Revealing the Secrets of the Kitchen: Lunch with Samin Nosrat

23rd November 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing

Samin Nosrat is out of practice. Years ago, while working as a chef in California, she used to eat out all the time. Every bit of spare cash would be funneled into a busy dining habit and she knew all the latest quirks and preoccupations of the restaurant industry.

These days, her attention lies elsewhere. In 2010, she quit professional kitchens to write a book on the underlying principles of cooking called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, based largely on what she had learned during her years at Alice Waters’s legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. To support herself, Samin took high-end catering jobs and taught cookery classes in San Francisco. “My whole beat has shifted from restaurants to home cooking,” she tells me during our lunch at Anglo in Farringdon. “So even when I eat in restaurants I’m like, okay what here is so delicious that I should be using it at home?”

I’m interested to find out how that question gets answered at Anglo. A tiny space off Leather Lane, this restaurant has been heaped with praise since it opened in March 2016, winning Best Newcomer at last year’s Observer Food Monthly Awards and earning five stars from the late AA Gill. The food here tends towards the experimental, setting it apart from the back-to-basics approach Samin embraced at Chez Panisse, but I’m hoping (as the one who suggested we eat here) that she’ll get something out of it.

Before our meal begins, she stresses that she doesn’t want to say anything critical about the restaurant. This piece is to be about her, about our conversation, and not the quality of the food. Fair enough, I tell her – though I will mention a few details that snagged her attention during lunch, and which she might even recreate when she gets back home to Berkeley.

We meet outside the restaurant, having both arrived a few minutes early, and Samin gives me a big hug, as though we’ve been friends for years (it’s our first encounter). This is not someone who takes a half-hour or more to warm up: she’s immediate and frank and funny and full of robust opinions (don’t get her started on artisanal food culture – “I cannot deal with ‘craft’ anything,” she exclaims at one point – or her issues with Noma Mexico, more on which later).

She’s also very busy. “My life is so crazy right now,” she says as we take our seats in the cool, laidback dining room and order a couple of glasses of Czech riesling.

My mom was always trying to recreate the taste of Iran. I always say we spent 40% of our childhood in the car traversing Southern California looking for the most delicious-tasting stuff

Samin is in London to promote Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which took her a full seven years to write, with much hair-pulling along the way. It’s an extraordinary work, a book that attempts, as Yotam Ottolenghi puts it on the front cover, to “summarize the huge and complex subject of how we should be cooking in just four words”. Whereas most cookbooks tell you what to do, this one tells you why – why you should salt water when cooking beans, or why butter should be cold when you’re making pastry for pie crusts.

Published in the US earlier this year to rave reviews, the book is already bearing unexpected fruit. For starters, Samin has been asked to contribute to the “Eat” column in the New York Times Magazine – “which,” she says, “is the writing job that I’ve wanted for 17 years. I’ve been obsessed with the column since I started cooking.”

And now Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is being turned into a documentary, an undertaking which will involve “many weeks of shooting in many places around the world”. It’s not Samin’s first time on screen – she appeared in Michael Pollan’s four-part Netflix series Cooked last year – but this show will bring her far greater exposure and she’s more than a little anxious about it.

First though, some bread. Our waiter sets down a plate of homemade sourdough with yeast butter. “What’s yeast butter?” wonders Samin. She spreads a little on her bread and takes an interrogative bite. “Oh it has nutritional yeast in there. It’s so good. Cheesy.” She nods and grins (when Samin likes something, you can tell it a mile away). “I’ve become so obsessed with putting nutritional yeast on popcorn. It’s fully a hippy thing.”

That’s something she ought to know well, having grown up in Southern California. “My parents moved over from Iran in the early 70s. My mom was obsessed with organic produce. She was always trying to recreate the taste of Iran, where the produce was organic by default. I always say we spent 40% of our childhood in the car traversing Southern California looking for the most delicious-tasting stuff, because everything else was processed. So I grew up going to all the hippy co-ops. But I never really understood the whole macrobiotic food movement.”

