'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' Star Samin Nosrat : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders It's Tuesday (and Christmas). Sam is in the kitchen with Samin Nosrat, author of the James Beard Award-winning book 'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' and star of the Netflix show of the same name. She talks to Sam about adjusting to fame, how she became a chef, and what makes her pessimistic about the world right now.
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'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' Star Samin Nosrat Wants To Burn It All Down

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'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' Star Samin Nosrat Wants To Burn It All Down

'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' Star Samin Nosrat Wants To Burn It All Down

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AUNT BETTY: Hey, y'all. This is Sam's Aunt Betty. I'd just like to take a moment to run you through, give you an idea what I do to get ready to record the script every week. Brent, Sam's producer, sends a script for me letting me know who's going to be on the show that day. And oftentimes, he has to walk me through the correct pronunciation of the guests' names. After we do that, I stand in front of a mirror. I put a smile on my face. And I lift my chin so that my voice comes across as approachable and cheerful so that you feel invited to be a part of the show that day.

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

All right. So as you heard there, you hear Aunt Betty for maybe six or seven seconds at the start of every Friday episode we do on this show. But it takes Aunt Betty a lot more than just six or seven seconds to make that happen. Here's the thing, listener. Every episode of the show takes a lot of time. This episode you're about to hear - it took months to reach you.

We started out talking with folks at Netflix back in October about my guest, who you will meet soon. My guest and I spent almost three hours together - a three-hour interview. We had a bunch of microphones there to record the whole thing. And it took even more hours to turn all of that into 30 minutes of wonderful listening for you.

It took a lot of work, but it's work that we love to do. And I'm asking you right now to support that work by supporting your local public radio station. If you go to donate.npr.org/sam, you can find the local station of your choosing and give. Donate.npr.org/sam - thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Merry Christmas to all those celebrating. Merry Festivus for the rest of us. Today, I have, for all of you, a very, very special gift. I am bringing you a conversation with Samin Nosrat. A lot of you probably already watched her Netflix series. It's called "Salt Fat Acid Heat." A lot of you have probably also read her book. It has the same name. That book won Samin a James Beard Award. And more than a year after its release, it is still on many bestseller lists.

Today, Samin tells me the stories behind that show and that book and her. And this conversation took a lot to make it happen. Actually, Samin and I wanted to be in a kitchen together, but my kitchen is just sad. I ain't got no spices. I ain't really got no food. I got an empty fridge most of the time. I do not cook a lot. So I borrowed someone else's kitchen.

SAMIN NOSRAT: Hello.

SANDERS: Hi. Welcome to not-my-house.

NOSRAT: Hi.

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: Samin and I hung out in the kitchen of my NPR colleague and dear friend Angie (ph). Angie and her family have a real, grownup kitchen.

SANDERS: We'll take that.

NOSRAT: Is this a shoes-off house?

ANGIE HAMILTON-LOWE: Not at all.

NOSRAT: No. OK.

SANDERS: She's the boss. That's Angie.

NOSRAT: Hi.

SANDERS: Anywho - fun backstory to this - on the day we met, Samin was rushing from one place to the other. We had been messaging back and forth about what to actually cook together. And then she was like, it's cool. I'll pick up the stuff. I'm going to make a run to Trader Joe's.

NOSRAT: This is why a person should not go to Trader Joe's when they're hungry and on the phone and behind schedule.

SANDERS: On that TJ's run, she also got herself some snacks to eat before we cooked.

OK. These are Trader Joe's...

NOSRAT: They're the green cheese and chili tamales. They're like...

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: And I buy them. There's two in a package. I buy, like, three packages at a time and leave them in my office freezer at work so that, like, any time I'm, like, there...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...You know, 6 p.m. - I'm like, what am I going to eat?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: Yeah. They're so good.

SANDERS: I love that a celebrity chef has given me permission to eat frozen Trader Joe's food.

NOSRAT: I think - I mean, you're allowed to eat whatever you want, honestly. Yeah.

SANDERS: I know but, like, to feel good about it.

NOSRAT: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: I don't feel guilty about it anymore.

NOSRAT: I mean, those ones are really delicious.

SANDERS: Yeah.

The only thing more awesome than knowing that a big-deal, famous chef like Samin loves Trader Joe's tamales is that she also asked me what I wanted from that TJ's run.

You got my favorite dark chocolate almonds...

NOSRAT: Those are really good.

SANDERS: ...With salt and turbinado sugar. Oh, my God.

NOSRAT: They have good texture.

SANDERS: They really do.

