After writing one of the seminal food books of the last decade, author Samin Nosrat is now expanding her quest to uncover the roots of deliciousness into a new Netflix series premiering this Thursday, October 11.
Just like the book of the same name, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat explores the science behind essential cooking techniques, with information about how to apply these lessons in your home kitchen. Travel is also a key component of the new series, with Nosrat visiting some of the world’s greatest food destinations to learn from artisans, chefs, and home cooks. The fourth episode, “Heat,” features a stopover at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California, institution where Nosrat started her cooking career. Although the San Diego-born, Iranian-American chef is a relative newcomer to the world of television — she appeared in one episode of the Michael Pollan docuseries Cooked — Nosrat quickly earned a reputation among the production crew for being a “natural” on camera.
Eater recently caught up with Nosrat to talk about the journey from page to screen and her thoughts on the future of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
Eater: You first worked with director Caroline Suh on the Michael Pollan series Cooked. How did you get from that show to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat?
Samin Nosrat: She was the showrunner of Cooked and directed the episode I was in. When we met in Berkeley, it was like love at first sight. She told me that day, “You’re going to have your own show,” and she was telling me the story of Jamie Oliver being discovered in the background of some other show.
What did you like about working together?
That day, with that crew, it was really grounded. It was definitely the biggest crew I’d been around, but I felt so amazing. There was this way where they kept being like, “Can you do this again? Can you do it this way? Can you answer this question?” And I was so happy to give them whatever they wanted, because I felt like we were all on the same page working toward this larger goal of getting it just right. I feel that in restaurants, like at Chez Panisse, and I have felt that in other collective environments where I’m working with colleagues toward a goal. But it’s a rare thing to end up in a creative environment where everyone just wants to make the best possible thing. It was just a magical feeling, and I really felt like she was like my guardian angel.
That episode was really fun. Caroline let me talk about a lot of stuff — she was so genuinely curious. I talked a lot about feminism in the kitchen. There was a lot of things they didn’t use, but I felt like they were really listening to stuff that I spent years thinking about. They went back and made the episode, and I think it performed well — there’s so much I don’t know, because people are very secretive at Netflix. I think they were interested in a season two, but I’m not Michael Pollan. He didn’t want to do a season two.
Caroline knew that I was making this four-part book, and Jigsaw Productions knew about that. She was like, “Send me drafts of your chapters, and let’s bring this to Jigsaw.” She really shepherded it to them, and there was a way that they could see the potential for it. To me, it makes absolute sense: It’s a universal philosophy of cooking, and anywhere we go, we can teach this. So, Jigsaw was super on it, they brought it to Netflix, and it was so crazy how it was just, “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”
All things considered, how many years did it take to write the book?
I had the idea 18 years ago, and then it took me about seven years of active work, teaching the classes, working on the curriculum, distilling the curriculum into something that could be on the page, writing the book proposal, selling the book, and writing the book. Were you going to ask me if I ever imagined it would be a show?
Yes! Did you ever dream of a TV show?
I think the first time I taught a cooking class was 2007. I remember coming back to work and telling the other cooks and chefs that I worked with, “This seems really inefficient, teaching people how to cook, like, 12 rich ladies in Berkeley at a time.” And I was like, “What if I had a show, where I taught people how to cook? It would reach so many more people, and it would be much more efficient, and I could get the message to the people who need to hear this, other than recreational home cooks.” And I remember that, because this was Berkeley, people were like, “TV is the devil.” But it always was somewhere in the back of my mind.
And then the other thing is that, right after I sold my book, I went to the number one top-rated astrologer on Yelp, a psychic in San Francisco. It was this expensive thing that I’d heard about forever, and I was like, “I’m going to go to her.” She didn’t know anything about me, but I told her I had a book, and she said, “Your book’s going to get optioned for a movie deal.” And I was like, “Are you sure about that? Maybe a show?” And she was like, “No, I see a movie deal.” And what’s funny is that the way that the deal was structured is that it was a film option, not a TV option, because it was a documentary film series. She was right.
How did the travel aspect come into the mix? Was that something you wanted from the beginning?
It was in there since the earliest rounds of the treatment. That’s when you’re dreaming, and I was like, “Were going to go to nine countries per episode.” And then we had to deal with the realities of budgeting.
