This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.
You might know writer and former Chez Panisse chef Samin Nosrat for her well-loved popup dinners at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco or her popular cooking classes. Nosrat worked for several years at Chez Panisse and Alice Waters has described her as “America’s next great cooking teacher.”
Now Nosrat has published Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, in which the chef has combined the best of her cooking and teaching talents into a cookbook.
The book, illustrated by the delightful Wendy MacNaughton (New York Times bestselling illustrator of The Gutsy Girl, among others), and with a foreword by Michael Pollan, combines storytelling, recipes, and eminently helpful primers on why certain things work or don’t work in the kitchen.
Nosrat and MacNaughton will appear at the Bay Area Book Festival on Saturday, June 3, at 1:45 p.m. In the meantime, here’s an appetizer for that in-person main course. We talked to the pair about the biggest wastes of time in the kitchen, successful failures, and how everyone can learn to be a better cook. Plus, they share a delicious spinach artichoke dip recipe.
Samin, in the book’s opening quote, you write that anyone who loves to eat can learn to cook. If you could only give one piece of advice to novice cooks, what would it be?
Don’t forget to trust yourself and your senses. You — and not the person who wrote the recipe you’re following — are the ultimate arbiter in the kitchen, and only you can use your senses — all of them — to get you where you want to go. A recipe is a crude map, whereas your senses are the finely honed GPS.
Do you have a most-made or most-recommended recipe in this book?
I think my two favorites are the Buttermilk-Marinated Roast Chicken and the Caesar dressing. Both are mainstays at my house! I developed that chicken recipe at Eccolo, and cooked thousands of birds on the spit there that way before I brought the recipe into my home kitchen. It’s the best roast chicken I’ve ever made, every single time.
Do you have any quotes or sayings that you live by?
Take everything with a grain of salt.
What are the biggest mistakes you see in cooks just starting out? What are the biggest wastes of time?
For new and experienced cooks alike, the biggest mistake is not tasting, over and over, all throughout the process of cooking. The biggest waste of time would have to be, somewhat counterintuitively, not taking a little time before you start cooking to think about where you’d like to end up. Without a clear vision of what you’re going for, it’s hard to know where you’re headed, and you’ll end up spending a ton of time trying to remedy the course and fix mistakes and adjust flavors at the end.
How did the collaboration between you and Wendy come about?
From the moment Michael Pollan encouraged me to write this book and I decided to pursue the project, I knew it couldn’t be photographed. I knew that this book would be more about conveying a philosophy and all sorts of different concepts, and that photos wouldn’t be able to do that.
I love food photography, but it is fundamentally representational, rather than informative. I’d been a huge fan of Wendy’s and wrote her an insane fan letter saying she’s the Maira Kalman of our generation and begging her to consider working with me. Wendy has so many great strengths in conveying different kinds of information, and I just had a gut feeling that we could combine her strengths and mine (and our senses of humor) to bring whimsy and fun to what could have otherwise been a stodgy textbook-like project. I couldn’t be happier or feel any luckier to have worked on this with her!
Wendy, I love the way you give your drawings personality — they’re so funny! When you’re starting with a blank canvas, what’s your process like?
I mean, anything is funny if you look at it a certain way (usually from behind). This was such a fun and challenging project because I was simultaneously learning how to cook myself, documenting/drawing and translating the information in a fun and approachable way.
If we were trying to convey the appeal of a delicious meal or some eggs or something, then I’d just do my best to render it in the most delicious way possible — but with a twist. Eggs are a good example. They’re drawn two ways in the book. One is a very tight rendering of the interior of eggs as they are boiled. The other is a drawing of all the eggshells left over after Samin had used the eggs to make a frittata. (We didn’t show the frittata.) Neither are traditional ways of presenting eggs in cookbooks, but hopefully the two drawings uniquely convey their use and deliciousness. I have a background in art, advertising writing and social work, and I can honestly say that I drew on all these fields to create the artwork in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
Samin, have you ever had a cooking disaster that turned into something great? How important is “failure” in learning how to make great food?
I don’t have a tidy story, but I am a firm believer that failure, the resilience and practice to which it can lead, are crucial to becoming a better cook. No one gets it right the first time, or every time. Certainly not me. But the thing about cooking is, we all need to eat again tomorrow, so there’s always another chance to improve. The important thing is to seize that chance!
Wendy, similar question: How important is failure in making art?
Failure is a key strategy for success. In my experience, great things are made through a process of agonizing uncertainty. I have to keep reminding myself of that when I work. Ever since I was little I’ve always wanted to get things right on the first try. If I messed up or got lost in a paper I was writing or something like that, I’d throw it out and start over. That’s a personality thing, not much I can do about it.
So what I’ve learned to do is to use that character trait towards creative ends. Part of the reason I work in pen and watercolor and draw from life a lot is because there are no do-overs. There’s no sketching — no erasing. If I make a “mistake” there are two options: 1. Throw the drawing out and start over, or 2. Keep going and turn that mistake into part of the process —make it a key element in the drawing. If I take the first option, the drawings end up predictable, more illustrative. If I go the second direction, a drawing becomes unique, more about the moment and the process than about getting something right — more about my unique perspective and experience. I’m still working on embracing the process of creating successful failures. And I’m happy to say Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is filled with those.
Samin, you started out bussing tables and worked your way up. You also recommend that budding chefs “skip culinary school.” If you put together a “school” or apprenticeship for would-be chefs, what would the training include?
Write a letter to your favorite restaurant asking for an apprenticeship. Cook every day. Read every cookbook you can get your hands on. Taste everything thoughtfully. Watch and learn from other cooks. Practice the basics — whipping egg whites, searing a steak, making a mayonnaise. Learn how to use salt, fat, and acid. Travel for as long and as widely as your finances allow, and eat everything.
Get started on your culinary adventure with Samin’s tasty spinach artichoke dip recipe.
Samin and Wendy appear in conversation with NPR’s Kitchen Sisters host Davia Nelson at the Bay Area Book Festival’s session “Cooking Like Samin: The Art of Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat” on Saturday, June 3, at 1:45 p.m. The session is on the outdoor San Francisco Chronicle Stage in the Park — and is free! No tickets required; just get there early for a seat.