NOSRAT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: This is what has made Samin and her show and her book so popular. She can walk seamlessly between the world of ordinary, everyday food while also traveling all over the place, cooking and eating with some of the biggest names in the biz. Samin writes a food column in The New York Times Magazine. She trained under the renowned chef Alice Waters. She has worked with food writer Michael Pollan. But on screen and in-person, she is as accessible and relatable and down to earth as your favorite Trader Joe's comfort food.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Did I mention...

NOSRAT: You know, I definitely feel really...

SANDERS: ...She microwaved the tamales. They're frozen tamales.

NOSRAT: Yes - tamale time.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: After Samin got to eat a little bit...

That's good.

NOSRAT: It is so good.

SANDERS: It's good.

...We sat down to talk.

NOSRAT: They're really yummy.

SANDERS: Samin is someone still adjusting to celebrity. When we met, she had just gotten off a flight from Berkeley, where she lives. She went straight to the store herself to get some cookware to use at her Airbnb before she met up with me. And then after our chat, she had to go to a book signing. And then, on top of all that, a reporter from The Guardian was about to profile her. It was a lot.

Although you are still, like, entourage-free. You went to LAX by yourself. You got your rental car by yourself. You rode around and got a pot and pan at T.J. Maxx by yourself.

NOSRAT: Oh, I got three - I got so many things at T.J. Maxx.

SANDERS: What did you get at T.J. Maxx?

NOSRAT: I got three pots for making Persian rice, two baking sheets and a bunch of Tupperwares - oh, and a big strainer.

SANDERS: At T.J. Maxx.

NOSRAT: Oh, yeah. HomeGoods - that one of Sepulveda is a good one.

SANDERS: I think this is good to hear though because, like, I want to do better in my life by food. And I want to not, like, break my budget.

NOSRAT: Yeah. You don't have to go to the fancy - there's, like, so many tricks.

SANDERS: Yeah.

We'll have a few of those tricks for you a bit later. But first, we should explain for those of you who do not know yet what Samin means when she uses the phrase salt, fat, acid, heat. It's the name of her book and her show. And it is basically her philosophy on food. Samin breaks all food down into those four categories - salt, fat, acid, heat. And she says once you understand those categories and how they all work together, you don't even need recipes anymore. You'll just know how to make food taste good.

NOSRAT: I mean, my dream was for this book to have no recipes. But no publisher was going to buy that (laughter).

SANDERS: Yes, yes. Although, like...

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: You do approach the recipe differently. And so what we're going to cook today later is this dish in your book called conveyor belt chicken. And part of why I picked it is because as you know on this page...

NOSRAT: It's like an essay. Yeah.

SANDERS: It's an essay. It's not a list with measurements and numbers.

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: And you tell the story of, like, how you made this dish. And you kind of, like, made it in a pinch and just improvised and figured it out. Then your friend improvised for something - this thing out. Then all of a sudden, you have this dish. And so I'm reading the essay waiting for, like, the ingredients list. And I was like, oh, it's in there.

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

SANDERS: That's it.

NOSRAT: Totally.

SANDERS: That's cool.

NOSRAT: Yeah. There couldn't - I couldn't do a ton of those. But this was one where there's only two - like, I guess if you count oil, there's three ingredients - oil, salt and chicken. So it didn't...

SANDERS: Yeah, three great ingredients (laughter).

NOSRAT: Yeah (laughter). So yeah, I think I wanted to empower people in different ways with different formats of recipes to start to be able to think about how the, like, world of cooking is so much smaller than you think.

SANDERS: That idea is the heart of "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SALT, FAT, ACID, HEAT")

NOSRAT: Just four basic elements can make or break a dish. Commit to mastering them, and you can become not only a good cook but a great one.

SANDERS: So Samin is using her platform to talk about good food and making good food accessible. But she's also discussing food and race and gender and how the food world can diversify itself and elevate women of color. Samin is a daughter of immigrants from Iran. And she wanted a bunch of female chefs in her show. So she meets female chefs all over the world, like in this scene with a renowned pasta chef from Tuscany.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SALT, FAT, ACID, HEAT")

NOSRAT: It's really just flour and eggs to make handmade pasta, right?

BENEDETTA VITALI: Yes.

NOSRAT: And the eggs give the richness, the incredible fat. And you used more eggs than I had ever seen.

VITALI: This is the reason why in Italy we call this pasta all’uovo.

NOSRAT: Pasta all’uovo, yes (laughter).

VITALI: That is flour and eggs. And...

SANDERS: This show - y'all, it is just beautiful to watch. It is cinematically shot, kind of in the vein of another Netflix food series "Chef's Table." You'll see Samin in these, like, sweeping drone shots of an Italian olive orchard or sampling fruit in this sunny, citrus market in Mexico or hanging out on this chilly fishing dock in Japan, eating fresh-caught sushi. It's just beautiful.