The dining room at Anglo

Moving to the “hippy epicentre” of Berkeley, first to study creative writing, then to cook professionally, changed her mind on that subject, but not straight away. At Chez Panisse – Samin’s first restaurant job – her experience was “more gastro than hippy”. She worked there on-and-off for 12 years, receiving one of the most highbrow cooking educations you could possibly imagine (Waters now sets particular store by her ability to make pasta and pull mozzarella). Recently, though, Samin has developed a taste for hippy ingredients such as liquid aminos and gomashio. “I have one eyebrow cocked,” she says, “but if it’s delicious you can’t really argue.”

Our first course arrives, a very pretty plate of Isle of Wight tomatoes with seaweed, nori salt and shavings of raw courgette. The dish is garlanded with edible flowers, which, I explain to Samin, are very much a Thing in trend-aware restaurants around these parts and have been for several years.

She laughs at her own obliviousness. “This is very far outside my comfort zone.”

In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin sets out to make cooking as simple and intuitive as possible. The idea occurred when she was 20 and still finding her feet at Chez Panisse. “I was bewildered how these people knew how to cook everything without ever consulting a recipe. And so over the course of a year or more, I started to see this pattern. No matter what we’re doing, we’re always salting the meat the day before, we’re always heating the pan before we add oil, on the pastry side we keep the butter cold so we get flaky pastry, and we’re always adding and adjusting acid.”

She went to her mentor at the restaurant, Chris Lee, and announced her discovery: all good cooking depends on the considered application of salt, fat, acid and heat. “And he said, ‘Yeah we all know that, that’s nothing new.’ I was like, ‘Well nobody every told me this, it’s never in any of the books you told me to read.’”

She resolved to write that book herself, but it was only years later, with encouragement from Michael Pollan – who teaches journalism at Berkeley when he’s not making documentaries or writing books of his own – that she actually sat down and did it.

It wasn’t a smooth process. “Oh my god, I wrote it probably four times. It was hard!” At first she tried to mimic the style of other writers, including Pollan, but that didn’t work. “It took me a while to find my own voice,” she says, “and then it took me a long time to figure out the structure. Because I really wanted symmetry in the four chapters, and the four elements are not symmetrical. Salt is one thing in one form and has one primary goal, fat comes in a million different forms, heat is not tangible… There were a million different obstacles I came up against.”

I want my food to be the backdrop to an amazing experience where strangers sit down at a big table and share and talk to each other. I never want you to even think about me, I want to be a secret hidden away in the kitchen

Eventually, at a “breakdown moment where I’d written the entire book and it was really bad”, the structure became obvious to her – it involved looking at each of the four elements from two perspectives: flavour and science. The process ran more smoothly from there, though even now she seems bruised by the experience. “Everyone asks, ‘What are you going to do next?’ and I’m like” – she lets out a strangled laugh – ‘No more books ever!’”

We pause to contemplate the next dish: salmon poached in vanilla oil, served with cucumber velouté, smoked herring roe and oyster ice cream. “I’ve never had oyster ice cream before,” says Samin, sampling it. “I think I really like oyster ice cream! Because I don’t really like oysters all that much. I love the ocean taste but I don’t love the slimy experience. So this is good.”

Do you have a cooking philosophy? I ask.

“I don’t think this is original by any means,” she begins, “but I believe that there’s an intensely masculine school of cooking and an intensely feminine school. And they’re not so much distinguished by the gender of the person cooking, as by the mindset. So for me, I’m a descendant of a really feminine line. With Alice Waters, it’s elevated grandma cooking. It’s about taking good ingredients and doing as little as possible to them, imposing as little of your own ego onto them as possible.

