Samin Nosrat arrives half an hour early to our coffee date at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Lower Manhattan. “Oops!” she texts. “Gonna go grab falafel.” It was exactly the type of introduction I was hoping for from the chef and writer, whose book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was recently expanded into a Netflix show.
When we connect 30 minutes later, her face squeezes into an immediately recognizable shape that evokes pure joy and a little bit of pleasure—mimicking the same expression she often makes on the show while she tastes olive oil, soy sauce, and dried fish. “I am never making that face again,” she tells me, laughing. “You have to do everything [on camera] multiple times, and I’m very much not a good actor.”
The four-part TV series takes on each cooking element through travel: fat in Italy, salt in Japan, acid in Mexico, and heat in her hometown of Berkeley, California, where she began her cooking career at Chez Panisse a little less than two decades ago.
It was there, under Alice Waters, that she discovered these four elements as the veritable key that unlocks a true understanding of cooking. “It was something chefs knew, but not something that home cooks knew,” she said. “Being able to assign language to what it is that we experience, and in this case, what we experience when we eat, is super valuable, I think.”
Being able to assign language to what it is that we experience, and in this case, what we experience when we eat, is super valuable.
After leading a few cooking classes in Berkeley (and teaching Michael Pollan how to cook, an impressive footnote in her already illustrious career), Nosrat figured there was a better way to reach more people—first with her book, which came out in 2017, and then with the show. Fairly quickly, she realized her platform could be used for more than just teaching.
“I’ve been in the food industry a long time, and there are just not that many women who I see in media, and that has long been hard and confusing and sad for me, and made me feel lonely,” she says. “For example, I know that Chef’s Table paved a path that made my show possible, but that already exists and promotes a certain kind of cook.”
With Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Nosrat made it a point to feature female cooks wherever possible, often sending producers back out into the field to keep looking when they came up short of women subjects. “I was like, ‘oh, this is my shot,’ you know? What I wouldn’t have given as a little kid to see a person like me on TV, so if I can be that for other little brown kids…woah,” Nosrat says, adding, “If I can help facilitate that for women, that’s amazing.”
It’s particularly resonant as the #MeToo movement has moved from Hollywood into celebrity kitchens and beyond. “I can’t I say I know a cook who has not been affected by it in some way,” she says. “I came up in relatively respectful and safe kitchen spaces, and even for me, there were uncomfortable moments, and so I’m really glad that finally it’s a thing where we can talk about it with each other.”
In Nosrat’s case, what makes her unique in her male-dominated field is also a strength. “As a woman of color, I am a person who always wants to make the other person comfortable,” she says. “That sometimes ends up being to my own detriment, but in this situation, it was an incredible strength that I could use to help us get more magical footage, by putting everyone else at ease.”
Which is the magic of the show — Nosrat’s ability to not only put her subjects, such as the grandmotherly pesto maker Lidia and the “miso master” Kazumi, at ease, but to bring the audience into her fold of familiarity, too. She’s incredibly likable, with none of the bravado that often accompanies cooking shows with males as the protagonist.
That is really my ulterior motive in all of my work, which is that humans are more similar than we are different.
“It’s so funny because anytime I show my friends the trailer or some parts of the show, everybody’s first reaction is, ‘oh, it’s just you.’ I think in a different time or in a different place or maybe if it were different people making the show, there would be pressure on me to be more polished or be tidier or wear fancier clothes or something, and those things just weren’t true,” she says. “It’s just me and my messy kitchen, you know?”
When she’s not in her own messy kitchen for the “Heat” episode, Nosrat is exploring everywhere from the rural countryside of Japan to the Yucatán region of Mexico. Highlights include a trip to the Yamaroku Shoyu soy sauce factory, a Melipona honey farm, and the Consorzio Vacche Rosse parmesan cheese producers, as well as the more informational segments, such as how much salt should be added to pasta water (a lot) or to ribs (also a lot).
“I wanted to connect the dots. There were so many places that we considered going, and that was kind of the beauty of this idea—it’s universal,” Nosrat says. “Going out into the world, meeting people, seeing how different cultures use different ingredients to achieve the same end—that is part of this big story that is really my ulterior motive in all of my work, which is that humans are more similar than we are different.”