NOSRAT: I love beautiful things.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: I care a lot about making beautiful things accessible for everyone.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And I think a lot of the credit to the way that it looks, at least as far as my imagination and what I could imagine that it could look like, goes to "Chef's Table," which I think paved a road for me to understand what a food show could look like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Because before that, I never really saw anything so cinematic.

SANDERS: When I think cooking show, it's just like, OK. You're in the kitchen, simple shot.

NOSRAT: You're in a studio - exactly - with, like, studio lighting.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And I mean, there's value to that, absolutely. I mean, Julia Child had, in a lot of ways, like, the lowest production value of all time. And yet we learned so, so, so much from her.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And actually, in doing research for the show, I watched a lot of old clips of hers. And watching her and the fact that she could do entire scenes, entire dishes in one take without stopping, without a break...

SANDERS: That's epic.

NOSRAT: ...Is incredible. She could talk for 14, sometimes over 20 minutes without stopping, without making one mistake. I mean, my joke on camera or on our crew was seven takes, Samin.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I want us to start getting ready to cook...

NOSRAT: OK.

SANDERS: ...This conveyor belt chicken.

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: As we get ready, tell me what's been the biggest change for you since the show. I know we talked a little bit earlier.

NOSRAT: I think the amount - like, the - people recognize me everywhere I go all the time.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And...

SANDERS: What do they say? What's the first thing you hear often most, you know?

NOSRAT: Oh, my God, is it you?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Do you want to do more stuff on camera? You're good at it.

NOSRAT: I think - yeah. I really enjoy it.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: I really enjoy having a new medium for storytelling.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: It's not my life goal to be a television star.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: Like, I think as long as I have another idea that makes sense for me to do it, I would like to do it. But I think, probably, what it will be is that I do one more thing.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And then once I have some power...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NOSRAT: (Laughter) Then what I'm going to do is, like, open the door for other people behind me and pull up other - because the interesting thing is seeing a big part of what people have been so excited about makes me a little bit sad, actually. Like, the number of think pieces - and they're so over-excited to see somebody different...

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: ...You know, on camera. And I'm like, you're really starved for this. We, as a community, are really starved for this. And I already, to some extent, had the experience of feeling like the only brown cookbook writer, you know, not of all cookbooks but certainly of, like, the general cookbooks that have now been accepted into the canon.

SANDERS: I can't name another.

NOSRAT: And so...

SANDERS: You know?

NOSRAT: Yeah. And so usually when you're, like, not a white person, you write a book about your family's - you know, your heritage cooking.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And so - which is not a bad thing. But then somehow, your identity becomes the topic rather than your work. And so I don't want to be the only one. And I don't - it's going to get - it's already kind of lonely in certain ways. And it's definitely going to get lonelier, I think. So I feel like it's my responsibility and also joy...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Yeah - to, like, hurry up along the others...

SANDERS: Yeah, it is.

NOSRAT: ...Behind me as fast as possible.

SANDERS: I want you to give me an example of that loneliness you speak of. What do you mean? - a moment when you felt it.

NOSRAT: I mean, I have a lot of loneliness.

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: I'm trying to think of, you know - well, being the - like, tokenization - you know, being the only brown person on a panel. That happens a lot. And I've learned now to insist otherwise and to insist that I won't participate unless, you know, we diversify. And often - and like, I have at-the-ready list of names...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Because a lot of times, the excuse is like...

SANDERS: Couldn't find them.

NOSRAT: ...Oh, couldn't find one (laughter).

SANDERS: You're like...

NOSRAT: And...

SANDERS: ...And here...

NOSRAT: Yeah, I'm like, let me unroll the scroll.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: So you're like...

NOSRAT: And so...

SANDERS: ...Me and another at least.

NOSRAT: Yeah, yeah, me and another at least. And it - the other could be anything. It could be another woman.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: It could be another brown person, could be a queer person, could...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Be a - I don't even know - like, some other thing but just not, like, a typical straight, white guy, you know. And so - or in the cookbook world, often it's a typical straight, white female. Like, but I think a lot of that means changing who's in power. So I'm really curious to figure out how do we diversify, like, publishing houses, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: Because in all of the publishing houses that I've ever visited, which is close to two dozen, like, different kind of meetings that I've had with various editors and...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Publishers over the years, I have only ever met one editor who's not white. So...

SANDERS: And they're the ones that give the greenlight.

NOSRAT: And they're the ones who buy...

SANDERS: This is why...

NOSRAT: ...The books.

SANDERS: ...I always say...

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...There's not a pipeline problem, there's a greenlight...

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Problem.

NOSRAT: Totally. So that's part of it. And then also now - you know, and I cannot say enough good stuff about Netflix. Like...

