Samin Nosrat is the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2017), a longtime cooking teacher, and a former chef in the San Francisco Bay Area. We recently had a chance to chat about her new book, her experiences in the restaurant business, and the importance of careful home cooking. Many thanks to Samin for taking time from her busy schedule to speak with me.
Justin Naylor: Hi, Samin, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.
Samin Nosrat: Thank you for caring enough!
JN: In the fifteen years that I’ve been cooking and paying attention to cooking, I have never seen a cookbook that had such an immediate and deep effect and impression. Not only did I want to congratulate you for that success, but I wanted to start by asking if you’ve been at all surprised by the success of the book. Obviously you’ve hit a nerve in a good way, and there was a niche that was clearly needing to be filled. Did you know during the process that you were onto something big, or were you a little surprised as well by just how successful the book has been?
SN: Oh my gosh, thank you for asking this really thoughtful question, and thanks for the nice words. There were a lot of precursors that sort of clued me in to the fact that I was doing something new. I had had the experience, when we sold the book [to publishers] to see what an incredible and almost unprecedented response – in my understanding – that we got from the publishers. That was a wake-up call, at that time.
On the one hand, I knew I was creating something that was different from anything I’d ever seen, because way back when I had the idea I knew that there wasn’t anything like it, and I always kept following that thread. I only wanted to make this thing because it spoke to me, and all along I was very aware that I was making something new. I wasn’t sure for a long time that it would speak to anybody else, but then as more and more high-profile people were piping up that this was interesting – then I thought, I’m onto something. That started with Michael Pollan, and then I got a bunch of residencies, and then we sold the book.
Selling the book was really bananas. It was a huge auction, every publisher we went to wanted it, the money was much more than I ever expected, so that was all very overwhelming. In a big way it was almost unnerving, because they had given me the money and I was like, Oh, God, now I’ve really got to deliver.
JN: The book probably had been written in your mind, because you had been teaching based on this framework for years, but you only had a proposal at that point?
SN: Exactly. I had the proposal, I had the written curriculum, and I had the vision for it. When we sold it, they gave me a year deadline. And I was like, Oh, I can totally do this in a year. But something in me knew that I couldn’t do it in a year. I wasn’t able to articulate it, but I knew that it was a big project and there was a lot of work to do to distill and refine and connect everything. It was just a lot. So, yes, it’s been really successful and I’m so pleased. You never can guarantee that something will be successful, so I’m really glad that it seems to be not only selling well, but people really seem to be getting what I’m trying to say. And a lot of times, people don’t get what I’m trying to say!
JN: That’s one thing that really interests me as well. What do you think it is about the way it was presented that was so compelling? Let me just add, anecdotally: I have some friends that I’ve been talking to for years about cooking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told them that probably the most important thing they could do is salt more courageously, but with some of them it fell on deaf ears. But I heard from some who bought your book that they really understood now. Obviously, there’s some magic. So I’m just curious if you have any insight – whether it’s the tone of the book, or your voice, the gentle handholding, as opposed to the stern taskmaster approach?
SN: I definitely think it’s some combination of those things. I thought a lot about all of that stuff, and I think the proposal gave us a really great opportunity to put it into practice. It’s many-layered. First of all, I had a lot of years to figure out what it was that I was trying to say. I had a lot of cooks under me who I was constantly trying to teach. Then, by the time I came to work with Michael [Pollan], he really encouraged me to go put it out and make it a curriculum for the public. So, again, I had more and more opportunities to go out and teach people and see what worked for them.
In a [restaurant] kitchen, when you’re under pressure and you’re in a bad mood, and there’s money at stake, maybe I was using a different tone, you know? (Laughter) Then I go out and I’m teaching people who’ve paid to be there and they’re home cooks and I’m trying to be gentle with them. Over time, because I’ve been saying the same stuff for so long, I’ve become familiar enough with the message and I’ve done it with enough different kinds of people that I’ve come to learn what people actually do hear.
A big part of it, too, in terms of the writing, was: I’ve always been a reader, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I make myself a student of things, and I was certainly a student of Michael’s long before I ever knew him, because I read everything that he wrote really closely. One thing I found that he’s so successful at is this: he has this remarkable ability to take really complicated topics and present them in a super clear and non-condescending way to people, so that they all of a sudden can start talking about GMO corn as if it’s in Us Weekly or something. It took me a minute to figure out what his formula was, and I realized what he does every time is he makes himself a student. So when he’s writing something, you’re going on this journey with him.
SN: He’s having the dumb moments and he’s not embarrassed about showing the dumb moments, so then you trust him. So, actually, in one of my very first attempts of starting to write samples of the book, I tried to be Michael Pollan. And I really quickly realized that that couldn’t work for me because: a) I’m not Michael Pollan; and, b) my job here is to be the authority and to get you to trust me because I know this thing. So, that was like this rub for me – because I thought, how do I do that without talking down to you and being condescending?
