The joy of cooking with Samin Nosrat
If you’ve watched the Netflix show “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” you probably already feel like you know Samin Nosrat. The host, writer, and former Chez Panisse chef takes viewers on a trip around the world, exploring the four pillars of good cooking. In Italy, we learn about the role of fat, sampling olive oil, Parmesan, and gelato. In Japan, via soy sauce and miso, it’s salt. Mexico provides lessons on acid through dishes like pavo en escabeche, a turkey and meatball stew; and back home in California, at Chez Panisse, we cook over live fire.
Nosrat’s on-screen instruction is as enlightening as the cookbook for which the show is named, in which she teaches not so much recipes as how to cook. But it’s Nosrat’s down-to-earth style, bursts of laughter, and expressions of delight that make her feel like a friend. After an era of domestic goddesses like Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson, Nosrat leaves behind the image of polished perfection for something more real. She was called “the next Julia Child” by NPR, but the joy of Samin Nosrat is that she is very much herself.
Nosrat appears Wednesday, May 1, at 8 p.m. at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. The Globe spoke with her recently about teaching people how to cook, the power of salt, and why cheese sometimes makes her cry.
Q. How did you become interested in food?
A. By accident. I would say I got into it by eating it. I’ve always loved to eat. My mom is an extraordinary cook. I relearn that in new ways all the time. She didn’t learn to cook in Iran. She was brought up to go to graduate school. When she came [to the United States] and started cooking, she had to teach herself from memory and the cookbook that’s our version of “Joy of Cooking.” Between that and phone calls to her mom and her memory, she taught herself. I always assume her cooking is the pinnacle or apotheosis or most classic version of Persian cooking. But what she does is an assimilation — immigrant food. For tahdig [crisp-crusted Persian rice], she would use flour tortillas if she couldn’t find lavash bread.
Q. Tell me more about the accident part. You were an English major before you discovered Chez Panisse, right?
A. It was serendipitous. I ended up at Chez Panisse, first for dinner, then as a busser, at the exact time of life when I was like, “What should I do? I want to be a poet, but is that a good life choice?” I knew I could never be a person who sat in a cubicle and does spreadsheets. I would melt. I graduated in 2001. In the years after, a lot of English majors were going to work for Google, but then there was no Silicon Valley that had jobs for liberal arts people. I felt very, very lost. When this amazing, sensuous manual labor presented itself to me and I saw these people, these cooks, being respected and treated like royalty in this kitchen, so skilled and moving around this kitchen like ballet dancers, it was just enchanting. There’s no way any kid with a sense of romance wouldn’t have been enchanted by it.
Q. How did you make the transition to teaching?
A. The minute you start cooking, you learn something, and then someone comes in five minutes later and doesn’t know that thing, and you have to teach them. At Chez Panisse it was fostered in us. I really learn by doing more than watching, and more by watching than being told. There were times I remember — when I was trying to learn a particular way to, I don’t know, cut a carrot. This one guy was so frustrated that I couldn’t get this movement down. Years later, when I figured out a mnemonic device for myself, I thought, “Wow, if he had just taught me this little thing, I would have understood.” I don’t forget how bad that felt, you know? When I am teaching somebody how to do something, it’s on me to explain it in the right way for them. That’s not always the same for every person. It became what I gravitated toward, teaching other people in the kitchen on a daily basis, and I realized I was maybe kind of good at it, I guess.
Q. In the show, when you taste something, the emotion on your face is so clear. What are you feeling in those moments when, say, cheese makes you cry?
A. At the soy sauce factory, I fully wept. I was like: “I was weeping in there! Why didn’t you use that footage? It was so emotional!” They were like: “You looked like a crazy person and the guy didn’t know why you were crying.” With the Parmesan example or gelato example or soy sauce example, to me it’s so much about the story and the people. When I’m aware of the things that had to happen, the time, the work, the care that went into this thing, that gives me this incredible joy. That’s what overwhelms me. It’s not only the most delicious things. It often happens at someone’s grandma’s house, or when a kid makes you something. It’s not only the best things, but understanding all the things that had to happen.
Q. Netflix has gotten some blowback in the past for producing food content that was often dominated and driven by white men. Seeing a Persian American woman at the helm thus feels a little revolutionary, but also just natural: That’s clearly where you ought to be.
A. I am so grateful to Netflix because they gave me this opportunity and supported me and never asked me to be anything but myself. They very vehemently insisted: We didn’t buy this show in spite of the fact that you’re kind of messy and clumsy and a dork who wears overalls and Birkenstocks. We bought it because you’re kind of messy and clumsy and a dork who wears overalls and Birkenstocks. We don’t want you to be anything but what you are; that’s what we love about you and what other people are going to love about you. It’s an amazing message to get from anyone, but especially a corporation. I know I did a good job and I happen to be pretty good at being on camera, so it’s not that I’m denying I deserve it, I’m just a person who got an opportunity who would have been overlooked not long ago. [I said to Netflix:] Don’t you imagine what riches await you in all the populations of people who aren’t being looked at? They’re like, “100 percent.”
Q. Do you feel like you can now help make that happen?
A. Any time I meet someone and they have managed to make a beautiful, diverse project, I ask how’d you do it? Where is the list of Netflix-approved women of color directors, who are those people, so the next time someone is like, “We need a Netflix-approved person,” here’s six of them. It needs to be at your fingertips. I’m building that foundation now so I can move forward in the most efficient manner toward my goals with my values intact. I’m still figuring it out, still building. There’s a lot of legwork that has to be done before we can go out into the world and make one million movies and shows.
Q. So “Salt Fat Acid Heat” just won a James Beard award, to match the one the book won the year before. And you were named one of Time magazine’s most influential people! What’s next?
A. I did sell another book, but I’m not going to be able to start writing for another year. I am going to make another show. The next book is called “What to Cook.” I thought that would be the next show. . . . What if the thing that this show did was answer questions of what to do in different scenarios? No matter who you are, what day it is, or where you’re cooking, there’s always a set of constraints. For me, it was that my kitchen was small and I didn’t have a lot of counter space, and my oven wasn’t very powerful. I would never make lasagna because I didn’t have the counter space to roll it out. Thanksgiving is a really good one where people always have a really hard time because the oven is a limited resource: How do I bake my pie and stuffing and keep everything warm? You have to change stuff up and do it differently. If I could answer the questions and show you how to make decisions, that was way more interesting to me than “today we’re going to make this carrot salad and this chicken.” There were infinite possibilities and teaching opportunities. But my agent was like, “Oh, that’s a book.” Of course it was a book. So, OK, I’ll write this book and it will be the next show. But then [“Salt Fat Acid Heat”] came out and people really responded to the travel part of it. I think we had all underestimated the power that had. The natural answer is to make another show that does travel, and then when the book comes out, follow it with a show that answers those questions. I was just ahead of myself a little bit.
Q. If you had one tip to offer readers to improve their cooking, what would it be?
A. My most basic answer always comes back to salt. Learn how much salt to use and when to use it and why and which ones and in what forms. The very first thing you should do is pour your salt into a bowl so you have access to it. I’m always like, “Everyone should use [the brand] Diamond Crystal,” but what’s more important is being familiar with your own salt: getting a muscle memory for what a pinch will do for a salad, what a pinch will do for a pan of pasta. Then how many handfuls it takes to properly salt a pot of pasta water. Really familiarizing yourself with salt and not being afraid of it is really the most powerful thing. The easiest thing to do is say I’m telling everyone to use a lot more. I was joking that one day it’s going to be like, “That was when Samin killed everyone.” But a lot of cardiologists have given me the thumbs up.