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: ...The documentary studio at Netflix is the most amazing place that I have ever entered. Like...

SANDERS: Really? Why?

NOSRAT: ...I feel so - well, of probably 20 people, you know, who've worked in different roles on my show, three were white men, none were straight...

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: ...And everybody else was a woman. And probably 80 percent of those women are not white.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: So...

SANDERS: What's...

NOSRAT: ...There's...

SANDERS: ...That like on - to be in a...

NOSRAT: It is...

SANDERS: ...Thing like that?

NOSRAT: ...Heaven.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: It is heaven. It's heaven to be around people of all different backgrounds...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Of all different, like, stories in their mind because then there's a way where when you are in a room, there's not one dominant narrative.

SANDERS: I love it. You know, you - it's - in thinking about how - so there's been think pieces written about just the fact that you're a brown woman doing a show like this. I was thinking about, like, food in my life and the people that I conceptualized food around.

Like, when you grow up, when you're a kid, when you think of food, you think of women. You think of your mother. You think of your - like, the matriarchs of the family in charge of the food. That's - or that's the way it was for me at least - right? - and I feel like for most people. But something happens when you hit adulthood where immediately - not immediately, but over time, you begin to associate food, or at least, like, the ideal of food and, you know, going out to restaurant food, with men.

NOSRAT: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: Most chefs...

NOSRAT: I have a lot to say...

SANDERS: ...Are men.

NOSRAT: ...About this (laughter).

SANDERS: What - what causes that switch?

NOSRAT: Power and money.

SANDERS: Why - OK.

NOSRAT: OK, so, like - I mean, I always say, like, if I were given a opportunity to return to graduate school, I would write - I would...

SANDERS: I'm pretty sure you have...

NOSRAT: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: ...The opportunity...

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...At this point.

NOSRAT: But, I mean, like...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NOSRAT: But if that were a thing for me...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...I would do my work on gender in the kitchen. And again, like, I'm going to get some facts wrong here. But the general trajectory of human kind has been for - you know, about 10,000 years ago is when we switched from being, like, hunter-gatherers to agriculture as our main source of food - where men, you know, bring home the meat and women cook it for the family.

SANDERS: Yes.

NOSRAT: So like, if your job, you know, to sustain your family was to - I don't know - stretch a pig for as many months as you could, you found different ways to preserve it. You found ways to take, like, the gristly parts and make them delicious...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...And something your kids want to eat.

SANDERS: And...

NOSRAT: You learn...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...To use all the stems of chard and all the...

SANDERS: And women lead that.

NOSRAT: And women did that because that was the thing...

SANDERS: Yes.

NOSRAT: ...Right? So that's what we now call peasant cooking or Grandma cooking, which gets, like, elevated and, like, often served in a fancy restaurant with, like, some pasta (laughter) for $45 or...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Whatever, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: But then approximately 300 years ago, 250 years ago, was when restaurants became a thing. And suddenly, now there was money and attention and power attached to this job that became a profession.

SANDERS: Well, and the folks that could open restaurants were the folks that had power, which was probably men.

NOSRAT: Men, right. So at that time, kitchens became a place for men. You know, and even traditional French cuisine, which is accepted by many people as the standard (laughter)...

SANDERS: I love that eye right there.

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: I had to think of how to say it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: But, like, you know, is - you know, traditional French kitchens are called brigades - brigades. Like, and the organization of chef, sous chef is modeled after the military.

SANDERS: Really?

NOSRAT: So the idea of how a kitchen is run is very militaristic. And that's in order to create order and organization.

SANDERS: Yeah. But it's against the...

NOSRAT: But it's a very...

SANDERS: ...Evolutionary...

NOSRAT: ...Masculine...

SANDERS: ...Trajectory of food.

NOSRAT: ...Thing.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And, of course, like, this space was not really welcoming to women. And so an entire profession was born where men got the attention, men got the money, men got the stuff. And then that sort of has just continued on and on and on.

SANDERS: What does it take to change that?

NOSRAT: I don't know. Right now, I'm feeling very pessimistic, so I feel like the whole thing has to be burned down.

SANDERS: What makes you feel pessimistic?

NOSRAT: I mean, well, I live in the Bay Area. And our community has definitely been affected by, like - there's just been a lot of women speaking up about abuse and harassment that they have - or that the, like, instinct isn't to be interested in hearing the stories of the people who have been victimized at all. Like, and so I - that's a big part of my pessimism - is just that, which is just one part of this. Also, like, this way that, for example, just three crops in this country are subsidized by the government for farmers, while abandoning, like, all the actual vegetables...

SANDERS: Which three?