I saw what was working in my classes – which was, I was sharing my own ah-ha moments and I was always trying to put myself back in the shoes of that person who didn’t know anything and who was really scared and terrified. By sharing all of the experiences of the million mistakes that I made, by going back to that point in time where I was in the same shoes as you are now, I felt like I could connect to you and speak to you in a way – and then bounce forward into the future where I’m talking to you from this place of confidence, so that I could get you here. I think that was a really important realization for me, that has really impacted the way that I teach.
And also, I am a dweeb. I am a dork. I still always ruin stuff all the time. I don’t think I’m the best cook in the world, and I don’t present myself with that thing, and I think that’s endearing for people to see. Like, I had to go to Food52 a month before the book came out to make these little videos. They had read the book and decided which lessons they wanted to do. One of them was making these buttermilk biscuits, and I hadn’t made them in probably a year since I wrote the recipe, so I was kind of nervous. And then the other one was searing these steaks. My agent was in California and we were flying back to New York together, and I was like, Don’t they know that 90% of my charm is that I mess stuff up, and they’ve chosen two things that I’m really bad at?
JN: I think you’re right, that in this age of social media presence, there is so much posturing and image over substance and unwillingness to show any vulnerability and any humanness. I think that when someone is willing to do that, it’s immediately endearing.
SN: Totally, totally. I spent my whole childhood, my whole adolescence trying to fit in in San Diego, where everyone was, like, blonde and white and good-looking. And it was just this thing where I never fit in. I was this black-brown kid with this funny name, from a family that ate different food. I was not ashamed of my culture or my heritage, but I think I exhausted the need to try to pose. Do you know what I mean?
SN: And so, I just sort of gave up on that a long time ago. But I do think that that worked. I think that that’s a part of the magic.
I think that a big, big part of the magic is Wendy [MacNaughton, illustrator]. And I think that that’s two-fold. I will take some responsibility for that because it was something that I really pushed for. I knew that it was going to be a risk – or that publishers would look at it as a risk, even though I didn’t think it was risky at all – because books are not illustrated. But I knew it was the right thing for this book. I knew that she was the right person for the book, because not only is she immensely talented and it’s so beautiful, but also she’s really funny. The work has a very whimsical feeling. In order to balance the science and anything that would be task-mastery that I would be doing, I knew that the visual tone that she would set would help, to make it look not intimidating, to make it look very accessible and fun. So, even though there are words like Maillard reaction in there, there’s a way where it still comes across as something that is pretty approachable, I think. So that was always on my mind.
JN: You say something as well about not wanting to have these perfect photographs, which would only discourage people from doing their own cooking.
JN: A few things have been coming together for me recently. I thought it was so profound that Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan, said recently that – I don’t think he does much Instagram, and I don’t think he used the term “food porn,” which is a term I hate in any case – but he basically said that all of this food photography has been harmful for home cooks. It creates this expectation or standard that is just not something that can be lived up to it many cases.
JN: And in the guise of promoting food culture and cooking, it actually undermines a healthy food culture and cooking. That was, to me, a pretty profound insight. And it seemed like one that you might share as well, at least to some extent.
SN: Yeah, I definitely share– I don’t think photography is the only culprit. I have to say, I am a huge fan of beautiful food photography. I just recognized pretty early on that it wasn’t the right thing for this book. Maybe it’s not great for people who are super intimidated, in a way. Not to say that images aren’t good–
JN: Of course.
SN: But a food photo is super representational, and it’s capturing something in its most ideal state. What it doesn’t show – what you don’t know when you open Bon Appetit magazine, or a really highly produced cookbook – is that there was a team of multiple stylists there, there was perfect lighting, photographers and photo assistants. Even a lot of people who write cookbooks, they don’t actually – or maybe they’ll cook the food for their own images, but there is a professional food stylist there who knows how to make food look really perfect, for an image to do it. Any time my food is going to be photographed, I always insist on cooking it myself, but I also insist on having a food stylist there, because I don’t know how to make food look photo-perfect.
So it is a little bit of a sham we’re selling, do you know what I mean? It’s a little bit of makeup contouring, or whatever. Yeah, and I’m complicit in it too. Because I think it’s also beautiful to make things – I don’t know, it’s also nice to have things to aspire to and be inspired by. But that’s not the message that I wanted to send in my book. And I do agree with Victor, because I do think it’s much more pervasive than just food photos. The entire food culture, how it’s changed, certainly since I started cooking – I mean, we started cooking at the same time. I was still in college, and I had friends who were, like, You’re doing what?
JN: It wasn’t cool.
