“My eureka moment came through a whole long series of serendipitous events”
Samin Nosrat is the chef, writer and teacher behind the award-winning cookbook and Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Here she reflects on her journey in food.
My family’s from Iran and my parents moved to California in the mid-1970s. For my mom, an important way to immerse me and my brothers in our culture was through food. She drove all over southern California for just the right ingredients and made the most delicious Persian food every night. I remember when I was in kindergarten, kids made fun of me because my food looked different. I pondered being upset but then thought, “No, this tastes too good!”
My mom definitely wanted us to be relatively self-sufficient, so she taught me how to make tuna salad and a few little things. But I also think she didn’t want us to get trapped in the kitchen – especially me, as a girl. She wanted me to go do my homework. I was always really excited to eat though – and I think wanting to eat well is an important pre-requisite for being a cook. Persian cooking is very labour intensive though and there are certain dishes and ingredients that are really helped by a lot of hands; she would have me and my brothers clean and peel broad beans, or a huge pile of eggplant.
My eureka moment came through a whole long series of serendipitous events. I moved to Berkeley to attend university and had no interest in anything culinary. In the 90s, it was just a different time: there weren’t food blogs, there weren’t celebrity cooking shows. My second year, I fell in love, and my boyfriend and I saved up and went to Chez Panisse. The restaurant is this incredible temple to the senses. You walk in and there’s these extraordinary floral arrangements and they’re seasonal. The in-house builder has built these beautiful little copper lanterns that sit on every table. It smells good and looks good and feels good and it tastes good.
The dessert was a chocolate soufflé and I had never had soufflé before. I took a bite and our server asked, “How is it?” I said “Oh, it’s really good, but it would be so much better if I had a glass of cold milk” – because here in the States every kid grows up on chocolate chip cookies or brownies and cold milk. So, this warm chocolate thing and cold milk just sounded heavenly to me. She laughed and went and got me milk and also brought each of us a glass of dessert wine. Only later did I learn not only is it super rude to tell somebody how to make their thing better but also that in fine dining, and certainly in Europe, it’s considered that milk is only for babies! I was showing all my cards, that I knew nothing!
I was so inspired after that meal that I wrote a letter to owner Alice Waters, printed out my resume, and brought it to the restaurant, asking for a job. They brought me over to the floor manager’s office and when she opened the door, it was the soufflé lady, our server. We remembered each other, she read my letter, and hired me on the spot. I started cleaning tables the next day and within a month I was begging the chefs to teach me how to cook. I made a lot of mistakes and ruined basically anything a person can ruin, which really goes to show how committed they are to teaching.
I am absolutely a student of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, but the thing I’d like to put out in the world is even simpler than to eat locally, seasonally, organically. In a lot of ways, as a culture, we are so divorced from the basics of cooking a meal and sitting round the table. Curiosity will take people to the farmers’ market or to things that taste better, which usually are the organically grown or the local or seasonal. But even before that, we have to encourage people to cook. I think roasting a chicken is a victory.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat, is out now (published by Canongate).