside is super custardy, and it’s just so good. I say this as a person who grew up eating a lot of health-store food. I’ve never liked tofu. I’ve never been so excited to eat it until I learned this way of making it. It’s so simple and fast, and just has all this salty, umami, creamy, crispy deliciousness. I always look forward to it now. I’m like, “Oh yes, I don’t have any energy. I’m going to make that.”

If you had to name four or five dishes that would form the basis of a home-cooking repertoire, what would they be?

I think roast chicken is one. I think learning how to make a pot of beans is one. I think learning how to make delicious, garlicky, soft, tender vegetables — which usually involves either blanching them first and then sautéing them with garlic and chili or knowing how to add some liquid into the pan. I call this method “bean sauté” in my book, but it would work for broccoli or green beans. A lot of time, I think when people just sauté broccoli, it’s still pretty raw inside, you know what I mean? Whereas to me, when you cook vegetables all the way through, their sugars are released. They’re so much sweeter and more tender. But usually, just if you want to get there from in a frying pan, it won’t happen; they’ll burn on the outside by the time they get tender on the inside. The way to ensure it happens is to add a little bit of water into the pan. You can either start them with a little bit of water and oil and then cover it and let the water sort of boil away, and then when the water boils away, there’ll be oil left, and you can use the oil to sautée it. Or you could do it the other way, where you sauté them first and then add a little bit of water, and cover it, and let it steam the rest of the way. That’s a technique that I think is so useful for basically every vegetable that’s not spinach. Anything that’s going to take longer than 30 seconds to cook, it’s important to know that adding some water helps. I would say yeah, steaming, sautéing your green vegetables is the third one.

Knowing how to fry an egg properly is a good one, ’cause then now, you’ve truly got all these combos. I would say probably rice or pasta—some starch. Your preferred starch would be the last one. Because once you have all those, you have so many different combos you could make. You’ll have your rice-egg-greens. You have your beans-greens-chicken. You have your eggs and green beans. You can just kind of start combining them until the end of time. Once you have that, I think that you start to realize, “Oh, well, I know how to cook rice. That means I know how to cook quinoa, too.” Or, “Wow, I know how to make beans. That means I know how to make chickpeas, too.” Things start to branch out from there. If I had to add one or two more things, it would be a couple condiments, so learn how to make a salad dressing and learn how to make one herby salsa.

What goes into frying an egg properly? Is that something a lot of home cooks mess up?

I think a beautiful, perfect fried egg is a really special thing that a lot of people do get wrong. There are so many lessons involved in frying an egg right that once you know how to do that, you can apply that same knowledge to so many other delicate things you have to cook quickly. For example, I don’t think you need to use a non-stick pan, but if you have one, you could use that to fry your eggs. Otherwise, you have your beautiful cast iron, or some other carbon-steel pan that you have really well seasoned to be non-stick. Yet, if you crack a cold egg into a cold pan, it will stick, and by the time it’s loosened itself off, the yolk is hard. You start to learn, “Oh, I need to preheat my pan.” That’s a really important thing to know for basically anything that you’re ever going to fry.

Another really important thing is if you want to make it in butter — which I like, I like a buttery egg — your pan can’t be too hot, ’cause the minute you add your butter, it’ll start turning into brown butter. It’s just about understanding how to pay attention to the temperature. [That] will be the thing that ultimately helps you get the egg that you want. I like an over-easy egg, so that involves a little bit of a wrist flip. If you’re learning how to do a wrist flip, then that’s another skill you’re getting.

There’s so many things you can learn in any simple cooking process that you can then apply to all other things that you’re doing. Some people don’t like their egg over-easy. They just like it fried sunny side up. But if you’re going to do it that way, the white won’t set in time, and so if you want the white to set in time, you’ll learn that what you need to do is kind of like that steamy sauté of the vegetable. You get your egg going with your butter. Then you add a few drops of water. Then you put a lid on. Now, that water will steam away, and that steam will cook the egg white on top, so it’s not too runny, and then it will set, and it will be that picture-perfect egg. There’s so much information that you can use every step of the way while making any food. Even if it seems like the simplest thing that you’ve done a thousand times. If you learn to pay attention to the sounds, and the smells, and the way it feels, and the temperature of the pan, there’s something that you can take away and will help you be a better cook in everything else that you make.