SN: Yeah, and my family didn’t understand. I think now if I started cooking at Chez Panisse when I was in college, it would be this amazing thing for my peers and they would be, like, kissing my feet. So times have just changed so much, and the attention of the culture toward cooks and chefs and food has changed so much. Now it’s gone from being not even worth attention to being on this massive pedestal, and I think there’s something really unfortunate about that.
A distinction has yet to be made for the broader public, that what is done in restaurants and what is done for these cookbooks and magazines is somebody’s profession. What we do at home is what we do to survive and to bring joy to our lives and to feed one another. And there’s a difference between those two things. There’s a difference between their aim, there’s a difference between everything.
There’s this amateurism that has been devalued and forgotten about, I think. It’s so complicated, because food is such an important part of everyone’s life. In some ways, I feel like there’s this added layer of complexity added to what I do, because everyone who I encounter has a relationship to the work that I do. Everyone who I encounter – everyone in the world – is an expert in food, because they’re an expert in what they eat and what they know. And so if I were a doctor, or something, you wouldn’t just come up to me and say, Well, I prefer to do surgery like this, you know?
There’s a way where people forget that there are professionals whose job and aim and purpose is something completely different from what you do at home. Then, when you start measuring yourself by those standards, it’s really unfortunate, because you don’t spend ten hours a day for ten years practicing this thing. So you’re not going to be that good. Nobody’s saying to you that that’s okay, and that [perfection] shouldn’t be your goal. My hope is that I can be that person, starting to break down that wall for you.
This is really something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Even within restaurants, there are restaurants that exist for wildly different reasons. And so for all restaurants to be compared on the same sort of plane – you know, there’s a reason you go to a diner that’s totally different from the reason you go to Chez Panisse. Those people who are cooking those foods shouldn’t be compared against each other. That argument, or that point of view, I haven’t seen made to the broader public yet.
JN: Could you describe Chez Panisse for those readers who don’t know it? What drew you to it and why is it so special?
SN: Chez Panisse is an American institution… it was founded by Alice Waters in Berkeley, California in 1971, and it is the epicenter of the local, seasonal, sustainable food movement. Guided by the chef’s whims and what is in peak season at any given moment, the menus change each day. A series of serendipitous events brought me to Chez Panisse, but what kept me there was how utterly inspiring the place is. I felt lucky every single day I worked there — lucky to work with and learn from some of the best cooks in the world, lucky to be given an aesthetic point of view, lucky to cook and eat on a daily basis the most delicious produce, fish, and meat I’d ever encountered. I cannot overstate how important my experience at Chez Panisse was, for both my career and my life.
JN: For you, clearly, Chez Panisse has been the seminal influence in your cooking life. For me it’s been writings of Marcella Hazan more than anyone else. I never had a chance to meet her before she passed away, but her writings affect almost everything I do, almost every day. One of the things I find so compelling in her attitude, at least about Italian cooking, and cooking in Italy, is the way in Italy – although this is a little bit of a stereotype, or romaticizing – the best compliment you can give to a restaurant is that it tastes of the home.
JN: Which is almost the exact opposite in this country: we go to restaurants, and if we’re ambitious home cooks, maybe we try to imitate something we had in a restaurant. Whereas in Italy, at least at one time, it was sort of turned around. And so, for me, what I look for in a restaurant is, however elegant, however careful the cooking, I feel like I’m always looking for a restaurant that still captures something of the home – spontenaity, freshness, some significant degree of personality. I understand exactly what you’re saying, that in some ways it’s just unfair to compare, but in another way I hold out this idea that when we learn to cook well, hopefully our cooking begins to resemble or even exceed a lot of American restaurants.
SN: Oh, absolutely. I would one hundred percent [agree].
JN: Talk about things changing – when I learned to cook, obviously there were great restaurants, but a lot of times I would rather eat at home because I felt like I could eat better in some ways. That has changed so much. I’m close to Philadelphia and New York, and the sheer number of places doing beautiful, authentic, wonderful work is just so high.
SN: It is really amazing to see. It’s a renaissance time for restaurants in America, for sure. It’s exciting to me, and inspiring. For probably the first ten or twelve years as a cook I was so interested in eating out. It helped that I had a friend who was really dorky about it. We would go eat out and just decipher and dissect everything that we were eating, and we were really sort of very thoughtful and critical about it. We were total nerds. But at a certain point, I realized I just didn’t have it in me anymore to care. I’m starting to come off of that now. Part of it, also, was the last five years, writing a book – the last thing I wanted to do was go to restaurants, because every restaurant I go to in the Bay Area, I know people, and they would come up to me and be like, How’s your book? And I’m like, Oh my god, I don’t want to talk about it, so I just became a hermit, eating rice and eggs at home.
JN: Why did you decide at one point to turn your attention to home cooking? Obviously, you were working at Chez Panisse, then Eccolo. At what point did you decide not to pursue a career in restaurant kitchens and to do something else?
