Ten things we learned from Samin Nosrat author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Poetry, naysayers and the four cornerstones of cooking….
During her time at Berkeley University studying poetry, Samin Nostrat saved $220 over seven months to be able to afford a celebratory meal at the legendary Chez Pannise restaurant in California. Whilst there, an impressed young Samin told staff how their soufflé could be served better (with a glass of milk!) and soon thereafter applied for a job at Alice Waters’ cooking institution.
As an inexperienced 19 year-old going into one of the world’s best kitchens, Samin’s lack of knowledge was constantly used against her and she had to work extra hard to prove herself in a fiercely competitive environment. Fast forward 17 years, and Samin has turned the lessons she learned into the internationally celebrated, James Beard Award-winning awarded cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat as well as a Netflix show of the same name which she hosts and produces.
We talked to Samin about finding her way in the kitchen, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ cooking styles and how to fight naysayers…
The magic of walking through Alice Walker’s iconic kitchen at Chez Panisse for the first time.
“Way back in 1971 Alice insisted on the kitchen being open so that people could see in” Samin told us. “So I was walking through on my first day and everyone was so smart and so good looking and it just felt like a movie set or something.”
She went into the kitchen clueless, but soon spotted patterns…
“For me, the gap in knowledge was just so big that I was sort of drowning for the first year (of being a chef): trying to keep up, asking really stupid questions, cutting onions the wrong way…” Samin said. “But eventually I started to notice patterns in what we were doing and above all else there was a way that we were tasting and adjusting I had never seen before.”
The pattern Samin spotted always went along the lines of: “This needs a little salt, does this need a little acid? Does it have enough fat from the olive oil?” So with these words: salt, fat, acid always coming up and, of course, the preciseness of the cooking heat, Samin had an Einstein ‘lightbulb’ moment when she noticed the four things the kitchen was paying attention to..
… it wasn’t an easy ride though.
Samin’s mentor, Chris Lee, said two things to her at the start of her journey in the kitchen. First, that “to be a cook is a really difficult thing, it’s really hard to make a living and it’s a thankless thing so you have to want it more than you’ve wanted anything else”. This was then compounded with the assertion that: “You’re not going to know anything about cooking until you’ve been cooking for 10 years.”
“Those two things certainly gave me pause!” Samin told us.
But she persisted, and in doing so proved herself.
“I think I proved I was committed to learning and I just kept showing up! Those two things convinced people I was serious” she said. But what motivated her to keep going in the face of such a challenge?…
Succeed or fail, the beauty of cooking means you have to try again.
“There’s this beautiful thing in cooking that whether you succeed or fail you have to try again tomorrow” Samin points out, “you have to make it again so you don’t have time to become attached to what you’re doing” Being a student of practice meant Samin just kept going despite endless failures. “That’s just always how I’ve been” she says.
Embracing the failure is key.
“When it comes to work I’m OK with failing, I’m OK to hearing no and I just keep going” Samin told us. “I don’t know whether that’s because I’m the child of immigrants; I don’t know if that’s because I’m a crazy over-achiever. Of course I get hurt or angry, but it doesn’t stop me keeping going.”
For Samin, there is such a thing as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ cooking.
Because a woman has been in charge of the kitchen at Chez Panisse since day one, establishing its tone and layout, Samin shared with us how the working environment there felt so different to many other restaurant kitchens. “Kitchens can be so tense and angry and aggressive but there’s just none of that in Alice’s kitchen.”
So is there such a thing as a ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ approach to cooking? Samin thinks so: “I absolutely come from a school where it’s about finding great ingredients and doing as little as possible to them to bring out their best, manipulating them as little as possible. Whereas a more ‘masculine’ style (I’ve put masculine label on it but I’ve also experienced it as a more masculine thing) is so much more about exerting your control and your vision on a set of ingredients and making them look as little like ingredients as possible, using them instead as a medium for your creative vision.”
So how does this all play out on the plate? “To me as a diner, what that masculine style asks me to do is to look at the food and revel in all of the things that went into it and think about the person who made it” Samin said. “There are exceptions to both these examples and people who excel in either category. But to me, one is so much more about what food has been about since day one –bringing ingredients home and using them to nourish and care for people– and the other branch really descends from something started 200 years ago in France which is when men finally entered the kitchen and made it about themselves, getting attention and being called geniuses for what they were able to do with the food.”
Ultimately, ALL cooking should be for pleasure.
Samin points out that “even most food TV shows are competitions and they create this “it’s all about winning” message. Which in my mind is the opposite of what food and eating is all about when everyone comes around a table and eats this thing to sustain them.” It means that to be an amateur is almost a shameful thing, so Samin sought to create Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to encourage people to mess up and say “it’s OK your thing isn’t the best because also you get to try again tomorrow!”
Her ambition to create Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat made her feel embarrassed as a woman.
“I had this idea in my head but I think as a woman I felt embarrassed about having it. It was such an ambitious idea — that this book I wanted to write could change the way people cook on a large scale and empower them. So I would say it sometimes maybe embarrassingly, but I would not say it a lot of the time…I just sort of thought it to myself.”
But she fought the naysayers and her own self-doubt to encourage people in the kitchen like never before.
“That’s the most exciting thing — to see that this idea I had to empower people is actually empowering people and exciting people on a really broad scale. There were so many people along the way who said: “oh, a book can’t do that” or “a book has never done that” or “an illustrated book can’t do that”, there were a lot of naysayers but we proved them wrong.”
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