Samin Nosrat grew up in San Diego in an Iranian family before cooking at Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse, the birthplace of the local food movement. All of those elements, combined with her natural ability for teaching cooking, influenced her award-winning book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,” which has become a four-part Netflix series that premieres Thursday.
It’s Nosrat’s first show, although she previously appeared on “Cooked,” from food activist Michael Pollan. “Salt Fat Acid Head” director Caroline Suh also directed an episode of “Cooked,” and both were produced by Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions.
“Salt Fat Acid Heat” is neither an instructional cooking show or a travel show, but a sort of organic ratatouille of the two. Nosrat travels to Italy, where she studied cooking, to talk about the importance of fat in making food delicious. To illustrate the crucial role salt plays in balancing a dish, she observes miso making and kelp harvesting in Japan. Highlighting how the right proportion of acid can amp up flavors, she cooks with sour oranges on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, and to demonstrate heat, she returns home to Berkeley to cook a bountiful meal for friends and consider the wood fire at Chez Panisse.
Along the way, the viewer learns how the four elements interact to create great food, but not in the style of a conventional stagey cooking show. By the end of each episode, viewers will be plotting how they can host dinner parties with stunning rustic spreads like the ones Nosrat serves up.
Nosrat and Suh talked to Variety about why “Salt Fat Acid Heat” can help pave the way for a wider variety of people and traditions to be seen on cooking and travel shows.
How did you two connect and decide how to translate the book into a series?
Suh: I knew Samin from “Cooked.” She’s Michael Pollan’s cooking guru, he’s a big fan of hers. She’s very charismatic and memorable. We tried to hammer out, “How are we going to make a cookbook into an entertaining and fun show?”
Nosrat: We didn’t want to go to the usual suspects — we wanted to visit unsung cooks, home cooks.
How did you decide which countries to visit?
Nosrat: In my original conception, we went to multiple places, but then we narrowed it down. Italy was a formative place in my cooking career. I really wanted us to go to Iran, but at the last second, the State Department recommended we not go,
I grew up in San Diego and I like to say there’s a burrito in my heart. It turned out there’s a beautiful commonality between the foods of Iran and Mexico.
What makes Samin and this show different?
Suh: I was excited to work with a woman who’s incredibly capable, who can build a huge fire or go seaweed fishing. I had never seen anyone quite like Samin. We wanted the series to be incredibly active, exploring things.
Nosrat: I felt very much like this is my shot. Although I grew up watching a lot of television, I haven’t seen anyone who looks like me in the past.
Do you think there’s a need for more different kinds of hosts on food and travel shows? Some of the famous hosts are pretty macho.
Nosrat: A big part of the reason I did the show was the opportunity to be a person on screen who people don’t necessarily get to see. I hope it will open the door for other people who haven’t been seen — people who are non-traditional-looking television personalities. What’s amazing about their being more platforms is that there’s also more room for more stories.
Suh: People always want to escape and see beautiful things. But they’re also very aware now of who they haven’t seen on TV.
Is this a cooking show or a travel show?
Nosrat: I do think of it as a cooking show. Netflix was adamant that travel is a tool to tell the story and encourage people to cook. What I wanted this to be was, I can do that, I can make a pot of beans, I want you to get off your butt and go do it.
All the food looked so beautiful, but at the same time not heavily styled. What are some of the challenges of making food look good on camera?
Suh: The cooking is all real food that actually could be eaten. It’s hard to time and shoot food being made in real time. Not doing a dump and stir show was challenging, it took a little time to figure out. But we figured it out, and then we got to eat it in the end!
How do you balance the pressure for chefs to be on TV, be active on social media, and be constantly promoting your brand?
Nosrat: I’m very conflicted. You do have to shut off the constant output and create a safe space where you’re able to have creativity happen. I have a tortured relationship with social media, yet we found a lot of people we filmed with on the show through social media. It’s a pressure and a privilege. I’m trying to be protective of my time.
Would you do another series?
Nosrat: I’m going to restore and re-energize for a while. I do have an idea for another show — it’s another way of looking at how to make decisions in the kitchen.
“Salt Fat Acid Heat” premieres Thursday on Netflix.