cook­ing

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.

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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.

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