SN: In 2009, Eccolo closed. I would say it was never a wildly financially successful restaurant, but it opened in 2004, and by 2008 we were fully in the black. We were holding on. Then when the crash happened, I think it was the last straw. To me it was a great relief to close the restaurant. It wasn’t my restaurant, but I carried it on my back like it was.
JN: You were the executive chef at that point?
SN: I was the equivalent of the chef de cuisine. Chris Lee was the executive chef, he was the boss. But I was for sure running the kitchen, day to day. And Chris is my mentor. He’s the one who taught me how to cook at Chez Panisse, he’s the one I went to and said that thing about salt, fat, acid, and heat and he was like, Yeah, we all know that. He is the one who opened the door for me into restaurants and I will always be indebted to him. I think that sense of responsibility to him is what kept me in the restaurant, but I was pretty miserable. I wasn’t that nice to be around. It was really hard on me emotionally and physically. I never let go of the dream of writing, and I don’t think I really ever had ambitions of being a restaurant chef, or of it being my thing. I sort of knew, after Eccolo, that that would be it for me.
I was really grateful for the off-ramp the closing of the restaurant offered me, and I did go back to Chez Panisse for about a year after that. I was in the kitchen for about a year. In 2011 it was the 40th birthday of Chez Panisse and Alice [Waters] hired me to do a national campaign, so I worked more on the Edible Schoolyard side. I was really grateful for that.
Very consciously, in 2009, I decided I was going to start writing, and I became a tenant in this office that I share still with a bunch of other writers. I really tried very hard to start making writing, if not part of my daily practice – at that time I started trying to go the office about three times a week. It was really scary – not that cooking is so lucrative, but I had a steady paycheck. Then all of a sudden I had no money. But I was really grateful to have a way out.
JN: What did you find the greatest stresses to be in the restaurant kitchen? I don’t think people realize just how personally and, as you said, emotionally destructive restaurant kitchens can be. Families torn apart, drugs, depression, alcohol, everything. There are exceptions, but the restaurant kitchen is a very hard place to be. I’m just curious what some of the stresses were for you.
SN: For me, I absolutely was depressed, and I didn’t really know it. So that’s a big part of it. I was 23 or 24 when I came back from Italy to Eccolo, and then within a year I was pretty much the sous chef – running it, you know? I’ve always been an overachiever, and I was an okay cook – I’d probably been cooking five years by then – but just because you’re a good cook, doesn’t mean you’re a good manager. I think because of the pace of restaurants, there just wasn’t a great deal of investment in my, or in anyone’s – I’m not blaming Eccolo, I think it’s pretty common in restaurants – I just didn’t have the chance to be trained in the best way to be a manager of people. Plus, I was younger than a lot of the people I was in charge of, I was a woman in charge of mostly men. That was a big part of it. I didn’t know how to get through to people, which then just made me angrier, because I have a bad temper. I was really not that fun to be around, I think.
I also think another big part of what was particularly stressful for me was, it wasn’t my restaurant, but I felt like it was. Our main investor, our main source of money — especially when we were not making money — lived in New York. He owned a bunch of other restaurants in New York and other places that were financially successful. He felt like he knew what would make a restaurant work financially, and those things were not fundamentally aligned with many of the ways we believed a restaurant should be run. This seemed like a problem, just going back to the original business union between the investor and Chris. Maybe they just weren’t ideal partners, or they should have clarified – like, Hey, I do think buying organic eggs is important, or something. It was one of those things where they never talked about it at first, and as long as things were okay, it was fine, but then when the financial stresses started – every single one of our purchases, every single one of our actions became scrutinized. All of a sudden it was like, Why are you buying real Parmesan cheese instead of this fake stuff? Or, Why are you buying real maple syrup? And I was like, this is insane that these things are being questioned.
JN: Even being talked about – how can we even be talking about this? Right.
SN: Right. There was this way that we were being forced to give reasons for our most basic actions. I felt like we had never hid it – we come from a philosophy of cooking that’s pretty outspoken about this! So, that was just hard, and I felt very motherly and protective toward the cooks. There was a lot that I held onto and didn’t want to share with people when we were struggling, and that was what was really the hardest for me – not the day-to-day, actual work. I’m a good worker, I’ve always been a good worker. I really enjoyed immersing myself in that. The best things were the things that I think other people would assume were drudgery. Like, I really loved going through all the tomatoes, finding the ones that were becoming overripe, roasting them all, and canning the sauce. All that kind of stuff, I loved. I loved teaching young cooks and interns who came. I loved finding people that we could believe in, and all that kind of stuff. It was just mostly the financial end that was really stressful.