“With food that I consider masculine,” she goes on, “the dish is calling out to you, ‘Look at me, look at how I curled this or turned that into something else.’ I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having a story to tell. But when that story becomes the primary goal of the meal, that’s where my philosophy differs. I want my food to be the backdrop to an amazing experience. Where strangers sit down at a big table and they have to pass trays around and share and talk to each other. I never want you to be so drawn to the plate that you’re thinking of the plate instead of the people. I never want you to even think about me, I want to be a secret hidden away in the kitchen, I don’t want to be a character in your meal.”

I wonder why she’s characterised these two schools of cooking in terms of gender. “Maybe I need to think of better words for this,” she nods. “But it really is like a Thomas Keller versus Alice Waters thing. Or if you go further back, it’s Escoffier versus grandma cooking. Who were the cooks from the beginning of time? Women. The minute it became professionalised and something to be lauded for, it was a masculine thing.” She pauses. “I’m not against playfulness, I’m not that much of a traditionalist. But I don’t like it when it’s the main point of the meal.”

If she’d gone to elBulli, Ferran Adrià’s endlessly playful restaurant in northern Spain, which was often called the world’s best restaurant before it closed in 2011, would she have had a miserable time?

“No I don’t think so.” She recounts the story of a friend who went there and was served an orange concoction prepared tableside from a liquid nitrogen cart. “She tried it and it tasted just like Orange Julius – a really weird frozen orange-and-dairy drink that you’d get in most malls in America in the 80s. It was like a taste of an American 1980s childhood. That playfulness I like.” She goes on: “The thing about Ferran Adrià I think is so amazing, with him everything is derived out of tradition and history, there’s a reason for it. I think now a lot of people cooking this kind of food don’t have a foundation in history or tradition, they’re not playing on anything.”

When she does eat out these days, it’s no surprise that she favours restaurants with a straightforward approach, with food that’s a bit more “grandma” than Thomas Keller. One of her favourite places in Berkeley, she tells me, is “a Korean restaurant in Oakland that I’ve been going to for 17 years called Pyeongchang Tofu House. It’s family-owned and so good.” (She also speaks highly of Via Carota and Café Altro Paradiso in New York, as well as Morito in London.)

The last savoury course arrives: duck leg with cauliflower puree, black garlic and elderberry sauce. “Oh that’s beautiful,” she says to the waiter. “We don’t have elderberries in California, this is very exotic for me.”

By now the dining room is full, chefs are gliding in and out of the kitchen serving dishes and the place is humming nicely. Does she ever miss working in restaurants?

“Sometimes I miss the camaraderie of it,” she says. “But not the physicality. It didn’t suit my temperament very well, I have a bad temper, I get really anxious. There’s a lot of aggression in restaurants, I don’t miss that.”

Adapting from a professional kitchen to cooking at home was a learning process. At first, when she started working at a shared office, “my idea of what lunch should be was so complicated,” she says. “It took me a while, watching people bringing in their spaghetti and meatballs, to realise that I didn’t have to bring a three-course meal to work every day.”

Sometimes I miss the camaraderie of working in a restaurant. But not the physicality. It didn’t suit my temperament very well

Now she tends to eat simply. Breakfast is usually a coffee and maybe some leftovers from the day before. For lunch or dinner she often falls back on jasmine rice topped with a couple of vegetables – kale or broccoli – or a fried egg. “Or this hippy thing that’s so strangely delicious: tofu that’s sliced and marinated with liquid amino or tamari, then cooked in coconut oil so it gets feathery and crisp on the outside and custardy on the inside, then Calabrian chilli oil on top. Vegetable, grain, hot sauce.” She grins. “It’s fast and easy. The whole thing is ready in 20 minutes.”

By now, at the other end of the complexity spectrum, we have eaten the penultimate dish of our five-course lunch, a white chocolate dish with lavender and raspberry, and have started on a second dessert of blackberries and mascarpone. The dish features a mysterious thin red shard which makes Samin’s eyes widen.

