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Samin Nosrat is a celebrated chef, speaker, and food columnist for The New York Times Magazine. Her James Beard award-winning best seller, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, was adapted into a popular documentary series on Netflix. Samin learned to cook at Alice Waters' famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Here she is interviewed by Laura Holson, a writer for the New York Times and the founder and host of The BOX Sessions™, an upcoming program at 1440.
Laura: You originally wanted to be a poet. I've heard you say, though, that cooking is another form of storytelling.
Samin: Cooking itself is a craft, much like the craft of writing. And both involve a lot of practice and discipline. That is the only way you are going to get better at it. As a young cook I never gave up hope that I would be able to write one day. All these bright young people come to me, students at Ivy League schools, and they say, "I want to cook." I say, "Okay, listen. If you are going to be a career cook, don't let go of the other stuff. Make sure you always keep another interest alive." One of the great joys for me is to intertwine my different interests.
Laura: You talk a lot about how the dinner table is an important place to share ideas. What does being together for a weekend provide that watching a talk online doesn't?
Samin: I think there are so many things you cannot do digitally, that can't be quantified. The chance encounters that happen at the dinner table or while you are in line to get your food. You never know who you are going to bump into. And you never know what story someone is going to tell. There is a serendipity you can't get online.
Laura: A lot of people don't know you worked hard for 20 years before the success of the cookbook and the Netflix series, Salt Fat Acid Heat. What did that teach you about resilience?
Samin: I wish I had a tidy answer for this. Someone who interviewed me 10 or so years ago pointed that out. I kept telling her about all my failures and she said, "Wow. You are really resilient." And I had never thought of that word to describe myself. But when she said it, I said, "You're right! I am!" I'm the queen of not giving up when it comes to things I want to do and achieve. Failure is just part of the process. Certainly, looking back, a lot of things I thought of as soul-crushing endings were just revisions to a plan. There were two books I didn't get to write. And thank goodness! It wasn't the thing in my heart.
I think we as a culture are so susceptible to feeling that failing is an ending. It's some sort of value judgment about us. But it's just a mistake. Keep going. I watch a lot of friends who I think are really beautiful and skillful and powerful and smart, who feel like something not working out is some sort of sign that they are not good enough. You just have to suck it up and try again.
Laura: Were you surprised with the success of the Netflix series?
Samin: I think I would have had to have been a megalomaniac to have not been surprised! The entire time we were making the show, the ultimate thing I wanted to do was get people to cook. And I am really proud that has happened.
Laura: What did cooking with your mother teach you?
Samin: When I was little my mother didn't let me and my brothers into the kitchen. She wanted us to do our homework and succeed at school. But everyone in my family eats. And my mother spent 40 percent of my childhood grocery shopping. I come from a cooking philosophy that focuses on sourcing. An important part of my cooking is finding ingredients and searching for a "taste."
I didn't realize then what my mother was giving me. But she was preparing me to be a cook at Chez Panisse. I'd grown up with all of these herbs and spices that people are only now discovering. I have a really good palate for acidity because that was how my mom cooked. And certainly, there was the importance of sitting around a table and making it the center of family life. That is what she instilled in me.
Laura: You said once that the beautiful thing about cooking is there is always tomorrow.
Samin: Even if you made the best thing you have ever made, tomorrow is a new day and you have to go again. Or if you make the worst thing, tomorrow is a new day! There is not really a chance to sit around and sulk or be like, "I'm a genius. I invented the best thing." You just have to keep going.
Laura: So what are you going to cook tomorrow? And how will it be different than today?
Samin: Oh! Good question! Cooking is all about the moment because, today, I might be alone. Tomorrow there might be people here. A friend delivered 60 pounds of tomatoes to me. I shared a bunch of them. And I am working my way through the rest, which I am going to turn into sauce. Every single day those tomatoes are going to be different. They will continue to ripen. So while they may be delicious for a salad one day, the next day they are going to be for sauce or roasting. And the only way to know is to taste and be totally present in the moment.
Laura: That sounds like a life lesson!
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