JN: Besides the financial pressures, why do you think the Chez Panisse model hasn’t been adopted more widely? It seems like the farm-to-table model has plateaued with a lot of places, and certainly almost no restaurants are changing menus daily. And as you mentioned, very few restaurants put the time and resources into the staff to make their kitchens true teaching kitchens, as Chez Panisse has done. Why do you think Chez Panisse’s influence has been limited in these ways?
SN: It’s an interesting question, but I’m not surprised. The restaurant business is just so tough that the CP model is essentially untenable outside the magical bubble of 1517 Shattuck [Avenue]. Not everyone shares the same values. And, as much as I am a believer, I also acknowledge that the model has its flaws: the prices aren’t accessible to most people (to be clear, it’s not like anyone is getting rich off of CP — it costs a lot to pay farmers and cooks and dishwashers fairly). So the experience is for the limited few, and not everyone wants to run a restaurant that serves only the wealthy.
What I do think is interesting (or more accurately, disturbing) about the limits of CP’s reach is this: I think Alice has unfairly developed a reputation for being an elitist, when she is anything but, and for being twee. And I believe with all of my heart that if she were a man, and not a tiny woman with dreams in her eyes and a soft voice, things would be totally different. I think she’d be a lot more vocal about claiming her and CP’s place in culinary history if she were a man. I think people would yield it much more readily to her. I think she’d be lauded for holding fast to her ideals instead of being ridiculed for doing so. Dan Barber (who is just one of many chefs who passed through the CP kitchen as a young cook), for example, extols the virtues of sustainable farming practices and speaks in koans about carrots and beets, but I don’t really see folks making fun of him… instead, he’s lauded and rewarded with a Chef’s Table episode. I need to spend more time considering all of this, but I definitely think misogyny plays a big role in the lack of credit that Alice is given for her work, or the readiness with which lots of folks are willing to write off her influence these days. But the fact of the matter is, her stubbornness, her lack of willingness to compromise, her single-minded vision–all things about which she is given a hard time–are the same qualities that make us bow down at the feet of all of those fancy male chefs, and not much of what is considered fine dining today could exist without the extraordinary amount of trailblazing Alice has done over the past 46 years.
JN: Feel free to disagree with this, or to push back a little bit – this is definitely an extreme view I’ll express. My favorite restaurants, and these are mostly in Italy, are the ones that are still small enough that the owner is the one cooking. Maybe he or she has an assistant, but basically there’s one chef whose personality permeates everything. There’s not an anonymous team of line cooks, etc. This is very different in the US, where someone like Mario Batali starts a wonderful restaurant, and if he’s not doing all the cooking, certainly he’s supervising everything. Then, you know, he’s very successful, he’s no longer there, there are eight restaurants, and now he’s running a company more than cooking. Do you think, even in a restaurant context, can you teach a team of cooks who I’m sure are hard-working, I’m sure they want to please – but can that circumstance produce food that is as memorable and has as much personality as a situation where you have, you know, basically a single chef?
SN: A visionary behind it.
JN: Yeah, and I don’t mean some guy who’s full of himself. One of the chefs I’m thinking of is Bruno Gavagnin of Osteria alla Testiere in Venice. He is one of the most humble chefs I’ve ever met. But I’m absolutely convinced that the reason that his restaurant is just about my favorite place in the world is because he’s there, all the time, doing the cooking, and everything’s perfect. It reflects his personality. It’s a model that, for whatever reason, is rare but exists in Italy. It hardly exists in the US. I’m curious if you think I’m being too much of a purist and a romantic, or if you think that phenomenon is real.
SN: I think that you’re onto something. I would agree with you almost completely. I think I have a couple of exceptions to point out. I do think that it is possible to teach cooks to carry out your vision and to care about it as much as you do. And the only reason I’m able to believe that is because that is what I saw happening and I still see happening at Chez Panisse. In fact, to be completely honest, I think the vision of many of the cooks at Chez Panisse, and certainly the cooking skills – and Alice [Waters] would agree with this – far surpass Alice’s, right?
JN: Sure, absolutely.
SN: But I think what’s been done there is, that place has been created and endless resources have gone into creating it as a pedagogical model. It’s a teaching kitchen. Everybody in that place knows that, and Alice prioritizes that. It permeates the place.
In fact, I remember when – I can’t remember whose goodbye party it was, but it was somebody who had worked there for many years, 20 or 25 years. We were having a goodbye party and this guy, Steve, who had been the cafe maître d’ since they opened, got up to give a toast and he said Chez Panisse is structured like a pyramid. The guests are on the bottom, the people who work here are on the middle, but the cooks are at the top. This restaurant exists for its cooks. There aren’t any other restaurants that I know of that exist for their cooks. That was part of what was hard for us at Eccolo: we were trying to replicate that Chez Panisse model without endless resources.
