The Tao of Chef and Author Samin Nosrat: 'I Just Want People to Feel More Human'

Every time Samin Nosrat laughs, it’s like someone’s opened a bottle of champagne. It pops in a bright, round burst and then leaves a delightful fizz in the air, the lingering feeling of everyone within earshot smiling. And when you have a conversation with Samin (who’s a first-name-only celebrity to her legion of fans), it adds up to a lot of champagne.

Calling from her hometown of Berkeley, California, on a late-December afternoon, Nosrat professes, by way of saying hello, to be in a “deep depression.” But even this admission is capped with a peal of laughter. (Ordinary winter blues, don’t worry.) It’s certainly a counterintuitive notion coming from a woman whose infectious spirit, on full display in her Netflix show Salt Fat Acid Heat, has made her a star.

Based on her award-winning 2017 book of the same name, the series is a few years’ worth of culinary school in three hours of television. Where most cooking shows (and cookbooks) present recipes, Samin teaches you how to cook — what to do with fundamental ingredients when, and most important, why. Each episode explores one of the four pillars of good cooking name-checked in the title, in a different location across the globe: Japan, Italy, Mexico, and California. There are no celebrity guests; Samin chats only with locals. The results are a revelation: joyful, captivating, deeply informative. As much knowledge as she brings to the table, Nosrat is irrepressibly curious, and that signature laugh — not to mention a face of Chaplin-level expressiveness (see: Samin tasting seaweed pulled straight out of the ocean; Samin tasting salsas made with sour honey) — buoys her small talk at outdoor markets, cooking tutorials with a language barrier, and convivial meals. Even in a strange land, Samin is never a stranger.

Which is ironic, as Nosrat has always felt like an outsider. Born in San Diego to Iranian immigrants, she grew up eating dishes like khoresh bademjan, a stew of eggplant and tomatoes with sour grapes, while her friends pounded chicken nuggets. She wasn’t drawn to the kitchen as a girl; her mother would enlist her and her brothers in the “labor-intensive” aspects of Iranian cooking — “picking a mountain of herbs or peeling a ton of pomegranates” — but otherwise, she was mainly interested in eating food, she says, not preparing it.

That all changed after her first experience with fine dining: a dinner at Chez Panisse, that lodestar of California cuisine, while she was a student at Berkeley in 2000. As the now-famous story goes, she was so awed by the meal, she wrote the chef, Alice Waters, a letter offering — pleading — to work for her. She started sweeping floors and busing tables there, and the rest is Samin lore: an apprenticeship in the kitchen; a gig teaching the writer Michael Pollan to cook (when he was a patron at another restaurant where she worked, she passed him a note asking to audit his graduate-level journalism class); a column for the New York Times; a book deal; a blockbuster show. On paper, it all seems bold, confident, self-determined. The reality, she admits, is different. 

“It’s funny, I don’t feel so courageous. Often I feel very lost,” Nosrat says. As an aspiring writer, she was already bucking expectations for most first-generation children (doctor, lawyer, engineer). But the safest and most obvious career paths for English majors — advertising, marketing, maybe a Ph.D. — didn’t speak to her. Cooking “presented itself,” Nosrat says, and she took a chance. “I was like, ‘This is a beautiful thing, I’m gonna go toward this.’ So, I’m just kind of blindly stepping through the world looking for the thing that feels good, and where good people are.”

It’s this fundamental searching, Nosrat believes, that makes people feel bonded to her. “Brown people, kids, queer people, fat people, all sorts of different people see themselves in me,” she says of the Saminiacs who now accost her (sweetly) wherever she goes. “And I think what it is about me is that I’m always looking for where I belong. That is the eternal question in my heart. I’ve always felt like I don’t fit in. I don’t quite fit in in my own family; I didn’t fit in in a very white San Diego; I don’t fit in in an industry where nobody looks like me. So I think the way that I’ve chosen to respond to it in my work is that everyone is welcome here.”

For all her success, Nosrat’s path is one her family has not fully understood. Even as the show took off, they’d ask when she was going to get a “real job.” When her mother arrived to tape a segment for the fourth episode, she observed a staff of runners, P.A.s, producers, writers, and set designers bustling about, asking questions of two people: the director, Caroline Suh, and Samin. Apparently, the setup left her a bit confused. Midscene, she derailed filming to ask Suh where she worked and who her boss was. Nosrat says she turned into “a petulant child,” snapping, “Mom, this is my show! It’s based on my book!’” She belly laughs. “I don’t think my mom could make sense of it,” she says. “It’s not that they’re not proud of me or that they necessarily underestimate me. I think they’re just surprised that the world sees me. Which, I don’t blame them, because the world doesn’t see brown kids or immigrant people.”

This empathy for her parents’ perspective deepened over time, as she met other children of immigrants and “read a million books,” immersing herself in stories of otherness from the literary canon. She knows that her family’s desire for her to go a more traditional route — to become, as she puts it, “a person accredited in something” — is a direct function of their own sacrifice and suffering, a reality she is able, in a feat of emotional intelligence, to accept without the attendant guilt that weighs down many first-generation children. “I know they only wanted the best for me,” she says. “Their limitation in imagination comes from desperation and pain.”

Twenty years into her career, Nosrat is still following what feels good. Cooking proves both an escape and a ballast for her — a way of making her feel rooted, capable, and present. She considers it the ultimate antidote to the toxicity of modern life, a chance to step away from our computers and phones, using our senses to bask in physicality. She wants you to make pancakes not from a box (you already have the ingredients in your cupboard, she swears!). But maybe most important, she wants you to invite your friends over to eat them. 

Thinking back to the previous week, Nosrat recalls a day where she was feeling down. She decided to make chicken stock, and woke the next morning to the satisfying sight of “three gallons of this magical, liquid gold.” She gulped down a cup for breakfast, and then invited some friends over to cook and eat some more. After a boisterous few hours of chatter and children and dogs and food and no internet, she says — with more than a little amazement — her cloud had lifted. 

“It’s so funny, it’s the thing that I’m always trying to get everyone else to do, yet every time, I’m surprised, like, ‘Oh my god, it works!’” Her big laugh unfurls. “Cooking really is a reprieve. It gives you a chance to use your nose and your ears and your hands, and to feel and to smell and to taste. It reminds you that you have a body, and that there are people that we share this Earth with.”

It is this feeling that she wants to impart to others through her teaching — not a bunch of perfect brunch recipes. “A big part of it is self-sufficiency,” she says. “Some measure of feeling like you can do something for yourself and for the people around you. If I need to be the cheerleader to make you feel like you can do that, that’s a really easy thing for me to do. But I think the thing I always remember is that as much as I’m cheerleading everyone else, part of me is just cheerleading me, too. I just want people to feel a little more human.” 

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