Samin Nosrat was the darling of this year’s Writers and Readers event in Wellington. Britt Mann spoke to the California-based chef and international best-selling author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat ahead of her visit about the four elements making her famous.
As a child, Samin Nosrat had a soft spot for the Land of the Long White Cloud. Her interest in our far-flung islands was piqued by her first trip out of America. She was visiting family in Iran, and had exhausted her supply of books. Desperate to read anything in English, she devoured a title about New Zealand she discovered at a relative’s house.
As a teenager, “I think I had a whole imaginary life where I thought I would move there,” Nosrat says now.
Speaking by phone from a friend’s house in California before her March visit, the chef and international bestselling author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat admitted limited to having a geographical knowledge of New Zealand. The 38-year-old was adamant, however, that once she got here, she must go in search of a certain woman. “I’m obsessed with Fleur Sullivan,” Nosrat says. “I’ve read everything you can read about her.” The fact she’s researched the quirky cook from coastal Otago is in keeping with Nosrat’s decades-long thirst for knowledge of all things food. (Sure enough, a week before this issue went to print, Nosrat posted a photo on her Instagram account, beaming next to a silver-maned Sullivan who is clutching a sole fish in each hand.)
Nosrat was turned on to the culinary world in a whimsical fashion. As a student at UC Berkeley, Nosrat and her then-boyfriend painstakingly saved their pennies to go for a multi-course meal at Alice Waters’ famed California restaurant, Chez Panisse. Nosrat was so moved by the experience she wrote to the maitre’d the next day asking for a job clearing tables. Over the next four years, Nosrat rose through the ranks. She then travelled the world in search of further flavours.
Nosrat’s first “and possibly last” book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat took seven years to research and write. Designed to be read hardcover to hardcover, bestrewn with bright, watercolour diagrams that are as informative as they are endearing, it’s a 469-page guide to applying the four elements for which it is named to make any ingredient taste good. It’s institutional knowledge plenty of chefs take for granted. And she figured out a way to translate it for home cooks.
Nosrat herself skipped that formative phase: she ate her mother’s moreish Persian cooking, then whatever was served in the college dining hall. Then she got the job at Chez Panisse.
“I never really had that experience in young adulthood, where you’re figuring out how to cook for yourself and your friends,” Nosrat says. “I went straight to a PhD.” Nosrat explains her culinary brain has undergone reprogramming since she stopped cooking in kitchens at fine-dining restaurants and started writing down what she’d learnt in them. She spent 12 years working full-time in restaurants, before the years of researching and writing her book. Now as a food columnist for The New York Times, Nosrat the chef has had to make compromises for Nosrat the writer to do her job. Chief among her considerations is saving time in the kitchen without compromising the flavour of the finished product. And that her reader will probably be washing their own dishes.
Nosrat was ushered into the literary realm by another internationally acclaimed author, Michael Pollan, who called on Nosrat to teach him the mysteries of the kitchen for his book Cooked. (Nosrat appears in Pollan’s Netflix series of the same name.) In return, she audited his journalism course at UC Berkeley. Now, he has written the forward to her book.
Writing has given Nosrat freedom to explore foreign territory. Quinoa, broccoli, brown rice, tofu and coconut oil might be building blocks of the modern pantry, but Nosrat had never cooked with them as a chef.
Writing, and her subsequent success, has also given Nosrat a way to right past wrongs she feels complicit in. As stalwarts of entertainment and media industries have been accused of sexual impropriety, so too have celebrity chefs in kitchens across America.
Nosrat, who has mostly and consciously worked in women-run restaurants, has not experienced harassment directly.
“That’s not to say that I did not and I have not participated in a patriarchal system,” she says.
“When I’m breaking my back to get a promotion, get someone to notice me, or an increase in pay –
when I do it at the cost of another woman or oppressed person – that’s me participating and being complicit.
“Even if I’m not sexually harassing someone, it’s about abuse of power.”
Nosrat tells the story of her friend, fellow cook and food writer Tamar E Adler, who wrote an article about TV foodie Anthony Bourdain for The New Yorker in 2012. He wrote a damning reply online. She asked Nosrat to write a comment in her defence. Nosrat didn’t do it.
The piece, titled “When Meals Get Macho” was in many ways prophetic, Nosrat says. She regrets staying silent for fear she’d damage her own career.
“That is patriarchy in action: me not doing the right thing by helping her move forward.”
One day, Nosrat wants to write about all this. In the meantime, she made a public apology to her friend via Twitter late last year and she’s putting women who want to share their stories in touch with new colleagues from The New York Times.
The daughter of immigrants, who was once called a terrorist by a kid at her primary school, has always been conscious of systemic injustice, even if she has at times – as we all have – lacked the courage to act on it.
“We didn’t have a lot, but I’ve definitely had more privilege than others and I’d like to continue acknowledging that, especially as I’ve been given more of a platform,” Nosrat says. “I feel like it’s important to make sure I circle attention back to the people who really historically don’t get it.”
“We didn’t have a lot, but I’ve definitely had more privilege than others and I’d like to continue acknowledging that.”
Samin Nosrat has distilled the knowledge chefs take for granted into her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.