Cooking With Samin
With a new book and a new show, Samin Nosrat has big plans.
The first time I met the cook and writer Samin Nosrat, she told me she intended to become the Iranian-American Martha Stewart. We were seated at a long banquet table, and I remember waiting for the self-deprecating chuckle that tends to follow statements of unabashed ambition — “particularly from women,” Samin later pointed out to me. “Extra-particularly from women of color.” That was half a decade ago.
Not that she hasn’t produced other chuckle varieties in that time: giggling about something absurd she’s done, giggling about something absurd the world has done. In fact, Nosrat is usually laughing — the kind of laughing that makes you study someone’s face, trying to understand how some people are architecturally cheerier than others. Soon America will have the chance to ponder this, too.
Years in the works, her first book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a 480-page cookbook and manifesto (illustrated by California Sunday columnist Wendy MacNaughton) came out this week. The aim is to “deconstruct and rebuild what a cookbook is,” she says. Later this year, Nosrat will film her first-ever TV series, a cooking show produced for a large premium network that I’m not allowed to name yet. (It won’t be her first time onscreen. In the 2016 documentary miniseries Cooked, she taught Michael Pollan how to braise a pork shoulder.) Even before she signed the deal for the series, rumblings of a second show had begun, while another production company approached her about a third. In culinary terms, Nosrat is coming to a full boil.
Which is all a long way of explaining why, on a recent evening, she was standing under fluorescent lights in a windowless San Francisco conference room playing a grouchy shoe seller.
Take an improv class, her producer had suggested — a little limbering up in advance of the approaching spotlight. Now, after multiple nonsensical exercises, Nosrat was charged with unhappily minding an imaginary shoe shop while a fellow student perused racks of invisible pumps. The idea was to summon the assorted skills they’d spent the past 90 minutes honing: listening, mainly; and empathic exchange; and generally paying more attention to the emotional tenor of a given moment. In place of her standard perma-grin, Nosrat assembled an unfamiliar expression, two parts disdain and one part boredom. “These shoes aren’t for sale,” she muttered.
Nosrat is a disarming presence in real life, partly owing to that bubbliness and partly because she’s preternaturally forthright. (Asked once in a happy little interview what she does to start her day on the right foot, she replied, “Take my antidepressants.”) It was somewhat jarring, then, to see her engage in artifice of any sort, even the kind sanctioned by an improv teacher.
But artifice was an early skill, Nosrat would tell me later. Like many kids of immigrants — her parents fled Iran in 1976 — “I was code-switching at an early age,” she said. One minute she’d be slapsticking around goofily, the next she’d have to suppress her big personality or “quietly decide it’s not worth correcting someone’s pronunciation of my name.” Her childhood memories are the quintessential hybrid sort: frolicking in the surf among fellow Southern Californians, then running back to her mother for Persian cucumbers and sheep’s milk feta rolled in lavash.
While attending UC Berkeley, Nosrat was an overachiever, set on law school and medical school. That changed the day she plunked down seven months of savings from her work-study job on a dinner at this Chez Panisse place she’d kept hearing about, Alice Waters’s temple of California cuisine. Soon Nosrat was in a world she’d never known. Frisée aux lardons. Halibut in broth. Guinea hen with chanterelles. Chocolate soufflé. Deep inside her, a switch flicked on. She went home and wrote the restaurant a detailed letter about the meal, ending with a plea for a job bussing tables. She’d never considered such a thing, had no experience, but they bit.
Nosrat worked her way up at Chez Panisse, eventually gaining such privileges as helping to fry anchovies or fold ravioli. She was enthralled but dumbfounded: How did the cooks magically know the difference between Provençal bouillabaisse and Tuscan cacciucco? How did they cook these elaborate dishes without recipes? And, by the way, which one was cilantro and which was parsley?
Nosrat’s search for answers involved devising a periodic table all her own. She began to discover that four basic elements — salt, fat, acid, and heat — “guide your decisions for any dish you make,” she told me. Proudly, she took her theory to one of the chefs. Duh, his face said, everyone knows that.
But she hadn’t known that, and she suspected a good many other aspiring cooks didn’t, either. So after a few years at Chez Panisse, a pair of apprenticeships in Italy, and a cooking job at Berkeley’s late Eccolo, Nosrat put her theory into a book. The goal of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is to render itself irrelevant. As with the improv class, the hope is to get people off-script, to hone their culinary instincts such that they might ultimately vibe their way through a dish rather than scurry over to the recipe every two minutes.
A few days after the class, I popped by Nosrat’s apartment in Berkeley, where she was testing pasta recipes for an upcoming New York Times story. It was a bright East Bay morning, and with her kitchen door opened onto her sunny porch, the abutilon spilling cheerfully over the railing, and her surfboard leash draped over an old stepladder, she seemed like a casual, laid-back Californian.
I told her she wasn’t fooling me, and that I knew her to be a demented and neurotic Californian at best. She concurred and, while stretching out a sheet of uncut pasta dough, directed me to the notebook on her coffee table: It was what she called her “Manifestation Journal,” a road map of long-term intentions. As I flipped through it, it became clear that the improvisation I’d seen in her kitchen and her shoe store did not extend to life itself. Next to small, candid instructions to herself (Chin hairs under control!) and general life notions (Bay leaf piñata!), there were goals that I found striking in their precision. Go to Italy. Write and publish at least one story in print. Start writing her first book. Those were dated 2008, and all have come true. Where someone else might have drifted vaguely in the direction of a professional interest, she made a life plan — call it a recipe — and followed it assiduously.
As Nosrat now stretched and restretched her dough, she recalled a moment just before the sale of her book. She’d flown out to New York to meet with several interested publishers, and at these meetings something suddenly dawned on her: Everyone pronounced her name right. Sah-meen. In a small way, it represented a turning point. “It meant that, before I got there, they all went to the trouble of asking someone how to pronounce it,” Nosrat told me. “It was a significant moment for me. I mean, part of me is like, ‘Why the hell wouldn’t they ask?’ But part of me also just felt really, really good.” And with that she turned back to manifesting her pasta, as she’d planned to do long ago.