We went to LA to pitch Netflix in person the day before Halloween 2016. We had this great pitch — it was so awesome — and then it takes a day for them go get back to you. So the day I got the news of “we want it,” was two days after the Trump election, and I was in my bed, very depressed. I very much questioned, “What does it mean for me to decide to be a public person, when the public has sent me a very clear message that I’m not the kind of person that they want to see on camera.” I had to sit with that.
Accomplishment-wise, of course, it was amazing news. But in the moment, when I was looking out at the world, I was like, “What does this mean?” Initially, I really wanted to go to Iran for the “acid” episode. And then I was thinking about like, what will it mean for the world — and what will it mean in my life — to be seen in a hijab speaking Farsi? I spent a lot of time thinking about that stuff.
Right now, the reason I cook and the reason I care about this as a line of work is that it’s kind of like the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of [being] the tool for a storyteller; to tell universal stories, connect people from diverse backgrounds, increase curiosity, and teach you about the world. And I thought, “Well, if I can do that with this, it’s my job.”
What I wouldn’t have given as a little kid in San Diego to have seen someone like me on TV! In second grade, I was called a terrorist. My whole life has been this. So if I can mean that for somebody else — for another little kid, or not even a little kid — then that’s what I wanted to do.
It seems like, by letting food be the prism through which you get to explore the world, you’re allowed the freedom to seamlessly bounce from place to place. On the show, you make it seem like…
We are all connected! The more I kept doing research for the book, I was reading a lot of science studies and stuff, about the way we taste, the way we derive pleasure, and the ultimate human relationship to eating. And the stuff about salt, fat, acid, and heat is fundamentally human. We need salt because our bodies can’t produce it. We need certain fats that our bodies can’t produce. Acid makes our mouths water, and that starts the digestive process. We all want to taste delicious foods. And the truth is, sure, of course, there’s all this diversity of flavor everywhere we go, but fundamentally, deliciousness is deliciousness.
Would you like to do another season? And if so, would you do it the same way or would you structure it differently?
I learned so much that I would want to put everything I’ve learned into practice, absolutely. I think whatever I make next, it will look different. I think I would totally do something with them again — I loved working with Netflix, so much. It’s a dream.
The other day when I was at [the television trade conference] CTA, I was going through the press gauntlet and went over to the TV Guide booth. They took my picture and said, “How’s your day?” And I said, “Well, did you grow up thinking your picture was going to be in TV Guide? Because I didn’t.” I never thought this could happen or would happen. It’s just beyond my comprehension, and I feel so lucky to have a tool to make people’s lives a little bit better.
One thing I learned — a basic, practical thing — was that writing a column about cooking, while you’re traveling around the world making a show about cooking, when you have to write your stuff, report your stuff, and fact check it… that almost killed me. It was really hard to be so on top of my schedule to make sure I was at home testing, submitting, and filing. So I think that anything that I do next time, there will have to be a way where what I’m writing about and what I’m filming about line up, so I’m not losing my mind doing 10 different things at the same time.
I do think there is an argument to be made for more seasons of this show, because I do think it’s a universal idea. I think that people have been talking about this a lot after Anthony Bourdain’s passing, where, from the outside you’re like, “Wow, a food travel show? That’s the best job ever. Wow, you get to go to all these places and do all this stuff and meet all these people.” I just want to say for the record, when we were on the Mexico shoot, Caroline and I ate more Johnny Rockets hamburgers than any Mexican food, because our hotel had a Johnny Rockets in it, and we’d get home so late and leave so early. I wasn’t eating all of the foods in Mérida. It’s not a vacation.
Now I understand what’s involved, and so I think in some ways I’d like to do a show that doesn’t move around so much. But also, with my book and with the show, I think I maybe have earned the trust of whoever I’m going to work with that it’s okay to break rules a little bit and do things a little bit differently and not by the formula that’s always been done. I need a little downtime to have a creative moment and figure out what that could look like. But I think there’s infinite ways that you can make exciting, new, beautiful food shows, and I totally want to do it.
And also, whatever I do next, I do think that the most meaningful part of this for me was getting the opportunity to work with a lot of different people who are not historically shown on television. Not only people of color, but focusing on home cooks rather than restaurant cooking — focusing on the grannies. Any time I could, I was bringing that kind of stuff in, because I do feel like what we get to see on TV is pretty limited. So hopefully, again, now I will have the kind of power where I can insist on that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.