Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat honors the culinary importance of grandmas
Chef, author, and educator Samin Nosrat’s effortless appeal has reached a broader audience now that Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat — her James Beard Award-winning cookbook based on the idea that all dishes can be divided into these four elements — has been adapted into a cooking show for Netflix.
The response to the show, now available worldwide on the streaming site, has been overwhelmingly positive. “If there’s been negative stuff, I’ve been shielded from it,” Nosrat tells EW. The Netflix version of Salt Fat Acid Heat features four episodes, one for each element of the title, with each set in a different country. For the fat episode, Nosrat travels to Italy and makes focaccia with “la nonna,” cleaves meat with a butcher, and is brought to tears by an especially flavorful cheese. For salt, she goes to Japan and explores the intricacies of collecting sea salt and producing soy sauce in huge hundred-year-old barrels. For acid, she goes to Mexico and tries shockingly spicy salsas with Rodrigo the “salsa lover,” and makes turkey prepared in a sour-orange marinade with “la abuela.” And finally, for heat, she stays in Berkeley, Calif., where she lives, and makes tahdig, a crispy Persian rice dish, with her mom.
Nosrat, who cut her teeth at the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, is an expert at translating her world-class cooking skills into accessible tips and facts, helpful to chefs and inexperienced home cooks alike. In addition to Nosrat’s warm teaching style, fans have also latched onto what seems to be a corrective in the world of cooking shows: that Nosrat, who is Iranian-American, centers women, many of them older women and women of color, and other groups that are generally underrepresented in the cooking world.
EW got a chance to talk with Nosrat about, among other things, her new show, why grandmas are so important to the cooking world, her favorite holiday snacks, and some of her personal favorite chefs.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The reaction to your show has been really positive. What’s been the most surprising thing about people’s reactions?
SAMIN NOSRAT: I think the most surprising thing, honestly, is that I put so much thought into so many things that I thought no one would notice, but in some ways those little things are what seem to have resonated the most with people. Some of them weren’t exactly little — I don’t want to minimize the importance of the decisions we made — but just things I tried to do with a subtle hand. Of course I wanted to put women front and center, and I wanted to make it about people who don’t traditionally get on television, to get their stories told. I wanted to make sure it was gorgeous, but also accessible. I wanted to make sure that there were people of all different colors and backgrounds. And yet I didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with it.
For me, every choice was very intentional and careful, and I just thought it would sort of be part of the package or something, but people have picked up on every bit of it, and that is really overwhelming in the best way. Because I also don’t think I ever believed that I was worth paying attention to. The world sends women all sorts of messages about that, and certainly immigrants and immigrant families and people of color. And as all of those things, I feel like, in general, I just feel so bowled over that not only I have the platform, but then I have people receive what I’m putting out.
I loved that there were a lot of older women, and especially older women of color, featured in the show. I definitely noticed it as something I hadn’t seen in other cooking shows, but then later I realized it totally makes sense that they would be the authorities on cooking.
Totally! When I first started cooking, all the chefs told me stuff like “You won’t know anything until you’ve been doing this for 10 years” and “Practice is mastery.” And cooking very much is about practice. No one’s born a good cook. You have to learn and practice. And if you take that as your idea about how to become a good cook, then by that rationale who is going to be the best cook? The people who have been doing it the longest, who’ve been doing it every day of their whole lives, all day. And that’s grandmas. People who, their job was to raise a family and feed people, and often on a limited budget. And so of course those people are going to be masters. And yet the way that the world works, we don’t honor those people and we don’t usually look to them for their mastery, other than a grandmother teaching a grandkid how to roll pasta or something. So to me it always made sense that that’s the place we should look, and I feel really lucky that I got the opportunity to do a little bit of that.
We’re right in the middle of the holiday season. What’s your favorite holiday food?
I have two. One is Chex mix, homemade Chex mix. And the other one is more of a fascination because I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever actually had it, it’s just that it’s my dream to make it and eat it: a cheese ball. And the reason is because, one, who doesn’t love a snack food? Number two, both of them are like flavor power bombs. And again, if you want to be so simplistic as to be like: Chex mix is salty; it has delicious butter melted all over it, so there’s fat; there’s Worcestershire sauce and all sorts of yummy acidic bits in there; and you toast it up until it gets crunchy, so there’s your heat. Same thing with the cheese ball — cheese is sort of the perfect salt, fat, and acid thing. And they’re both sort of umami bombs. And cheese is delicious because it has this soft texture that usually you spread onto something crunchy. Chex mix is this wonderful crunch that you just can’t get enough of. So they’re both sort of just like these wonderful textural and flavor extravaganzas, that’s really what I love about it.
I’m not the number-one fan of the heavy holiday meal. And also I didn’t grow up eating them, the traditional Western holiday meals, so it’s just not something I have a nostalgic relationship to. Another thing I do love cooking, it’s like a little bit of kitchen magic, is prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. It’s like a popover and it’s fried in beef fat. And it grows so big and it’s this delicious, wonderful, fatty thing. I love a Yorkshire pudding. It’s basically pancake batter that’s fried in beef fat and puffs up; it’s like you can’t go wrong.
You’ve said you hope to use your platform to highlight more chefs of color. Are there some that you want to turn our readers on to?
[Georgia chef] Mashama Bailey, she’s pretty fantastic. J.J. Johnson, he’s pretty awesome. Edouardo Jordan in Seattle. Here in Oakland, Nite Yun, she has a Cambodian restaurant, Nyum Bai. And another fantastic person is Reem Assil. So there are some fantastic chefs who deserve attention. Another fantastic writer of color, Priya Krishna.
I notice a lot of food or health-oriented trends out here in Los Angeles are fear-based, focusing on what you shouldn’t eat and what’s bad for you. Your book and show are very much the opposite of that. Was that intentional?
It’s definitely intentional, because I also am completely inundated with that kind of messaging at all times, of like, don’t eat flour, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat this, don’t eat that. And it for sure gets in my own head, and over the years my own relationship to eating has definitely — I’ve been challenged in various ways. And I usually always come back around to like, just eat more vegetables. That’s usually the best answer that I could come up with. I’m not like a health guru, I’m not a guru of any kind. I just want to help people cook. And help people feel empowered to make those choices that I feel like honestly have a domino effect in your life. I think that if you feel like you can go to the store and buy a cauliflower or a broccoli or a steak or a chicken or whatever and make it for yourself and your family or your friends, in the end you’ll make so many better health and happiness choices than any sort of prescriptive I could give you about “stay away from this, don’t do this, don’t do that.”
Salt Fat Acid Heat