Samin Nosrat Is The Hero We All Need Right Now
An interview with the cookbook author right before her game-changing Netflix show captures your squishy little heart.
October 4, 2018 ● 9 min read
By Soleil Ho | Photos courtesy of Netflix
Right now, everyone’s watching Samin Nosrat.
For so many people of color who live and work in the world of food, she’s the one who made good: the brown girl who bypassed the Ethnic Cuisine shelf and found a home in General Cookery.
Her book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, is a gorgeously illustrated bible for home cooks with the same bubbly, kind voice that infuses her regular column in The New York Times Magazine, and that parity is why she’s so easy to love: She’s achieved so much of what we all dream of (a career cooking in one of the most famous restaurants in the US, Chez Panisse, a successful and much-lauded cookbook, a regular gig with the Times, and now, a food and travel series on Netflix) and she’s done it while remaining true to herself.
Ahead of the premiere of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the new show based on her book, I spoke with Nosrat about the show and what she hopes it might achieve. Her nervous energy was palpable even over the phone, and she answered my questions with even more questions for herself. “What am I doing?” she mused. “Who even gets a show like this? Am I messing this up?”
Nosrat is always stepping back and examining herself, problematizing her own trains of thought before I even think to do so. The day after our interview, she called me, anxious that she’d made too much of herself, hoping that in this piece I’d emphasize that the show’s aesthetics and ethics were a group effort between her and the crew—which she had of course already done, faithfully.
In so many ways, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is authentic to the way Nosrat has carried herself throughout all of her projects. Traipsing around Italy, Japan, Mexico, or Berkeley Bowl, laughing at dad jokes with her guides seems exactly, as they say, “on brand” for her. In the segments of the show where she’s actually cooking, whether it’s Persian tahdig, blanched haricots vert, or roast chicken, her breeziness makes you confident enough to dig out your pans and cook along with her. As the credits rolled on the final episode of the four-part series, I already had a pan of her roasted cauliflower on deck.
In this interview, we talk about the burden of personal authenticity, the work it takes to make a travel show more equitable for its subjects, and what it feels like to be the one everyone’s been waiting to see.
What were you worried about the most, going into this show?
I spent so much time thinking about image: what we’re putting out into the world, what I’m conveying in the universe, and also what I’m absorbing from other people’s narratives and what they put out into the world. So I’m really sensitive to that. I just take it really seriously, and I see it as a big responsibility. Sometimes I’m like, am I messing this up? Should I be more vulnerable? Should I be showing how messed up I am so that people understand that it’s not just rainbows and unicorns? It’s really hard!
So how would you describe what you actually did end up showing of yourself?
Since day one, everyone was like, you’re a natural at this. I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea what being a natural meant. But only after being really deep in the process did I understand. Another friend came to film me for a day for a scene for his show, and he was like, I always forget you’re such a natural. And I was like, Daniel! What does that mean? And he said, it just means you’re the same when the cameras are on as when they’re off. I’m completely able to block out the cameras and just continue to be me. And I think that’s the pleasant surprise: I don’t just turn into some character. I’m really proud of that—I didn’t understand that was something to be proud of, but apparently, it is so I’m proud of it. And I feel like that’s something that I try to do in all of my work: in my writing, every Instagram caption, in anything that I’m putting out in the world, I work so hard to show that it’s the real me.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react to seeing you on-screen. For me, it’s reassuring to know there’s a woman of color hosting a food and travel show—I can relax a bit as I watch it.
Oh, for sure. And I’m actually really looking forward to that. A big part of what I brought to the production team was, we have to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure we are representing these places and these people as they are instead of [how] we want to use them in our narrative. I was trying so hard to not come with a discovery mindset or a colonial mindset, and the place I was most aware of was the Yucatan [featured in episode three of the series]. Also because the history of the Yucatan was just wave of colonization after wave of colonization. There were some very impoverished places that we visited that were so amazing and where I learned so much. How do you not pay attention to that?
So in the Yucatan, I got to visit this place where these women have been keeping these stingless bees called melipona bees for over two thousand years. It’s just a beautiful and extraordinary relationship. This honey that these women produce is so precious because these melipona bees yield so much less than the typical honeybee, so it’s often sold for a lot of money. So I just kept thinking like, we’ve come here; we’ve taken so much footage and taken their stories, so what do we leave them with? How do I give them something in return? Because I don’t want the greater story for this experience to be that I came here and took from them. So I take it really seriously that the thing that I could give them is exposure to their story and sales.
Another piece of this is, Niki Nakazawa, who worked as one of the food producers on the show, introduced us to Fundación Haciendas del Mundo Maya, a foundation that does this work with indigenous populations and helps them bolster some of their traditions--food related, basket weaving, crafts–and market their goods for fair wages. They bring literacy services and internet services to these towns.
That’s why I’m hustling so hard to rebuild my website: I’m going to pair up with that foundation and give people the means to buy products like this honey through the site. Hopefully, it could translate to actual money for these artisans: I want to make it easy for people to interact with and support these people who supported me. So yeah, I’m definitely stressed right now. And this would be the easiest thing to cut: coordinating with all these people, translating Doña Conchi’s turkey recipe… it’s so much work.