So, I do think it can happen. I think it’s extraordinarily expensive and labor-intensive and requires a lot of patience and a lot of vision, which is why it doesn’t happen. So, there’s that. Then I will say that another place that came to mind for me, actually, is this restaurant in Oakland called Camino. Russ [Russell Moore], who was one of my teachers at Chez Panisse, opened it. Russ is still at the grill every single night, which I wish for his sake – he’s got to be over 50 by now – that he didn’t have to be.
JN: Right, I understand that too.
SN: And he also just opened another place, a little kabob place. A lot of nights he’s at the kabob place, helping that place get going. But, to me, you can taste it when Russ is there and when he’s not. Also, because the kitchen is basically in the dining room, you can see it and you’re very aware of it. I would say most of the time I would fall on your side of the argument, that it isn’t possible to really get people there, because it’s just so much work to get them there. But I do think it’s not impossible.
JN: Yes. That’s an excellent corrective to my extremism! I think that’s absolutely right. Just to change the subject a little bit, I’m interested that in the book you didn’t talk very much about health. Although I think that we’re on the same page on these issues, I can imagine some people picking the book up and saying, She wants me to use more salt? She wants me to use a quarter-inch of oil for pan frying? Forget it. That’s not healthy! Could you say a little about that, and what your understanding is about the effect of salt and fat and any aspect of cooking on health?
SN: I do try to be pretty clear. I do have a line in there with the salt, saying, I know this is going to be scary that I’m encouraging you to use more salt, but unless your doctor has recommended – there are people who were born with just one kidney or have really high blood pressure, and they need to listen to their doctor, not to me. I am not a health expert; I’m a cook. I also am not a science expert, and I was already going into one place that was new territory for me. So I thought, should I put in these health claims – should I do this, should I do that? It just seemed like I was going to get somewhere where it was not steady footing [for me]. So I decided to stay out of it.
I knew it was sort of bold to have salt and fat in the title. I knew that would already turn some people away. But my answer to them is that, first of all, I think almost all home cooking is more healthy for you than anything that you could eat out. Right now, what I find to be my main obstacle out in the world is not so much changing the way people cook, it’s getting people to cook in the first place. Because I think so many people are not cooking. My main goal was to get people who aren’t cooking, cooking. And, yeah, let’s get people who are cooking, to cook better. That’s just built into the thing. So, the message is, anything you can cook for yourself will be more healthy – that’s been proven by studies – than eating out.
The other thing is, I take so much issue with health claims being made out of context. This is something I just keep realizing over and over again with every passing day of my life: everything is part of a system. Your salt intake and your fat intake are part of a larger system of your entire life – whatever you’re taking in and the energy you’re putting out. To just focus on one element, on one thing that you’re eating or not eating and saying that’s the cause of all evil – or, like, if I just eat nine tablespoons of flaxseed per day, everything will be fixed – is just so crazy.
There’s a really beautiful argument that Michael [Pollan] made in In Defense of Food, where he looked at all of the molecules in a single leaf of thyme, just how complicated one tiny leaf of thyme is, and that so much is in there. For you to say that this one tiny vitamin or this one tiny molecule or this one element is going to be the thing that makes life healthy or unhealthy is, to me, so blind. I have a lot of injuries in my body that I’m trying to fix right now. I have a knee injury, but what we’re trying to fix is my core, and my hips, and my ankle – not my knee – because everything affects everything else. If you read any Wendell Berry, you know that you can’t just take one thing out of the system. Nature is a really complicated system.
Also, the science for salt and fat, the health sciences, are every fifteen minutes sending contradictory messaging out. In the ’80s, it was Don’t eat fat, and now everybody’s like, Just give me some more ghee! I felt like if that was where you were coming from, I wasn’t going to be able to say anything to change your mind. So let me just speak to the people who want to listen to what I have to say. And what I have to say is about what I know, and what I know is about cooking.
JN: That makes a lot of sense. I mentioned a little while ago that Marcella [Hazan] has certainly been my greatest influence. You mentioned a few authors in your book. I was wondering if you would pick two authors that you have been really influenced by, and say something about why they inspired you or what you learned from them.
SN: A big one was Patience Gray. I’ve only ever read one book by her, which is Honey from a Weed. It was on that original list of cookbooks that the Chez Panisse chefs gave me and told me to go read as part of my essential cooking canon. It is so lyrical and so beautiful. To be honest, I haven’t really cooked out of much of it, I just read the book, and it just sounds so intoxicating, yet it’s pretty much all, like, weeds. So, I was set on this path very early on which was only fortified and justified by all of the places that you need to go, like Italy, where good food doesn’t have to come from fancy ingredients. There’s so much that goes into what makes food and what makes it delicious, and very little of it has to do with buying the most expensive cheeses, or whatever. It’s a love letter to cooking, it’s a love letter to good living, and certainly to the Mediterranean, and these were all things that were really important to me and that I really loved. So, that one was really important.