“I love how sour that thing is. Now I really want to know what it is. Blackberry that’s been processed in some way.” I can almost hear the cogs in her head whirring, trying to work it out. “So sour, there can’t be any sugar in it. I don’t understand.”

I ask her about the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat TV show, which, she says, is going to take at least a year to make. “I’ve been told I’m good at TV, a natural, and I like doing it, it’s fun. But there’s going to be a price to pay. You give up a big piece of yourself when you become that kind of public figure, and make yourself available to a lot of criticism. That’s definitely something I have to build some defenses against.”

The show got the green light from a major studio last November, two days after Donald Trump was elected president. Deeply upset by the election, and the ugly sentiments it was stirring up in some corners of American society, Samin almost abandoned the project. “It was amazing news, but I was like, what’s the point of having a show and being a public person when people hate me and want me to go back to my country, even though I was born here? It felt so gross. I had to really sit with it.”

Eventually, she talked herself around. “The thing is, representation really matters. Where I grew up in Southern California, everyone was blonde and white. I never had any sense that what I was or what I looked like was okay. So if I can be [visible in the media] for little brown girls or brown people, that’s amazing.”

The blackberry and mascarpone dessert at Anglo

Now the conversation turns, via an offhand question about coffee consumption, to artisanal food culture – and Samin gets stuck in. “Around the same time I stopped eating out in restaurants,” she says, “I also was just like, I cannot deal with ‘artisan’ anything, ‘craft’ anything. I couldn’t articulate why it started bugging me.”

Then she read an article on Eater which articulated it for her. “It was basically about how almost the whole artisanal food thing is built on the backs of brown and black people who created these styles of food and were never able to charge high prices. No credit was given to them… There’s this idea that when people of colour cook their country’s cooking it should be cheap, and when white people co-opt that and cook it, that’s art and they can charge $50 for a plate of it.”

What did she make of Noma Mexico, the much-publicised pop-up that René Redzepi and his team at Noma in Copenhagen staged in Tulum earlier this year?

“I had such intense feelings about Noma Mexico,” she says. “To me [it] was so distasteful and offensive. It’s this country that’s been affected by so many waves of colonialism. It [takes] just one quick cursory glance at history and food, by anyone who’s open to it, to show why a white person going there and ‘elevating’ the cuisine…” She trails off. “Well, not quite elevating as much as investigating and exploring, so that part I forgive a little bit, but he had to know [how it would come across].”

Would it have been possible to do it in more palatable way?

“I think a big part of [the problem] was the money.” A meal at Noma Mexico cost $600 per person, or $750 after tax and service, far beyond the price range of most locals. “I don’t think there was very much or any effort made to provide any long-term infrastructure. So yes they brought local ladies to make tortillas or whatever. But what happens when they leave? What’s the environmental impact on that place? What are those people left with? The history of like everyone in Mexico has been: come, take this thing, use it for our own benefit and leave – and [Yucatán] is a super-impoverished part of Mexico.

“It’s brown people’s food cooked by white people for white people,” she concludes. “It’s disgraceful to me. I was really upset. And I – maybe I shouldn’t judge until I taste it.” But she reckons the ethics outweigh the aesthetics. “It’s sort of like diamonds: who cares if it tastes good?”

Our meal is drawing to a close. Soon, Samin will fly back to Berkeley, and by the time this interview is published she’ll be in some far-flung part of the world filming her TV show, while dashing off New York Times articles and generally trying to keep her life from getting crazier than it currently is.

In the meantime, she’s puzzling over that mysterious blackberry shard on her plate, which has so far resisted her attempts to decipher how it was made. She takes another bite. “Mmm. Mmmm. Is that thing super-sour?” She shakes her head, perplexed. Then she shrugs and lets the question slide, deciding to simply enjoy her dessert instead. “I love it!” she says, her booming laugh filling the small room. “It’s so weird.”

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is published by Canongate

Anglo is at 30 St Cross St, London EC1N 8UH;

Posted 23rd November 2017

In Journal


Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing

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