I have one last home-cooking question. Anecdotally, I’ve found a lot of people are getting pretty overzealous with their salting after watching the “Salt” episode.

Oh yeah, of course! [Laughs.] Let them know I pre-apologize. I’m super sorry.

I addressed this in the book; I didn’t address it in the show. It’s part of the process! Everybody does this. It happened to me, too. When I was a young cook, I saw people putting so much salt in the water. Then I would taste the food, and it tasted so good, so I’d go home and be like, “The reason my food doesn’t taste so good is I’m not using enough [salt]!” Then I would just start using more and more and more, and get cavalier, and put handfuls [in] without tasting. I remember I had a turkey burger that I was showing off at my friend’s house at her family’s barbecue, and I was like, “None of you people put enough salt on your meat!” Then I made all the turkey burgers inedible.

I feel like it’s a natural part of the process. You start to realize what it can do, so you start using more, and then you go too far, and then you sort of come back. I prefer to cook with Diamond Crystal kosher salt, because it is so forgiving. It’s not that salty. But also, it’s very dramatic on camera for me to add handful after handful, right? It makes a point, which is a point I’m trying to make: People don’t use enough. But if you try to do that at home with your salt, which is a different salt, which is inevitably saltier, that’s going to be bad. You have to taste. The most important thing is not doing what I do. It’s tasting and paying attention.

I know you said that there haven’t been any explicit conversations with Netflix about what continuing work would look like, but I was wondering if there had been any thought on your end.

I have so many thoughts. I mean, it’s all I ever think about! As far as this particular show goes, I think there’s an argument to be made for an endless number of episodes, because the point of this philosophy is that it’s universal. I really believe, as a cook and as a human, that there’s something to learn from everyone. I think we could go to every country in the world and learn something.

What’s funny is when we started out, people kept telling me, “Oh, you won’t know anything until you’re pretty much done filming your first season. You really learn how to make a show after you’ve done a season.” Which is so intense, ’cause it means you have to go through the whole thing and not really know what you’re doing. It was really true. I feel like there’s a lot we’ve learned that I would want to put into practice if we got to do more. Yet, on the other hand, I came up with this idea 18 years ago. It took me a lot of years to write the book. As a creative person, there’s a big part of me that just wants to do something else.

I’m happy that this exists and it’s had such a warm reception, and also I’m ready to go come up with a new thing, and then get to think and talk about something else. There is a part of me that’s motivated to move on. I wake up every night, in the middle of the night, and I have a different kind of idea. I definitely haven’t settled on what’s the right thing. But I think what’s so weird and wonderful about Netflix is there’s so many of the limitations of regular TV are gone. For example, what if I had a show that was a whole bunch of really short episodes, and you just cook one thing per? What if I had a show that was really, really designed and structured for teaching you and did some sort of teaching that I’ve never seen?

It’s not my life dream, nor has it ever been, to be a television star, so it’s not what I envision in the long run is going to be the arc of my career. I do think it will be fun to do another one, but also I want to learn more about producing. I have felt very moved, since I have started to get so much more attention in the last couple months, that now the pressure’s on me and the clock is ticking for me to bring up others who have not been welcome in this space before. Part of what’s so interesting and also heartbreaking about the warm reception and the many think pieces and the many kind things, I think, is that it demonstrates the hunger. I’m sorry for the pun! But people want to see more than just the same kind of travel show hosts, or the same kind of food show host. They want to see people who look different and come from different backgrounds. I don’t want to be the only one, and that means it’s on me to speak up. It’s on me to suggest these other people. It’s on me to bring opportunity. A big part of that for me is going to be learning more about how to produce so that I have more power and more say. I look forward to doing that. I really look forward to opening the door for other people.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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