NOSRAT: Corn, wheat and soy. And so I just feel like right now, I'm feeling - and then there's climate change. Like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...You know, like, I'm just feeling - I'm just in a particularly pessimistic mode at this moment. And so sometimes when I'm feeling the weight of all of that, I feel like what I - the only thing I can do is what I can do, which is, like, get people excited to cook.

SANDERS: It's interesting to hear you talk about being pessimistic about the state of your world - the food world right now - because the only way that I've known you since I've been consuming your work has been...

NOSRAT: Full of joy.

SANDERS: ...Full of joy.

NOSRAT: Yeah. I am full of joy, too. It's - but I'm more than just - you know, and that's a whole - this goes back to your last question about, like, how has my life changed?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: You know, people watch the show. And they feel like they know me, which is wonderful and speaks to, like, how well they're receiving.

SANDERS: You did your job well.

NOSRAT: Yeah, and I did my job well. But also, that's just one part of me. And so I'm also, like, a highly neurotic person.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NOSRAT: I've done my homework for a really long time and in general, like, puts a lot of thought into what I put out in the world.

SANDERS: Yeah. On that note...

NOSRAT: Let's make some chickens (laughter).

SANDERS: Let's make some conveyor belt chicken. I love it.

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. When we come back, the chicken hits the skillet. And later, the story of how Samin got into cooking by stumbling into a job in one of the best restaurants in the country. All right, BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: OK, back in the kitchen with Samin. She brought her own knives.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIVES SCRAPING)

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Oh, I love that sound. Any who, we promised you a few cooking tricks in this conversation. Here is one.

NOSRAT: People think that the way to hold a knife is to hold the handle.

SANDERS: Yes.

NOSRAT: Like, put all four of your fingers around the handle.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: That is not the way to hold a knife...

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: ...Because if you do that, you don't actually get the dexterity that you do - and the control than you would when you pinch the blade, which I know feels really weird and scary. Like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: Why would I touch the metal part?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: But when you touch the metal part, all of the power is much more central to the - like, I'm in - yes, exactly. And the first, probably, three weeks of doing this feels very awkward, and then it becomes second nature. You just - you know, it's like - imagine holding a pencil toward the top. Why would you do that? You hold a pencil toward the bottom.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: You know, you want to be closer to where you want...

SANDERS: To the tool itself.

NOSRAT: Yeah, to the tool itself. So...

SANDERS: All right, now we're going to make Samin's conveyor belt chicken. She calls it conveyor belt chicken because in spite of the recipe being so simple, a friend told her that it's so good you'll want a conveyor belt to get that chicken into your mouth as quickly as possible. OK. First, we got to debone some skin-on chicken thighs.

NOSRAT: Good job.

SANDERS: Oh, I cut into the bone.

NOSRAT: No, you definitely didn't. Don't worry. That knife's not strong enough.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Thighs, of course, are dark meat, unlike the more popular chicken breast, which is white meat.

NOSRAT: I always will choose chicken leg over chicken breast. And...

SANDERS: Put her there.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGH FIVE)

SANDERS: It's juicy.

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

SANDERS: It's juicy.

NOSRAT: It's juicy, totally - and more flavorful.

SANDERS: Breast is dry.

NOSRAT: It has fat. It's more fatty.

SANDERS: Thank you.

NOSRAT: And fat is flavor.

SANDERS: Fat is flavor...

(Singing) Cutting that chicken

...So is salt.

NOSRAT: So I take a generous pinch. And then I'm not - no. What I'm not doing it is this - my, like, thumb-forefinger pinch.

SANDERS: Oh.

NOSRAT: That's really what I consider to be, like, specialized salting, like, individual precision salting. But we have - you even have...

SANDERS: I like it a lot.

NOSRAT: ...Like, a cutting board...

SANDERS: Yes.

NOSRAT: ...Of chicken to salt. So you're going to do what I call the wrist wag.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: So I'm just sort of letting the salt - I'm not even moving my fingers. Yeah. It's just - I'm...

SANDERS: Your wrist is moving, yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Wagging my wrist. Yeah. And it's just sort of flinging out. There you go. There you go.

SANDERS: So as the salt settles on our chicken, it's time for heat, which brings us to another cooking trick. Make sure your pan is hot enough.

NOSRAT: This is how I like to test a pan to see if it's hot enough. I just sort of splash a couple drops of water in there. Almost any time I'm going to put anything into a pan, and certainly any time I'm going to put meat into a pan, I want the pan to be hot before I add the oil and before I - and the oil to be hot before I add the food.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: If the pan's already hot, then the oil will heat up immediately. So the - and part of the reason, especially with skin-on chicken, is that skin will stick to a cold pan. So we're just going to check.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SIZZLING)

NOSRAT: All right, we're getting there. One more time.

