samin nosrat nora taylor
Lunch at Popeyes with Samin Nosrat, the Genius Behind ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’
12.13.18

 

I

n the final episode of Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, host Samin Nosrat does a little shimmy with a friend in the middle of her kitchen and together they erupt in laughter. The exchange, brief and unassuming, was so delightful I found myself grinning from ear to ear.

As the chef and food critic whose ideas about “mastering the elements of good cooking” inspired the show’s very existence, it is clear in her interactions with other chefs, store owners and farmers that her expertise is not in projecting an aspirational lifestyle, but in crafting a shared experience of joy. In shimmying in the kitchen, and making you want to do the same.

“I feel like the weird and memorable thing about the crazy attention and acclaim is, I’m just a dork,” Samin tells me over lunch. “I was not made for this.”

When I first emailed her to ask if there were any guilty pleasure restaurants she’d love an excuse to try, she told me nothing came to mind (“I think I just have pleasures”), but that she’d never had Popeyes chicken — which is how I found myself seated across from my favorite literary cooking companion last week, wiping chicken grease off my fingers with laughably thin paper napkins at a Popeyes in downtown Manhattan.

I bought her book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, for myself last year as a Christmas present (around the time I became a vegetarian, which I conveniently pushed aside for the afternoon) and found that I couldn’t read it at night because it made me too excited to become a better cook. When it was translated to screen for Netflix this year, I savored every episode with an uncharacteristic amount of restraint. I was not alone in my enthusiasm. The show set my Twitter and Instagram feeds abuzz, and has become something of a critical and media darling in the months following its release. It has resonated with so many people that I know personally, especially women, and especially women of color.

“I just want to feel about myself and my life the way she seems to feel about herself and her life,” my friend Alaina said of Samin. I know what she means: Samin is curious without downplaying her knowledge, comfortable and confident without making anyone feel inferior. In trying to pin down the particular alchemy of her appeal, I think it is best to take a page from her school of thought by going back to the basics: She just seems really, really nice.

And down to earth. Once plans were in place for our interview, I started to worry that the Popeyes excursion was perhaps too gimmicky, that it would be the low point in a series of intellectual conversations and glamorous cooking demos. Soon after we meet up, however, Samin tells me, “Earlier, when I first got here, Vanessa [Santos, Samin’s PR Rep] was like, ‘What thing are you the most excited about?’ I was like, ‘Popeyes chicken! Like, I’m [in New York] to do the Today Show and I was like, ‘Popeyes chicken.’”

I know how she feels. While Popeyes has been a vital part of my life for as long as I can remember, Samin has become a vital part of my cooking life, and as we slide into a sticky white booth to talk cooking, writing, life and poultry, it becomes clear that the sheer force of her personality will have a greater effect on me than the somewhat landmark occasion of watching her take her first bite of the fast food chain’s famous spicy chicken (which she says is “delicious,” by the way).

I wanted to be timeless rather than trendy. I want this to sit on the shelf next to the Joy of Cooking.

So, what goes into the making of a rising culinary icon? Patience, in this case. Her cookbook, which went on to win the 2018 James Beard Award for General Cooking and made an appearance on numerous bestseller lists, took about eight years to complete. “It’s very weird because even though I’m insecure on all levels, I do have a remarkable professional resilience,” Samin says. “For me, it wasn’t that I set out to make a classic or anything, but I knew all along that everything about it, all my choices, I wanted to be timeless rather than trendy. I want this to sit on the shelf next to The Joy of Cooking. ”

With the wild success of the cookbook came the mini-series, in which Samin the Writer also becomes Samin the Curious Traveler, Samin the Appreciative Dinner Guest, and Samin the Old Friend.

“I love people,” she says, “and have always been a person who takes care of people, and I’m really good at that, and really good at putting people at ease. I can do it without even trying. I notice if you’re sitting uncomfortably. I just notice everything.” I shift in my seat. “Strangely, in terms of TV work, I think I’m just missing some wiring that would make me self-conscious about cameras.” When I ask if this is a persona, a made-for-tv-version of herself, she interjects: “No, this is me.”

The common ground of our identity — tall women of color who frequently recognize our own dweebiness — was one of the things that pulled me so thoroughly into her orbit. When she talks of the constant triangulation of how to make others comfortable, of trying to figure out how to be the person strangers, friends and acquaintances want you to be, it all rings familiar.

She credits this talent to a lifetime of code-switching. “It’s both a superpower and what made me really good [in front of] the camera,” she says. “[I]t’s a positive thing but it’s also a really negative thing… I have a lot of fluency in that, but in doing that I have no idea what I like or who I am… I just know how to put my head down and work.”

There’s a downside to it all, the accessibility, the warmth — people feel like they know her. “So many people have seemed to have convinced themselves that it would be really fun for me to join them on a date at Chez Panisse,” she says, bewildered and amused. “I don’t think they’d ask a guy that. I don’t think they’d ask a white guy that.”

The pressure to always be on, to always be inviting and accommodating and to never have the space to be cranky without it meaning more than just a bad day, are challenges many women and women of color face, TV show or not. What does it mean to elevate all that to a public stage? To run a show and be a public figure when there aren’t a ton of people who look like you in the public eye?

If this is my only shot, what am I gonna do with this chance? What am I gonna do with this platform?

For Samin and her production team, representation is an important part of wielding that power responsibly. The careful selection of guests on the show, mostly women and people running small businesses in their home countries, offer an interesting example of how to focus on representation without any performative fanfare. “If this is my only shot, what am I gonna do with this chance? What am I gonna do with this platform?” she says. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat — the book and then the show — is not just a celebration of good cooking, but of the people doing the work without all the acclaim.

Ina Garten, Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson all preach to the same god of well-ordered domesticity. Host a party in a windmill and build an empire all while maintaining perfectly coiffed waves. That’s not what Samin is about. She wants you to know that imperfection is part of the process. She wants you to feel at home in the kitchen, and maybe one day excel at being in the kitchen, but she wants you to host as you are, with what you have. She wants you to gather your friends on your couch and serve them on mismatched plates.

”Anyone can learn to cook and do it well,” her voice narrates over the final scene of Salt Fat Acid Heat. “Be thoughtful, be curious, and use salt, fat, acid, and heat to guide you to delicious food. And if for some reason a dish doesn’t turn out well, it’s okay! You can always try again tomorrow.”

As we pick at the final greasy bits of our chicken feast, I ask about the other breakout star of the show — her mom. “She called me recently,” Samin says, “and she’s like, ‘my physical therapist is a big fan of yours.’ So I think I’ve made it big.”

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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