Cassie Richards reviews an event featuring Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Festival on Saturday, 10 March.
It was nearing lunchtime as an eager audience gathered in the Michael Fowler Centre’s Renouf foyer to hear Californian chef Samin Nosrat in conversation with Marianne Elliott. It’s just as well, because more than a few of us were going to leave the session with an urgent hunger after hearing Samin talking about her wonderful, illuminating book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and her culinary journeys. A blend of food writing and cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is Samin’s gift to all of us who wonder how we can get our food to taste like it does in the restaurants – and even experienced cooks are sure to learn a thing or two. As it turns out, the secret to excellent cooking lies in four basic elements that Samin is confident we can all master.
Marianne is a great choice to interview Samin, and her questions throughout the session are thoughtful and engaging. As well as having practiced as a human rights lawyer, writing and teaching yoga, she is also one of the people behind Miramar’s La Boca Loca restaurant, which serves organic Mexican cuisine.
After introducing her, Marianne asks Samin to begin with a reading from the book, so that we can all hear her beautiful prose (fortuitously, she was a literature student before she was a chef). I don’t think this is merely food writing – what Samin has written is a delicious literary degustation on not only how to cook well, but how to cook with presence of mind, with passion and with love. ‘Sometimes I’m just helping you know what you know,’ she said – intuition is a large part of her ethos, as well as plenty of tasting.
Samin crackles with vivacious energy as she speaks, and her laugh is infectious in all the right ways. This is a person who has truly found her calling in life. Mine can’t be the only stomach in the audience rumbling as she describes the feta and cucumber sandwiches her mother would feed her as a child at the beach, perfectly sating her hunger after a swim in the Pacific Ocean, or her ‘conveyor belt chicken’, so named because a husband of a friend said he wished he had a conveyor belt of it to his mouth.
Samin describes for us her first visit to a ‘fancy restaurant’, which she and her boyfriend saved up for over several months. The place they chose was Chez Panisse in San Francisco, owned by Alice Waters. Samin describes Chez Panisse as a ‘museum of the senses’. Fine dining was a foreign concept to her, and she hadn’t known eating in a restaurant could be like that – the lighting just right, the smell of the room just right, the waitstaff anticipating your needs before you even knew yourself what they were. The experience was a total epiphany for her, and soon afterwards she applied for and got a front-of-house job at Chez Panisse.
As honoured as she felt to be allowed to vacuum the dining room of such an establishment (which had been named the top restaurant in the country), it wasn’t long before she was pestering the chefs to let her volunteer in the kitchen. Soon she was assisting in food prep, and drinking in every moment. It was here that she first observed the things that would go on to bring her to this room today.
She recounts the patterns that she started to see – meat being salted at certain times before cooking, different fats used for cooking different things, various acids being added to ‘brighten’ a dish, the way the chefs intuitively knew at which temperature to cook something to perfection. When she pointed out these things, the chefs acted as if she was stating the obvious, but ‘I knew I was seeing something that was not being reflected in cookbooks,’ she said.
Of course, it was a long road to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat being published, and initially she didn’t think it was a book she would be able to write. Her love for food took her cooking all over the world in the intervening years, and eventually back to San Francisco. After meeting Michael Pollan through his food journalism course, she began to teach him how to cook, and he encouraged her to turn her concept into a class and teach it before trying to write a book. She did just that, teaching a four-part course for four years. Initially, recipes weren’t going to be a part of the book, because one of her aims was to encourage improvisation, but her students were always asking for them.
Two more years were spent writing the book proposal, and the book was rewritten four times as she found her way to her voice. Along the way, she recruited a favourite illustrator, Wendy McNaughton, to provide the pictorial accompaniments – she knew that the book and its message didn’t work with too-perfect food photography. Samin described her collaboration with Wendy, who she taught how to cook so she could understand the book, and Wendy in turn helped her to simplify and refine her ideas. The resulting illustrations are fantastic and helpful, and make the book even more special.
After some audience questions, including if she had considered adding a section on sugar to the book (‘I already had salt and fat, which are totally reviled,’ she quipped), we left feeling invigorated by Samin’s energy and passion, and definitely ready for lunch. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a joy to read and learn from, and I know I’ll have my copy around for a long time.
Reviewed by Cassie Richards on behalf of Booksellers NZ.