Samin Nosrat, cookery writer turned Netflix star, is trying hard not to smile for the camera. At the urging of the FT’s photographer, she sits on the flower-filled porch of her home in Berkeley, California, and strikes a serious pose. It lasts about five seconds. Just the idea of being instructed to stop looking so cheerful is enough to make her start laughing again.
I doubt the photographer minds very much. Nosrat’s big, generous laugh and willingness to crack jokes about herself are as endearing in person as they are on screen. Both help to explain how the 39-year-old managed to create a programme that upends the macho hierarchy of food experts and made it look fun.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is a travel and cookery series adapted from Nosrat’s 2017 best-selling book of the same name. Like the book, it is divided into four parts, each covering a basic element of cooking that, Nosrat believes, will determine how good something tastes.
Salt is harvested from seaweed and forms crackling barrels of soy sauce in Japan. Creamy, oily fats are filmed in Italy. Bright citrus acids are squeezed in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, while heat, which creates texture and aroma, is explained in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, the Bay Area restaurant where the Iranian-American first worked as a chef.
She got the idea for the book while working at Chez Panisse. “When I realised these elements were what professional cooks were using to guide them, my immediate instinct was to convey it to home cooks. I think I’m just that person. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I discovered this thing and now I wanna tell everyone.’”
In the show, Nosrat’s hometown looks like a honey-coloured paradise. Today, however, the air is thick with smoke from the California wildfires, so I seek refuge in her living room, balancing a plate of the fried eggs she has made that morning.
After effectively helping to produce the photo shoot (“Now you really know me — I like to be in control”), making tea, checking I’m comfy and telling me I should really consider a sinus rinse to combat the smoke, Nosrat sits down at last, her phone constantly pinging with messages. “I need an assistant or something,” she says, pushing away piles of books and letters from publishers to set down her tea. “This is getting out of hand.”
The transformation from chef and cookery teacher to newly minted TV star and New York Times columnist is still new. Salt Fat Acid Heat was only released in October and attracted immediate attention.
WATCH | Salt Fat Acid Heat trailer:
Nosrat has been called a new kind of domestic goddess and her show has been described as a love letter to amateur cooks. Eater website went so far as to describe it as a Marxist fantasy that pits the beauty of local food creation against the ugly industrial efficiencies of capitalism.
Lit like a movie, with cinematography that looks as if it has made good use of Netflix’s millions, Salt Fat Acid Heat is also an extremely soothing way to spend two hours. This may be why the qualities that make the show unusual are not always immediately obvious. It can take a while to realise that almost all the people in the foreground are home cooks, many of them women of colour, most of them much older than Nosrat.
When I ask why she wanted to make the show this way, Nosrat lights up. “Look, when I started cooking, every chef told me it’s going to be 10 years before you are a masterful cook. Ten years before it’s in your body and second nature,” she says, stretching her fingers to demonstrate. “And I was like, ‘OK, cool,’ so by that logic who will be the people who are the most natural and effortless cooks? The people doing this the longest. And who’s been doing this the longest? F**kin’ grandmas.”
The fact that the bulk of the world’s cooking is done by women, while men claim most of the spotlight on food TV has been on her mind for years. The first time she remembers putting the feeling into words was about a decade ago at a lecture given by celebrity restaurateur David Chang. “I was a fan of his but I still felt pretty weird about the fact that the only people he seemed to associate with or bring along on his journey was a specific sort of man in the food world.”
At the end of the talk, she raised her hand. “I said something like, ‘As a cook I really appreciate this but, like, I don’t understand how come you only have men. Where are the women?’” A decade on she still finds herself asking the question. “I’m, like, where are the women?”
The desire to make a different sort of genre show was just what Netflix wanted to hear, she says. What emerged was both personal and aspirational. “That intersection of beauty and accessibility is where I think I want all the things I make to exist.”
Who are the most natural and effortless cooks? The people who have been doing this the longest — grandmasSamin Nosrat
A lot of the joy of Salt Fat Acid Heat comes from watching Nosrat’s reactions: crying with laughter after choosing the spiciest salsa on the table, gently helping to lift honey from a hive of tiny bees and being bossed around the kitchen by her own mother. Her friends expressed surprise that she wasn’t more polished or TV-ready, but was just as goofy as she is in person. This, she says, was deliberate.
“Various things happened that I do think threatened to squash that out of me, whether it was a make-up artist applying too much make-up or whatever.” Each time, the producers would step in and make sure that she appeared as herself. Her differences, they said, were a good thing.
Talking about these differences is one of the few topics that stops Nosrat from launching into stories and jokes. She hesitates as if to make sure she is explaining herself properly. Born in San Diego to Iranian parents who arrived in the US a few years before she was born, Nosrat was often in a minority of one as she grew up.
“Recently, I was like, ‘Did I imagine that my childhood was so white?’ And then someone from my high school cross-country team posted this picture and I was, like — holy shit — it really was.” She shows me the picture. It really was.
Now she thinks standing out made her good at learning to fit in. “Deep into making the show, I realised I am uniquely skilled to go into places where people are caught off guard and uncomfortable with 20 cameras coming in and millions of dollars of equipment, and to help them forget they are there so we can have a genuine experience.”
Originally, the Acid section of the show was going to be filmed in Iran, before a change in US travel advice meant production was moved to Mexico. It is still on her mind. “The world I came into valued a very limited type of culinary expertise. I had to immerse myself in French and Italian cooking to become a ‘real’ cook and a ‘good’ cook. I had to learn those techniques and that language and history and background.” If she ever mentioned to professional chefs around her the ways that her Iranian mother did something, it was discounted as unorthodox.
Things are changing now. Even so, she has no desire to return to the grind of running a restaurant, preferring to think about food as a writer. Today it is Cornish hens. “I’ve been thinking a lot recently — what if you broke a Cornish hen into quarters and nestled it among bread so that, as it roasts, the chicken juices go in the bread and you then had other stuffing flavours in there ... ”
Netflix viewers would be more than happy to watch Nosrat travel to new countries, describing the food she eats. The rapturous reception to the first series warrants a second. But there is a bigger project in the back of her mind. Eventually, she wants to create her own production company. The goal is to tell diverse stories, work with the right people and be happy, she says. “Ultimately, I just want to create good juju for my own self and my daily life and then let that radiate out, you know?”
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.