Sometimes, they do a double take. Other times, their jaws drop. A few ask if she is the woman from that Netflix show where she goes to Liguria, Italy, and tastes a sliver of pork fat as sweet as butter, or if she’s the lady whose cookbook has those funky illustrations and the fold-out chart of cooking acids. Most just stare.
Wherever she goes, at least in the US, chef and food writer Samin Nosrat can’t exist without people noticing her.
“Does anybody like being recognized?” she asks me. “I understand that it’s my job. I’m grateful about people who are moved enough by the work to want to say something. But I mourn the loss of anonymity.”
Public recognition is a fact of celebrity life. But it’s new for Nosrat, 38, whose life began to go topsy-turvy after the April 2017 release of her first cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a James Beard award-winning 480-page bible premised on the belief that the foolproof way to become a deft cook is to harness those four elements. The public attention only intensified after the October 2018 premiere of her Netflix docuseries based on the book in which she explores each element through food in Italy, Japan, Mexico and California. It was rhapsodically received by critics and audiences alike.
She is also one of four Eat columnists at the New York Times Magazine, where she occasionally uses her recipe-focused column to offer ruminations on belonging in the US as a child of Iranian immigrants.
As her star has risen, Nosrat has not had much time for herself: she barely cooks. She isn’t home a lot. Her Berkeley, California, apartment, where she has lived for nine years, is a mess on a Friday in December when I visit her: dishes are stacked like Jenga blocks in her double kitchen sinks, two bulbs in her bedroom ceiling light don’t work (one is “on purpose”, to avoid too much brightness in the room, though she admits the other has been broken for two years). Later, I notice a fork in the cup holder of her Subaru beneath a pile of receipts.
Nosrat has decided to carve out some time to be kind to herself, even when the world isn’t. She has planned a visit to Chuck-E-Cheese’s, the sweaty American citadel of frozen pizzas and arcade games whose mascot is an animatronic buck-toothed mouse, where she hasn’t been since she was a kid.
But before that, she wants to see a psychic.
The first time Nosrat visited a psychic was in November 2013, just after her 33rd birthday, when she was feeling confused about where life was taking her. She had just sold the proposal for her cookbook that March. Though she had barely begun writing it, the psychic, Jessica Lanyadoo, predicted the book would become a film.
Nosrat found this prophecy puzzling: a movie?
“I was like: ‘Are you sure?’” Nosrat recalls, going over her black overalls with a lint roller from her bag. “Don’t you see a cooking show?”
Over the three years it took to finish her manuscript, Nosrat joked about Lanyadoo’s prediction to herself, imagining who would play her in a film version (Maya Rudolph, she decided.) And then it came half-true, with Nosrat getting the Netflix show.
“Even if she’s not telling me anything I don’t know, it’s an emotional, energetic validation of my own gut feelings,” Nosrat says.
We have agreed that I will only listen to the first 20 minutes of their conversation. She will decide later whether or not to share details of the rest of the reading with me. Once Nosrat sits down in Lanyadoo’s backyard shed, chalked with astrological signs in the neighboring city of Oakland, it doesn’t take long for the psychic, holding a stack of tarot cards, to sense the mild anxiety simmering beneath Nosrat’s smile.
“Success comes with its own heart attack,” Lanyadoo tells her. “The more you have, the more you have to lose.”
Nosrat nods, agreeing. “In every success, there is implicit sacrifice.”
Nosrat is kooky and endearing, with a laugh that makes a room vibrate and hugs that choke your breath. Those qualities translate beautifully to the screen, where her goofy grace is on full display. Some people wilt before the camera. Nosrat blossoms. (She stresses that going to therapy, which she has been attending since 2011, has helped her relax in front of the camera.)
She projects the kind of charisma that fosters a sense of familiarity, allowing audiences to believe they know her. The downside of being this telegenic is strangers occasionally get too close. “People feel really entitled to my time, to my attention, to my body,” she says.
Patrons flock to her immediately at Nyum Bai, a small Cambodian restaurant in Oakland she has been meaning to try. One woman she had met before but whose face she couldn’t place calls Nosrat by her first name and speaks to her for nearly five minutes. A man Nosrat has never met asks to speak to her right after she has wrapped up her previous conversation, before she has had a chance to sit down. She can’t walk a few paces without interruption. She’s just trying to eat some Cambodian fried chicken.
When Nosrat is finally able to sit, she piles cha troup – a jumble of ground pork, shrimp and blistered eggplants – on to her plate and recalls a time in her life when people didn’t notice her. “There’s nothing historically in my life very flashy,” she says. “I’m not exceptionally beautiful. I’m not exceptionally wealthy.”
She tells me where she comes from: born in San Diego in 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution, to parents who came to America from Iran in 1976. Her older sister died of an aggressive brain tumor at age three, when Nosrat was one; she has twin brothers who are four years her junior. Though her family was middle-class, she went to school in the “rich, snobby part of San Diego”, fighting a constant feeling of outsiderness in her youth.
“I was the one brown kid among all these rich, blond, pretty kids,” she says. She pulls up a photograph on her phone from a high school pool party, where Nosrat, eyes and hair as dark as blackberries, is flanked by a gaggle of blondes. “Blond, blonde, blonde, blonde, me.”
As she struggled with the same feeling of alienation in college at the University of California, Berkeley, she found an unexpected solace in food. It was May 1999 when she had her “fateful dinner” at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, an institution of California cuisine. What she ate that night was galaxies away from her Persian Maman’s crispy saffron rice: halibut in broth. Guinea hen. For dessert, a chocolate soufflé, weightless as a sparrow’s feather.
