“There were these two amazing female lawyers from India who were the ones who had overturned the anti-gay legislation there,” Nosrat said in an interview with IndieWire. “And there were these women from Ireland who had really spearheaded the abortion referendum. Those people were by far, by and large, the most inspirational, the most amazing for me to get to interact with.”
It’s this genuine enthusiasm and curiosity about other people that serves Nosrat so well in Netflix’s series “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” which puts a spin on the usual food show. Mixing travel and instruction, the four-part series is unlike any cooking show on TV. This is in large part due to Nosrat’s warmth and spirit, in addition to her unique take on how to make delicious food.
Although television is a new medium for her, Nosrat is a storyteller whose genre of choice is food, and the “Salt Fat Acid Heat” elements of cooking are her grammar. Rather than push specific recipes, she uses a more intuitive approach to explain how and why these four principles work, and draws from her writing and journalism background to present these ideas simply and clearly.
“Creating narrative is just part of who I am and part of what I do. I am always looking for a different tool to do that with,” she said. “The first thing I had was food. But very quickly for me, food became less interesting than the story of how the food got to the plate and who are the people who got that there.”
Nosrat first conceived of her “Salt Fat Acid Heat” theories about 18 years ago when she was just learning to cook at Chez Panisse, the restaurant that changed her life in one unforgettable meal — a story she chronicles in the Netflix series. She left her college English classes behind to pursue food, which eventually landed her in Italy, and then back home to work in Berkeley restaurants and teach private classes. She famously instructed “Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan how to cook, which in turn landed her on his own Netflix series, “Cooked.” The path to her own show would also begin with writing.
“When it did come time for me to write a book, I always knew that it would be more than just a cookbook. In the beginning, as I was trying to write down the proposal and figure out how to explain it to people, I was like, ‘It’s an un-cookbook,’” Nosrat said.
“I do feel really lucky that I always knew that these four elements were the thing, but then when I sat down to write, I had no idea what it would look like,” she continued. “My office looked like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ for six years. It was just paper and drawings on the wall. I think very visually, so there’s just a million drawings and notes and diagrams for me to figure out what’s the tidiest way to explain something. I’m always looking for organizational systems.”
Graphic journalist Wendy McNaughton translated this meticulous methodology into colorful illustrations to accompany Nosrat’s prose for the “Salt Fat Acid Heat” cookbook, which became a bestseller and won the James Beard Award. Nosrat’s former Chez Panisse boss Alice Waters observed, “There is magic in the way Samin teaches.” It was just a matter of time before a TV series came along.
Besides teaching people the whys and hows of building flavor, Nosrat’s other goal in making “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is to demonstrate how people all over the world use these same elements of cooking, albeit in different forms. With this intent, she set out to make a show that gives an authentic, rarely seen snapshot of who’s doing the cooking in the world.
“I knew that [this show] would be about travel and showing that cooking is universal, that wherever you go, the same things appear over and over again,” she said. “I was so clear about that being my goal to show different kind of people from who aren’t typically on camera — to bring that to a Mexican grandmother’s house, to an Italian grandmother’s house, to a guy who is sixth generation on an island making soy sauce. That was really really important to me.”
Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions is a well-seasoned documentary company, having produced “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” Pollan’s “Cooked,” and now “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” However, Nosrat’s point of view required that as a team, they all reach a little further when it came to researching and finding locals for the series.
“The first few treatments for subjects were filled with the usual suspects,” said Nosrat. “I had to gently guide us away from page one of Google search results. Sometimes you have to work a little bit harder, you have to dig a little bit deeper, but it doesn’t mean that the stories are not there.”
Caroline Suh of “Cooked” directs each episode of “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” which travels around the world to tackle one of the four principles that Nosrat laid out. “Salt” takes place in Japan, “Fat” is in Italy, “Acid” takes place in Yucatán, and “Heat” takes Nosrat back to Berekley and Chez Panisse, where her food journey all started. Each episode usually begins in the field to explore the origins of the ingredients — such as gathering seaweed in Japan to harvest moshio salt — and then culminates in a congenial sit-down meal that Nosrat and others have cooked together highlighting that key element. By the end of the episode, a fully fleshed story has emerged about that element and its place in communities and cooking.
It’s the “Acid” episode that is the most changed from Nosrat’s original vision for the show. As an American of Iranian descent, she grew up eating highly acidic foods such as yogurt, pickles, and sour orange, and therefore wanted to set the “Acid” episode in her parents’ home country. After some “political shifts” occurred, the State Department withdrew their recommendation for travel.
“I feel like to make good art you have to feel safe. So it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do, especially when to tell a story of Iran is such a high-stakes thing for me to tell,” Nosrat said. “Nobody has really done that in the modern era, from an inside point of view to the West. I didn’t want to do anything that would put that in danger. I didn’t want to do anything that would risk that we wouldn’t be able to tell the best possible story.”
Instead, production pivoted to Yucatán in Mexico, where Nosrat makes pavo escabeche using sour oranges, tastes assorted salsas, and even tries a pucker-inducing tart honey.
“That meant that this episode that we had worked on producing for many months had to all of a sudden go down the drain, and then we had to all really quickly put together the Mexico episode,” she said. “Mexico was always the other country I wanted to go to for ‘Acid.’ Sour oranges come from Iran originally, and so it was nice to carry on that thread and have that continuity in our storytelling. This ingredient that we were going to feature in Iran was now the same ingredient that were going to feature in Mexico.”
Of the four principles of cooking, acid also happens to be the one that causes the most confusion.
“Acid is, of all of them, the most clinical sounding, something that you’d get in a science lab,” she said. “We’re familiar with ‘salt’ and ‘fat’ and ‘heat’ as cooking terms at home. I think ‘acid’ is not a word most home cooks use.”
She also points out that most people only think of citrus foods and vinegars as acidic, while many other foods qualify, such as tomatoes or anything fermented, including yogurt and beer.
“We’ve evolved to crave these things,” Nosrat said. “And if you just imagine a tall, cold icy glass of lemonade your mouth will start to water because acid makes our mouths water. That’s the beginning of the digestive process. It’s the sign that we are appetized, and you want to eat something. You want the acid. You want to put the salsa on your burrito. You know you do, you just don’t know why. And so my job is just to explain why.”
Nosrat’s gift for explanation, clarification, and connection are the secrets to the “Salt Fat Acid Heat” effectiveness. And yet, there’s another aspect of the show that she hadn’t counted on to connect with viewers.
“When my show came out, we were a little bit surprised by how vehemently and passionately people responded to … the idea of me as a non-white, non-man traveling and getting to experience and work with people from different cultures,” said Nosrat. “I can only venture to guess that probably part of that has to do with the passing of Anthony Bourdain who passed away after our show was totally done. But I think the timing of [his death] created this space on the roster.”
“It’s not at all how I imagined myself or what my exact work is, but it’s been interesting to have now projected onto me. I love traveling and I love getting to learn from different people from all around the world, so I think whatever we make next will definitely have some of that in it.”