I have always adored the writing of Nigel Slater. Again, same thing, where there’s a way he’s so un-fussy in his writing and in his cooking. The Kitchen Diaries is so beautiful: in one entry it can just be saying, Oh god, I was working in the kitchen or in the garden all day and I totally forgot to eat, so when I came in I just cut tomatoes open and smeared mayonnaise on them, and that was such a satisfying lunch, and I’ve totally had that for lunch too! Then he can write the most beautiful holiday meals, and there was a way where one wasn’t less or more. That kind of un-fussiness, that un-pretentiousness is certainly what I aspire to. In a way this goes back to what I was saying before – I spent so many years of my life trying to be something that I wasn’t, and so in a way I cannot bring myself to care about fancy things. So it’s really refreshing and wonderful to read about people who care about [this]. There’s a big difference between good living and fancy living. They’re not necessarily the same thing. Good living is what I aspire to, and reading about it plants good seeds for me and makes me want to share that vision with other people.
JN: Of course, you had the good fortune to learn most of your cooking skills when you were at Chez Panisse, whereas most people these days are trying to learn from books. You actually learned side by side with master chefs. Obviously, what you’re trying to do with your book is fill a niche, so that people can learn to cook better from books. But I’m curious whether you think you could have learned the same way that you have, had you only had books, as opposed to the hands-on experience at Chez Panisse.
SN: No. Definitely not. I would say – maybe this is crazy to say – even more powerful than the cooking lessons that I learned at Chez Panisse, I would say the most important thing I learned there was: that place gave me an aesthetic education, it gave me a sensual education. It taught me what beauty is and what beauty could be, it taught me what deliciousness tastes like and good flowers smell like. I was immersed. It was like a graduate school for the senses. I couldn’t have gotten that from a book, I don’t think. That taught me to prioritize those things. I don’t think I could have gotten that from a book.
Going back to something we talked about earlier, I’m a professional cook who is hired to make inspiring photo shoots for Bon Appetit, etc. If your job is not to do that, then, yeah, I do think you can get a basic education from books and from watching a lot of the really inspiring and beautiful food TV that’s out there. A whole generation of people learned how to cook from Julia Child. But I do think that if it is something that you aspire to do professionally, then go surround yourself with the most inspiring people that you can find. I always tell people, if you love a restaurant and you love the way you feel when you eat there, the way it feels to be a guest there, and the food tastes so good, then write them a letter and ask them if you can come into the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be the best restaurant in the world. It’s not something that’s that impossible. In fact, right now, at least in the Bay Area, there’s such an intense crisis – lack of cooks – that they would probably be really stoked to hear from you!
JN: In the book, you were dismissive of culinary school, and I have had a similar attitude at times. Can you say a little more about what you think is superfluous, for lack of a better word? I think, at its worst, you come out of culinary school with all kinds of technical training, thinking you know something, but if you haven’t developed good taste. You think you know something, whereas in reality you’re lacking in the most important trait. I’m curious what you think.
SN: I think, fundamentally, it’s a financial thing. I think it’s insane that these schools charge so much money. You go into these massive amounts of debt, with no hope of really ever getting a job that will ever make the kind of the money that will allow you to get out of that debt. Today it’s sort of selling a lie, just by the way that it’s priced. So that, I think, is the main thing. And also, in my experience, in most of the restaurants where I have either spent time or worked – anywhere – I have noticed that there’s almost been an intense kind of un-training that’s had to occur with the culinary students, as opposed to blank-slate people who come in.
JN: What sorts of things?
SN: There’s a rigidity in culinary school students, because culinary school is very much structured like the military, and restaurants are also structured like the military. There’s a rigidity in there that I haven’t found reflected in the kinds of restaurants where I’ve spent time enjoying eating.
And, I one-hundred-percent agree with you, I think that there is no substitute for the actual, practical experience of what it is to go through a ten-hour or twelve-hour day on your feet, to go through many of them. I don’t think this is true for all of the schools, but for a while it was a prerequisite for those culinary students to have spent three or four months in a restaurant kitchen. I think you don’t even know what you’re getting into when you’re going to this school, and the school sets up this really disingenuous picture of what you’re going to be prepared to do. That’s just not the way that good food is made. And I don’t think they prioritize teaching you how to taste. For me, all of my cooking is about being guided by taste.
I also think, frankly – this is something I haven’t yet articulated, and I don’t even know if it was part of my initial distaste for culinary school – all of culinary school is based on a super-Eurocentric kind of cooking. There’s some value in that. It’s probably the most efficient way to learn basic French cooking, because then you can connect the dots to other cooking. But there’s a whole world out there. There’s a whole wide world out there, and we don’t need to view that world through French glasses.