SANDERS: Then the key to this whole recipe is cooking the chicken skin-side down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

SANDERS: That's the most fulfilling sound.

NOSRAT: It's so good. It means you're doing it right.

SANDERS: Yeah (laughter).

But here's the twist. Then you put another heavy cast-iron pan on top of the chicken.

NOSRAT: So do you want to stick that thing on top? That - get your foil pan and just lay it right on top.

SANDERS: So the second cast-iron skillet wrapped in foil is going to go on top of the first-cast iron skillet to mash the chicken down.

NOSRAT: Yep. So what happens with meat and skin - things with skin and protein is that that protein will initially stick to the pan. But then once it sort of cooks partway and starts to harden, it'll peel off.

SANDERS: I heard that change.

NOSRAT: Yeah (laughter). It's going to start happening more.

SANDERS: Ch-ch-ch-changes (ph).

NOSRAT: But, you know, no oven, no stove burner is completely even unless you're using, like, one of those high-tech induction burners, like the - so on this one - I don't know. That window's open, so maybe there's a breeze that we can't feel coming in and pushing heat this way or maybe this pan isn't fully centered on this burner. So things are not going to cook evenly.

SANDERS: But that's OK.

NOSRAT: So we have to move them around.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: That's the solution.

SANDERS: The point of all this is to get the fat in that skin rendered down perfectly. Samin says you can actually hear when that happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

NOSRAT: So the sound of the sizzle is completely different. Like, the quality is - because now it's just fat. There's no water left.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And that's just oil.

SANDERS: In Samin's book, you serve this chicken with a simple herb salsa. But we had to make moves. Time was running short. So we let Trader Joe's, once more, save the day.

NOSRAT: We can just put some of the corn salsa (laughter).

SANDERS: Yes, yes, yes.

Trader Joe's corn salsa works just fine as well. Then we threw a few tortillas in the pan to cook them in that chicken fat for a little bit.

NOSRAT: It's going to take a minute to fry. Oh, look. It's puffing up.

SANDERS: (Singing) It's puffing up.

NOSRAT: (Growling, laughter).

SANDERS: I'm into it.

(Singing) And then it's taco time.

(SOUNDBITE OF BITING)

SANDERS: Oh, my God. That's good.

NOSRAT: Yum. The fried tortilla's good.

SANDERS: All right - time for one more break - when we come back, the story of how Samin got into cooking in the first place at the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley - BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Hey, y'all. Sam here once again asking for your money - even a few dollars helps out your local public radio station, which, in turn, helps out this show. Give now at donate.npr.org/sam - donate.npr.org/sam. Thank you.

Post tacos, I asked Samin to tell me the story of how she got her first job in a restaurant. It is a story with lessons about work and success and kindness. And it began with one meal. Samin was in college in the Bay Area at the time. She was studying English literature. She was not training to be a cook at all, but she was dating this guy.

NOSRAT: Yeah. So he was from the Bay Area.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: And so a lot of what we did was go to his childhood favorite pizzeria or ice cream place or just all of the places he loved. And he had always wanted to eat at Chez Panisse, which is a restaurant in Berkeley that is an institution. It was opened in 1971 by Alice Waters, who's really, in a lot of ways, the progenitor of the farm-to-table movement in this country. But I didn't know any of that.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: I just knew that it sounded expensive (laughter)...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...And that my family had never paid, you know, a hundred dollars a person for dinner before. So it seemed out of the question for me. But he really wanted to do it. So we saved up money for seven months. We had, like, a shoe box that we saved money in, and we saved $220.

SANDERS: Wow.

NOSRAT: And we went to eat there. And I was 19. I think he was 20. And...

SANDERS: So this was 20 years ago.

NOSRAT: Yeah.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: And we were sitting in the downstairs dining room. I was wearing a denim skirt. He was wearing, like - I had a black tank top. I don't remember what he wore. And - but we were definitely not regulars.

SANDERS: OK.

NOSRAT: You know, like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And I'm sure everyone who worked there could tell.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: Like, we stood out...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...As very young, inexperienced diners. And to me, what was really incredible about it wasn't so much, like, that the food was so great because my mom is a really good cook, and I grew up eating really delicious food. So it wasn't that this was the best meal I had ever had. I had just never been in a restaurant where I felt so attended to and cared for. And so...

SANDERS: That's part of what you pay for.

NOSRAT: Totally. But like, I just had never - I - just did not...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: I didn't understand any of that.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

NOSRAT: Everything about it seemed so special. And the lights are, like, just warm enough. And there's these incredible flower arrangements. And it feels really personal, and that felt really special. And the dessert was chocolate souffle...

SANDERS: Yes.

