Fifteen years ago, Samin Nosrat snatched a job sweeping the floors of the famous Californian restaurant Chez Panisse. Now she is trying to change the way people cook.
On Monday afternoon, Nosrat — a cook, writer and teacher — addressed a group of roughly 40 students and faculty at a Morse College Master’s Tea. Between hearty chuckles, Nosrat shared details of her personal passion for food, her unconventional and fortuitous education, and her goals for her upcoming book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking.” Following the tea, Nosrat shared dinner with a group of Yale undergraduates after working with students to prepare the meal using local ingredients.
“Cookbooks don’t actually teach you how to cook,” Nosrat said. “There are so many problems with recipes. A lot of times they’re not tested right and I think a lot of people don’t understand that just because it is published doesn’t mean it works.”
The goal of her upcoming book is to teach people the four basic principles of cooking. With personal anecdotes, science experiments and illustration, Nosrat hopes to reach a wide variety of people with all levels of cooking experience and help reveal the taste possibilities for cooking with simple ingredients, she said.
Nosrat’s method centers on decision-making and discovery, and the book aims to help cooks make thoughtful decisions in their cooking process so that they know what they are going to get in the end.
“I love taking the simplest things and heightening them to the maximum tastiness,” Nosrat said, adding that limitations fuel exciting creativity in the kitchen.
The inspiration for Nosrat’s book comes directly from what Nosrat calls her “sensory education.” While working as an inexperienced intern at Chez Panisse, Nosrat was enamored with the kitchen. As she began learning more about cooking, she noticed a disparity between the ways the chefs in the restaurant cooked and the way she and her friends cooked at home. Nosrat was astonished with chefs’ ability to create innumerable dishes from a wide range of ingredients, all without a recipe for guidance.
But soon, she said, she caught on.
As she learned more, Nosrat began to notice fundamental patterns in all cooking. The chefs at the restaurant were always tasting for salt, acid and fat, she said, explaining that “it was always sensory clues” that led them to make culinary decisions.
“I was immersed in this sensory education and I realized that [this] ultimately is what is at the heart of cooking,” she said.
No one ever laid anything out for her, Nosrat explains. While an undergraduate studying English at the University of California, Berkeley, Nosrat started busing at Chez Panisse before working in its kitchen. She traveled to Italy to study with local butchers and cooks, and also petitioned for a spot in the class of Michael Pollan, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley.
Just like preparing a soufflé, she said, her journey has been filled with ups and downs. Nosrat attributed much of her success to her willingness to work her way up from the bottom and the guidance of her excellent mentors. Among these mentors are Benedetta Vitali, Christopher Lee and Alice Walters — all chefs from whom Nosrat learned.
Students at the talk appreciated Nosrat’s approach. Ashley Wu ’15 said Nosrat’s method is “wonderfully basic and beautiful,” adding that she thinks Nosrat is “very smart about the way she cooks.”
McLane Ritzel ’14 said Nosrat’s story of hard work and ambition is very inspiring.
“She has this incredibly beautiful energy that gets me excited for my own post graduate life,” Ritzel said.
Nosrat was astonished with the number of people who came to hear her speak — a testament to the increasing passion for food among today’s students, she suggested. But she also said that more must be done — and she plans to continue cooking, writing, teaching and traveling after the publication of her book. She hopes to explore ways of teaching culinary skills to portions of the population such as younger generations and low-income families.
“She’s just an enthusiast, and that goes so far,” said Barbara Stuart, a Yale English lecturer who teaches the courses “Food Policy” and “Writing About Food.” Stuart added: “Plus, she knows what she’s talking about.”
Nosrat’s book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking” will be published in spring 2015.