I feel like the most interesting people in my life are people who have traveled widely, whether or not they are cooks. There’s nothing more powerful and important – especially at times like these – than going out into the world and meeting different kinds of people, eating different kinds of food, experiencing it for yourself and then getting to come back and filter that experience through your work.
As a side note, I will say there is in my experience as a cook, no substitute – zero – for having tasted the original thing in the original place. How can you know what you’re riffing on if you don’t know what the original thing is? How can you know what you’re going for if you haven’t had bolognese in Bologna, or cochinita pibil in the Yucatan? I get that there is very intense privilege involved in that, but I’m saying do this instead of spending $80,000 [on culinary school]. You could probably go around the world for $20,000!
JN: Let me end by asking a little more about publishing. You’ve had what seems like a fairy-tale publishing career, which is wonderful. But there are many, many people out there who would love to publish a cookbook, or fiction, or whatever. I’m curious what advice you might have for would-be authors. I have a friend who published a cookbook a year or two ago, and in a blog post she made it sound like getting an agent is the easiest thing in the world, and then it gets harder.
SN: That’s funny.
JN: But I know a lot of people for whom even finding an agent is nearly impossible. Just curious what advice you have for would-be authors.
SN: I have two pieces of advice, and one is more real-world practical, and one is more writing-practical. Let’s start with the writing-practical. There’s nothing until you have good writing. Nothing else matters.
When I was teaching Michael [Pollan] how to cook, very quickly he picked up on the salt, fat, acid, heat system, and he was like, What’s the deal here? What is this? I was like, This is my system. I hadn’t really articulated it to him, and at the time I was bringing him a different book idea every week, and they were really bad ideas. One week I was like, What if I tell the story of how I taught this gutterpunk how to cook? You know, just bad. And he was always like, Don’t do that, that’s bad. He was the one who said, This is your book; go do this.
I resisted at first, because I knew how hard it would be. I just knew it was not an easy thing. I said, Oh, that sounds so hard, and it won’t have pretty photos. And he said, Listen, you live in a delusional universe where everyone you know who is publishing books is already a celebrity of some kind – like Alice Waters. So, you have this very messed-up vision of what it takes to make a cookbook, or to make a book. Really, what publishers want is unique and really strong ideas that just never have been told before. And that’s what this is. I’ve never seen this before, so you would be a fool not to pursue this.
He was like, You’ve got to go do this. But first, go do this hard work. And so, I think there was strength in the uniqueness of the idea. It really was my thing, that I had had in my head for a long time. It was very true to me.
Also, I continued to work on it for three years before I started my proposal. It takes time to come up with a strong and unique idea. It takes time to write and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and to really focus and distill what your vision is. A lot of the stuff I see happening, especially in the cookbook world, is just churned out. Those are the books that maybe last on your shelf for a little while before you take them to a used bookstore. There’s a lot of value in taking time.
All of the work that I put into making the proposal, and rewriting it, and really being very clear – man, it paid itself back ten-fold. Not only financially, but also, when I was in the depths of despair writing the book, I always had this beautiful thing that I could return to that reminded me of what I originally wanted to do, what I intended to do, and what the road map for that was. There is no substitute for that hard work and that clarity of your vision and your message.
Then, the more real-world practical thing – just what I hear from my agent. Sometimes I’ll meet somebody and I’ll say, Do you want to talk to this person, maybe talk to them about representing them? And a lot of times what she says to me is, she’ll go look at their Instagram, or whatever, and she’ll say they don’t have a platform. And I didn’t have much of a platform either, it’s not always that.
JN: I wanted to ask about that, because I know that at least in the cookbook world – it has sometimes been expressed to me, that very thing – if there’s not a vast platform, the game is over. Elizabeth Minchilli, who writes about Rome, wrote that she actually had to start her blog to build a platform in order to get her book published.
SN: Yes, I definitely think that does seem to be a practical thing on behalf of publishers. Not everyone knows Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.
JN: But at the time, you didn’t have a vast platform.
SN: I think I had about 3,000 Instagram followers. But what I did have was: I had been cooking for a long time in the Bay Area, everyone knew me. I had mailing lists of probably over 25,000 people. I was a really unique case in a lot of ways, because I didn’t have a blog that had 2 million followers. I think that they could see that I could do it – and I think I’m doing it, so I think it’s okay. But I think that I was the rare exception, and I’m glad because I’m not super stoked on having to Instagram every part of my life. I’m sorry that I’m even suggesting that other people do, but I guess if what you really want is a cookbook, then you probably have to do it.
JN: I understand! I would love to chat all afternoon, but I feel like I should let you go. Is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t had a chance to discuss before we go?
SN: You’ve asked so many great questions. Thank you!
JN: Thank you!