When Samin Nosrat laughs, she tilts her whole body back and fills the room with sound, uproariously, not unlike Julia Child. If Netflix was looking for a successor to that cooking icon, it found one. Nosrat’s new streaming show, Salt Fat Acid Heat (Oct. 11), based on her best-selling cookbook by the same name, inherits the best aspects of Child’s famed series The French Chef. Both women published groundbreaking cookbooks that won James Beard Awards. Both emphasize the basics of cooking over the memorization of recipes. And like Child–who once dropped a potato pancake, shrugged her shoulders and threw it back into the pan–when Nosrat makes a mistake, she owns up to it quickly.
“I put way too much salt in that,” she says after taste-testing a pickled cauliflower floret and puckering her lips in a Brooklyn studio kitchen. “Nothing to do now but let it cool. Things taste less salty when they’re cool.” She turns to the grilled cheese that’s begun to ooze Parmesan, cheddar and mozzarella from between bronzed slices of bread, then beckons me closer to hear, smell and touch. “Not to brag, but this is perfect,” she says. She laughs again, and I’m giggling too.
Just as Child introduced America to French cooking, Nosrat is poised to teach America about the rest of the culinary landscape. The Salt Fat Acid Heat cookbook explains that those four elements are the basis of all dishes. Learn to balance them perfectly, and you’ll learn to create the perfect meal. Take the grilled cheese: if the pan is too hot, the bread will burn without the cheese melting; too cool, and the sandwich will turn soggy. The butter on the bread is the best fat to marry with the heat for this result. The cheese on the inside provides the necessary saltiness to cut through the butter, and the pickles on the side provide the acidity needed to balance a rich meal.
On the show, Nosrat aims to give home cooks similar tools to prepare any kind of food. She travels around the world–to Italy, Japan, Mexico and, finally, Nosrat’s native Berkeley, Calif.–and learns about the origins of our food from professional dairy farmers and fishermen, and visits the homes of locals who teach us how to use those ingredients. She then incorporates the lessons into her own cooking segments, shot back in California.
Nosrat struck upon the idea for the book and eventual show when she was working at Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant Chez Panisse. Nosrat visited the restaurant as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. She once harbored ambitions to become a doctor, but she was so awed by Waters’ chocolate soufflé that she wrote a letter to the chef to ask for a job at the restaurant busing tables. The chefs assigned her cookbooks to read at night, but Nosrat remained confused about cooking.
“A chef would come in each morning and say something like, ‘I just went to Provence and was inspired by the fennel fronds by the ocean,'” says Nosrat. “And everyone just got up and did it. There was no measuring cup, no timer. I had no idea how everybody knew exactly what to do, no matter what part of the world the food was from.” After two years, she realized all the chefs were paying attention to four elements: salt, fat, acid and heat. She went to her boss with this revelation. “Duh,” she remembers him saying. “Everyone knows this.” But everyone didn’t. Home cooks didn’t.
Nosrat traveled to Italy to learn more about classic cooking. Upon her return to California she began teaching classes that focused not on following recipes but on understanding the science and art of food. She counted Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, among her students. It was he who encouraged her to turn her obsession with those four elements into a cookbook. Soon after it was published, Netflix scooped up the rights for a show. The concept was new, yes, but they also recognized star power in Nosrat, who felt relatable. “Netflix kept reminding me that this show was about me,” says Nosrat, “in all my imperfections with my Birkenstocks and my overalls and that dirty rag sitting right over there in the shot.”
When Anthony Bourdain passed away, he left a hole in the food world. Many critics, foodies and chefs applauded the way Bourdain expanded viewers’ culinary horizons on No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Food, they argued, was universal. There’s a persistent, idealistic notion that two people can build a political bridge by breaking bread. But we can’t actually solve the world’s problems with tacos or brisket; people can be hypocritical, as can their palates. Comedian Hasan Minhaj has joked that he spots the same conservative pundits who spout slurs about Muslims at the halal cart buying shawarma.
Still, everyone has to eat. “Food is not the solution, but it’s a means to bring people together,” says Nosrat. This is a concept of particular interest to Netflix as it continues to expand its international reach. Unlike the Food Network or the Cooking Channel, Netflix’s audience spans 190 countries. Food shows once isolated in their local territories can become sensations abroad when they hit streaming services. (Think: The Great British Bake Off.) According to Netflix, at least 50 million accounts, more than one-third of its subscribers, have tuned into one of its food shows.
But who will usher viewers into these new worlds remains a pressing question, and Nosrat is a promising answer. Not many hosts of food shows look like Nosrat. The restaurant industry remains a notoriously male-driven world, and the male food stars on television often, like Bourdain, exude a certain rebelliousness. Nosrat, by contrast, is warm and approachable.
She’s also not a food tourist: as food shows proliferate and camera crews film segments in less economically developed countries, the issue of how Westerners appropriate other cultures for their own enjoyment has become more pressing. “I grew up eating and loving Persian food, going to school and everyone making fun of me,” says Nosrat. “Now there are hip Persian restaurants where you can’t get a reservation. But at the same time that my food is being loved upon, we’re suffering from a travel ban. These are things I feel personally hurt by.”
Nosrat isn’t afraid of tackling these topics. “I think the conversation needs to get more nuanced,” she says. “It’s our job to learn about these historically repressed places as you eat their delicious food and think about ways to invest in those peoples.” For her part, she’s been working with a nonprofit to promote the honey made by the Yucatán farmers whom she featured on the show.
Nosrat interrupts these meditations to cut up the grilled cheese before it cools. When I hesitate over a pickled jalapeño, she scrapes out a few of the seeds for me, unprompted, to make sure the pepper isn’t too hot. She reassures me that now that I’ve mastered this cooking method for grilled cheese, I can apply that same philosophy to French toast or quesadillas or a million other recipes. It’s rainy outside, and the grilled cheese is warm and comforting. For a minute, we forget about the gray weather and think only of that most perfect marriage: gooey cheese and crispy bread.
This appears in the October 22, 2018 issue of TIME.
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