NOSRAT: ...Which I had never had before. So...

SANDERS: And this was like a fancy souffle because, like, there had to be steps done to it. Right?

NOSRAT: Yeah. So when they brought it up - over to us...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ..I wonder why she thought (unintelligible). It occurred to the server that maybe I had never had souffle before. So she said, have you - would you like me to show you how to eat this? And I said, yeah. So she said, you poke a hole in it with your spoon. And then you pour the sauce in. And that way every bite has sauce. It was like a raspberry sauce...

SANDERS: ...Which I didn't know was a thing until I read your story. I didn't know.

NOSRAT: Yeah, I didn't know. But I guess it's like - it must be, like, the classic French way of doing it.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

NOSRAT: And so - I don't think I've ever done it again since, honestly.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NOSRAT: I don't eat that many souffles.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: But - and so I took a bite. And she said, how is it? And I said, oh, it's really good. But you know what would make it even better is a glass of cold milk because it was, like, this warm, chocolatey...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Thing...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

NOSRAT: You want cold milk - like, seems pretty natural.

SANDERS: But this is Chez Panisse.

NOSRAT: Yeah, totally. She totally was like - what?

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: And so she kind of laughed, and she went and brought me a glass of milk. And then she also brought us each a glass of dessert wine to teach us, like, the refined accompaniment.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And much later, like, when I lived in Italy a few years later, I realized that milk is considered - like, to drink milk after 10 a.m. is a faux pas. Like, it's something that babies do, you know. Like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: If you're an adult, like, you know, gourmand, you would never drink milk after 10 a.m.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: So when Americans travel to France or Italy and order, like, a cappuccino or a cafe latte at 4 p.m., like, they're, like, drawing attention to themselves...

SANDERS: They can mark us.

NOSRAT: ...As Americans. Yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

NOSRAT: And so - because, like, I don't know - it's too heavy or something. Like, that's why.

SANDERS: And also, most folks don't realize they're secretly lactose intolerant.

NOSRAT: Yeah, yeah, yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: I came to that realization this year...

NOSRAT: I'm so sorry.

SANDERS: ...Hurt my heart.

NOSRAT: I'm so sorry.

SANDERS: It was after an extra large Oreo Blizzard.

NOSRAT: Oh, God.

SANDERS: And I was like, this is it.

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

SANDERS: End scene.

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I digress.

NOSRAT: I feel you. I really do.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Souffle.

NOSRAT: (Laughter) And so then...

SANDERS: No, yes.

NOSRAT: Yeah. So - anyway, so we had this really special meal. And I was so moved. And I always worked through college. I had a work-study job just like filing papers before that. So I was, like, maybe I can work here. And we had other friends who were bussers there, so I wrote a letter asking for a job bussing tables. And when I brought it to the restaurant, they said, oh, you have to bring that to the floor manager. So I - she - they lead me to her office. And when she opened the door, it was the souffle lady.

SANDERS: That had given you the milk.

NOSRAT: Yeah, totally. So she kind of remembered me, and I remembered her. And I'd written this, like, very earnest letter saying how moving this dinner had been. And could I please work there? And I'd never worked in a restaurant before, but I would try my hardest. And so she hired - she was like, can you start tomorrow? - which now I understand to be, like, desperate restaurant manager speak of, like...

SAMIN NOSRAT AND SAM SANDERS: We need somebody.

NOSRAT: Can you start tomorrow?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: But at the time, it felt like the stars had aligned (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

NOSRAT: And so I started bussing tables the next day. And I was an English major. I had never thought about restaurants or food or cooking or anything.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And I felt at home in that.

SANDERS: What I like about that story about this floor manager not shaming you when you wanted your milk was, like, a certain kind of kindness. And I wondered when I was reading about it. I was like, what would have happened if they weren't kind to you? I don't know. It's good to be kind because it's good to be kind. But also, people don't even know it. Their kindness often opens up a door for someone else.

NOSRAT: Totally. Absolutely.

SANDERS: You know?

NOSRAT: And I try to remember that. You know, a version of that that I'm experiencing these days...

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: ...Is I write this column for The New York Times Magazine. And when I first started cooking, this very column was the column that I upheld in my mind as, like, the highest echelon of food writing. And I've read it every week since I started cooking. And I always thought, maybe one day, I could have that column.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And so quite often, I'll get a message. Often, it's just a one-line message from the editor in chief or from my top editor, who's, like, one editor down. It'll be one line. It'll be like, wow, really good job this time or that was so delicious. Like, I went home and made it. And I'll float for a week or for two weeks on...

SANDERS: On that little thing.

NOSRAT: ...That one-line email. Yeah, just one little...

SANDERS: It's a cup of milk.