Tell me about Doña Conchi. [In episode three, Nosrat goes shopping for sour oranges with Conchi and learns how to make turkey escabeche in her home kitchen.]
[Laughs] So Doña Conchi does not use a computer, but she does have a smartphone. I needed to get the recipe from her, test it, and translate it into typical recipe language. She hand-wrote the recipe on notebook paper, tore out the page, took pictures of it, texted it to us via WhatsApp, and so now we’re translating it and in communication with her to clarify the steps she did when we were shooting that she didn’t write down. And I’m painstakingly cooking it multiple times to make sure it’s easy to replicate. And we’re expending all of this effort so that when people watch that episode and say, I want to make this turkey escabeche recipe, she gets the credit, she gets the love. And probably the easiest thing to get rid of right now on my list of things to do would be that.
But I have been that person whose work has been uncredited so many times. I’ve felt that feeling so many times. And I never want to be the source of that for anybody else. I don’t want to take that from them. I’m just the vehicle through which all that stuff is being spread out into the world. So I’m so aware of that. And I’m gonna get it wrong! But I just know what it’s like to feel bad, and I don’t want anyone else to feel bad. That’s basically what it all comes down to.
During the actual production of the show, how easy was it to actually stick to your mission?
It is so hard. I am a critical consumer, especially when it comes to media, so it’s easy to jump to criticism and be like, why didn’t they do that? Or, well I would have done it another way! And now having gone through the process and learned how many people are involved, there’s so much paperwork and yes-ing and no-ing, and it has to happen for less than $75. Now that I understand that a lot of my media friends are like, “Anything that makes it to screen is a miracle.” It’s a victory just to make it to screen. There’s so, so, so much compromise. And reality. And logistics.
We made some mistakes but I also think this show is probably in a lot of ways the most progressive thing I’ve seen in terms of food TV. Because I was like, this is my shot, I may never have a shot ever again. Here’s what I worked for all these years. This is what I’ve always wanted to see on screen. What are parts of cooking and the cooking world that don’t ever get shown, or that I feel are missing from everything else that I watch?
So what was missing?
I felt like that was, in general, women. In general, women of color. In general, home cooking vs restaurant cooking. In general, the accessible rather than the aspirational. So those were the things I intuitively focused on. Because I thought that was missing. I feel there’s a lot of accessible cooking on TV, but often it’s not given the same cinematic beauty treatment as the aspirational stuff. And so, I was like, why can’t the regular home cooking be shot cinematically? Why can’t it be super, super aesthetically pleasing? Why does it have to have crappy studio lighting? Why can’t it have amazing cameras and amazing production value? A lot of the credit for the finished product goes to my incredible director, Caroline Suh, who also insisted on that. And also to our fantastic director of photography, Luke McCoubrey, he just had the most otherworldly sense of light and lenses. The production team worked their asses off to make it beautiful. We all were on the same page about making something extraordinary and different.
You watch Chef’s Table, and if it lands right with you, at the end you’re like wow, I want to journey to wherever and eat that person’s food. I wanted the result of this show to be like, oh cool, now I want to cook a chicken. I want to cook some beans. I want you to get off your butt and go cook this stuff. Which is a big part of why I’m spending all my waking hours putting the recipes on my website.
It really seems like your role here is opening doors for other people. How do you feel about being that person?
When I was a little kid, what wouldn’t I have given to be able to see me on TV? It’s too intense for me to even wrap my mind around, how normalizing it might have felt to see someone who looks like me on TV. So if I can understand that, in my body, how powerful that is to me, oh my lord, it would be amazing to see anybody else who isn’t a traditional person on TV. Maybe a gender non-binary person. Maybe some Black women. Imagine that! Anyone from any marginalized community. Go to EquityAtTheTable.com and find somebody.
The entire time we were working on the book, it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t be the person doing this thing. And so what a wonderful ignorance that I got to live in, that it didn’t even occur to me that I shouldn’t be the person to teach people how to cook general cooking! That I shouldn’t be the person who went to Italy, that I shouldn’t be the person who worked in a fancy restaurant. Because I was like, this is what I have to do. In a way, because I’m so clear about the work, it squeezes out too much awareness of what it means to other people. But now, I’m like, wow, maybe I do get to be the one who opens the door. And maybe if people see they can make money off of a brown girl, you know, if corporations can see that I’m profitable—I mean, how disgusting is that—then maybe they’ll give other brown and Black and queer and whoever else isn’t the traditional face of cooking TV a shot.
How have you wrangled with that idea, that a marginalized identity can be a selling point?
I wish we didn’t have to participate in this, but I don’t think I’m quite radical enough to completely reject the capitalist world. If I’m gonna work within this system, what can I do, what kind of choices can I make? I ask those questions a lot. It really freaked me out when I was talking with you [for your podcast] last time—I keep returning to it in my head—where you were like, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t crumble under the pressure we’re all putting on you.’ And I was like, wait, all you guys are looking at me? Wait, what? It’s so funny because I’m simultaneously completely able to go make a show that’ll come out in 200 countries without worrying about it and then also completely insecure and assume that nobody’s thinking about what I do. It’s a maybe poisonous combo, but it is what it is.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat premieres worldwide on Netflix on Oct. 11.