The experience of fine dining was so foreign to her that she requested a glass of cold milk to complement the chocolate soufflé. “Have you ever had a warm brownie or warm chocolate chip cookie? Milk is just the perfect companion!” she chortles. “I had no idea in fine dining that it’s considered to be uncouth.”
The memory of that Chez Panisse meal lingered throughout her junior year abroad in London. When she returned in the fall of 2000 to finish her English degree, she wrote to Alice Waters, the restaurant’s owner, and begged for a job bussing tables.
“I’m always looking for people that are very hungry,” Waters tells me. “That food is the passion. That they like to eat.” Waters sensed this quality in Nosrat, whom she has christened America’s “next great cooking teacher”.
“She’s very open-minded,” Waters says. “She’s got such a joie de vivre of a cooking savvy she’s communicating.”
Nosrat spent three weeks bussing tables at Chez Panisse before she started pestering the kitchen staff about joining them. It took nearly a year, and she found herself in an unpaid position, below the intern. But she observed cooks around her and, with careful intention, ascended to the paid position of garde manger after nine months of slogging through unpaid work. “At Chez Panisse, it’s the person who accepts all the deliveries and makes all the staff meals and changes the ice under the fish,” she explains. “It’s a very non-glamorous job.”
The work was grueling, but Nosrat’s early years at Chez Panisse deepened her love for cooking. She sought a greater culinary education, beyond California, where she had been her whole life. “To me, the Italian food that we were cooking was always way more interesting than the French food,” she says.
Nosrat spent two years in Italy apprenticing under a Tuscan butcher and Florentine chef Benedetta Vitali (who appears in her Netflix show’s first episode, which Nosrat confesses is her favorite). In 2004, at 24, she returned and began working at Eccolo, a restaurant opened by former Chez Panisse chef Christopher Lee, until it closed in 2009.
“Within two years, I was running that kitchen,” she says. “I was a brown girl in charge of mostly white guys.”
But, mostly, she found that the kitchen staff didn’t want to listen to her. “I felt really frustrated that there didn’t seem to be the respect I felt I deserved – it didn’t just happen,” she says. She admits she was moody and irritable in those years; she didn’t yet have words to describe how unsettling the experience was.
As she was coming to grips with the complicated dynamics of her new role, she made an important introduction that would begin her transition out of restaurant kitchens entirely.
In November 2006, she passed a fan note to Michael Pollan, esteemed food journalist, author, and a then newly minted professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, via his server at Eccolo along with dessert. She asked to audit one of his classes in the spring of 2007. Everyone else in the class was a graduate student in journalism; Nosrat was a cook interested in food writing.
“She held her own, more than held her own,” Pollan says of Nosrat’s performance in his class. In 2008, Nosrat began writing about food for local publications such as Edible San Francisco and, the next year, the San Francisco Chronicle. She and Pollan kept in touch sporadically over the next three years and in 2010, Pollan enlisted Nosrat to serve as his cooking teacher when he began writing 2013’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
“I realized I had a wonderful cooking teacher right in town,” he remembers. With regular visits over 18 months, Nosrat expanded his repertoire beyond grilled fish and chicken breasts. “I didn’t know how to make a mirepoix or a proper braise or make a panna cotta,” he says.
Pollan also tapped Nosrat for an episode of his own Netflix series, Cooked, in 2016, in which she teaches him how to braise pork shoulder. “She’s a natural,” says Pollan. “Some people onscreen appear someone other than what they are. There’s some quality of them that eludes the camera. That’s not the case with Samin.”
Last year, Nosrat told a journalist she wanted to be the Iranian American Martha Stewart. I’m wondering which kid in this Chuck-E-Cheese’s is dreaming of becoming the next Samin Nosrat.
Nosrat returned to this fixture of her childhood because she wanted to spend an afternoon not taking herself too seriously. “Silliness and wackiness and clumsiness can disarm people, and are a beautiful way of balancing the more serious things I have to offer,” she says. “I want to teach you a complicated cooking thing or embark on this conversation about gender and race, but maybe you’re more likely to trust me because I’m more human and more like you.”
She admits she was also drawn to Chuck-E-Cheese’s because it prompted her to think about her childhood: to remember the years when she was anonymous, though that was also a time when she felt like an outsider. And she is still an outsider in some respects, though it seems to work for her now – she has torched the tired rubric of the food and travel show, historically the domain of white men.
There has been a lot written about Nosrat’s differences since her show came out, particularly regarding to the representational ceilings she’s shattered. She stopped reading most of what comes out about her after she encountered the first “identity piece” concerned with the perceived radicalism of her “otherness”, just a month before we met. She woke up, panicking, thinking about the piece. “I said: ‘Uh-oh, this is gonna get really lonely really fast,’” she remembers.
The fascination with her identity is a reminder of the work that lies ahead. “If people have all the time to write all these thinkpieces about my one show and my one body and my one self, then we need more of this,” she says. “How desperate are people for something different and new?”
I ask Nosrat if it’s hard to have so many people pin their hopes on her, whether she feels any pressure to represent the groups she belongs to, to represent anyone but herself.
“What’s a person supposed to do?” she asks. “I can only be me!”
We stay in Chuck-E-Cheese’s until it starts to get dark outside. Nosrat treats it like her wonderland. She plays air hockey against a toddler, and loses, graciously. She rides a glacially-paced merry-go-round. She crouches down on her knees and plays skee-ball. The jungle gym can’t possibly be designed for anyone above 4ft, but Nosrat braves it anyway. It is the happiest I have seen her, that day or any other. Perhaps because only one person recognized her.
Later that night, I ask Nosrat what the psychic said when I wasn’t there. She told me she recorded it, but she was still deciding whether to share it with me. She’s given so much of herself to the world. But there are still some things she needs to keep to herself.
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