NOSRAT: So now, like, a friend reminded me that I'm that for other people. And so it's my job to be really aware to make sure that I'm doing that for other people. Yeah.

SANDERS: Like, for instance, you complimented how I deboned that thigh (laughter).

NOSRAT: You did such a great job, Sam (laughter).

SANDERS: It is. I mean, and - like, just to go back to that story just because, like, I could visualize it so clearly in my mind. But, like, that floor manager giving you that cup of milk with the dessert line and saying, Imma (ph) show you both. It feels like that is a lot of your approach. Like, I'm going to meet you where you are. But I'm going to show you...

NOSRAT: Both.

SANDERS: ...Both of these things.

NOSRAT: Totally.

SANDERS: Yes.

NOSRAT: Yeah. And I feel - well, I just feel like shame is not a good teaching tool. Like, I just don't feel like telling people that they're not buying the right thing or that they don't like the right thing is going to win anyone over and make them want to listen to me. Also, you know what it is is, like, for - salt, fat and acid make food taste good. They make food taste good for humans.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And we as humans have evolved to crave those things.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: Our bodies can't make salt. They can't make certain kinds of fat, so we crave eating them, you know? And that fat is what powers us.

SANDERS: And it completes us.

NOSRAT: Totally. And acid is what brings contrast. You know, acid makes our mouths water. So when you say something's mouthwatering, it's because it's acidic. And so you already know so much of what I am teaching. People already know that, even if they don't care about cooking and they don't want to care about cooking. An example I always use is when you go to a Mexican place and you get a burrito and you take a bite and you're like, this is falling flat. How do I fix it?

SANDERS: Lime.

NOSRAT: You're like - yeah. Let me squeeze some lime. Let me put some sour cream.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: Let me put some guacamole. Let me put some salsa.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: What are those things? They're salt and fat and acid.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NOSRAT: And so that's what makes food taste good. That's what makes pizza taste good. And all the things that we sort of want to eat have those things in balance. And helping people realize that they already know that then maybe makes them a little bit more excited to put that information into use.

SANDERS: Altogether, Samin stayed with me at Angie's house for, like, 2 1/2 hours. I have not had an interview lift me up this much and make me smile this much in a very, very long time.

One more - oh, my goodness. You're the best.

NOSRAT: Oh, thank you.

SANDERS: This was so awesome.

NOSRAT: Thank you.

SANDERS: Before she left, Samin hugged everybody a few times - my colleague Angie, who lent us the kitchen, and her husband Daniel (ph) and her son Hadley (ph). She even left us a few Trader Joe's goodies.

Do you want your corn salsa?

NOSRAT: No, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: And then Samin Nosrat, the chef everyone's talking about right now, went out the front door to her rental car - this rental car full of pots and pans from TJ Maxx - and then Samin drove herself across LA in traffic to a book signing...

All right, drive safe.

...For a book that, as of this taping the week before Christmas, was out of stock online.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

NOSRAT: Bye.

SANDERS: Bye.

HAMILTON-LOWE: Bye.

DANIEL: Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Many thanks again to Samin for dropping by. Thanks to Angie Hamilton-Lowe and her family for the kitchen. Thanks to producer Danny Hajek for recording this whole thing. And so many thanks to Brent Baughman for turning a two and a half hour conversation into this. All right, listeners, hope you're having a fantastic holiday week. This Friday, we'll post an episode that is our best attempt at a wrap of the entire year - 2018. We'll try to make sense of the wacky year that was. It'll be fun. I promise. Thank you for listening. Happy holidays. Happy new year. Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah (ph). I said it right. Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Say hi, Hadley.

HADLEY: Hello.

NOSRAT: I wish there was vision of...

SANDERS: Hadley's like, hang on (laughter).

NOSRAT: ...Hadley's, like, suspicious eyes right now (laughter).

SANDERS: Go shake Samin's hand. That's Samin.

NOSRAT: Hi.

HADLEY: Nice to meet you.

NOSRAT: Nice to meet you. How old are you?

HADLEY: I'm 9.

NOSRAT: What's your favorite food to eat, Hadley? Just, like, tell me...

HADLEY: Sushi, by far.

NOSRAT: Sushi. Oh, is that why there's a drawing of sushi on the fridge?

HADLEY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HADLEY: It was for my dad's birthday.

(LAUGHTER)

HADLEY: He likes sushi just like me.

NOSRAT: Is there a kind of sushi you like?

HADLEY: Yellowtail rolls.

NOSRAT: Oh, my lord (laughter).

SANDERS: He knows.

NOSRAT: He knows, yeah.

SANDERS: He knows.

NOSRAT: Do you put wasabi and soy sauce and ginger or, like, are you a purist?

HADLEY: Well, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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