Tendrils of pasta, slick with butter and meaty ragù, tumble onto a plate in slow motion amid rising steam. A shower of grated Parmesan dusts the dish. Samin Nosrat twirls a forkful of pasta from the edge of the mound, and lifts it to her mouth. Her eyes widen. The music crests. Her lips, still slurping up a noodle, stretch into a smile tight with pleasure. In tempo with the decrescendo of the coda, she closes her eyes and shakes her head in what looks like satisfaction, or disbelief. It’s a moment of pure triumph.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the new Netflix documentary series adapted from Nosrat’s best-selling cookbook of the same name, is filled with such moments. In the four episodes, spanning four different countries — Japan, Italy, Mexico, California in the U.S. — and four essential elements to cooking — salt, fat, acid, heat — scenes in which each audible slurp and swallow and refrain of “It’s so good!” illustrate the full, rich pleasure the chef/author finds in eating good food. Nosrat tastes as she cooks and explores local cuisines, as any chef worth her salt does. But she also indulges, asking a butcher for “a little more” raw pork fat to sample, swiping a finger through the soft inner crags of a meringue before buckling down to assemble a pavlova, and sneaking a bite of stewed meatball while glancing mischievously at the cook, as if asking for permission that it’s too late to give.
“This, you save in your stock bag,” Nosrat says in Episode 4, “Heat,” standing in her kitchen in Berkeley and holding up the carcass of a just-carved buttermilk roast chicken. “Or, if you’re me, my favorite part is the little private bite you have before your friends come over for dinner.” She rips off a chunk of white meat for herself. “I’ll never get sick of this chicken, it’s so good,” Nosrat says, with her signature shake of the head, eyes rolling upward, as if in awe of how delicious something can taste.
The show is full of sensual, cinematic food footage — the kind that fans of Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious will instantly warm to — but it’s also a reminder of the way that real people eat off camera, with unrestrained delight and eagerness. On camera, this is a revelation, in part because of who Nosrat, an Iranian-American woman, is — or, rather, who she is not. As Maura Judkis points out in the Washington Post, “Most travel food shows are about white male discovery. And most home cooking shows are about white female domesticity.”
For years, the answer to the question “Who gets to eat on TV?” has always been the same: male explorers and happy homemakers. The power of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is that it provides a new effigy. Nosrat is not a man, one of those typically white heroes of travel food shows and food media at large who promise to introduce new worlds and cuisines to the viewer. In an op-ed for Eater, Meghan McCarron recently noted, “[T]he rise of chef culture in the late 1990s was accompanied by a retrenchment of the restaurant kitchen boys’ club, both by macho ‘bad boy’ chefs and a media that lionized them as leaders of the new food renaissance.” Think Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, and also men like Action Bronson, who built an entire career out of eating and behaving crassly on camera, or Gordon Ramsay, who barged into the kitchen and transformed it into a competitive arena.
And neither is Nosrat the kind of woman who typically presides over the kitchen on home cooking shows. That space is dominated by petite white women like Sandra Lee, Katie Lee, and Giada de Laurentiis, whose conventional beauty and glamour seem to belie their professions (think of this fantasy as a cousin to the “gorgeous glutton” trope). The few non-white women who have achieved full-blown domestic goddess status — Chrissy Teigen, Ayesha Curry — come from the worlds of modeling and acting; their beauty has already been vetted and accepted by the public. But thinness, gateway to entry that it may be, comes with its own scrutiny, as fans and the press police the eating habits and bodies of these domestic goddesses.
Meanwhile, older, often stouter queens of the hearth like Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Lidia Bastianich are held to different standards; they are the aunties and grandmas of the kitchen, who carry themselves with the ease of having earned their wealth and the right to relish their food more than their younger, thinner counterparts. This is the spectrum for the most visible female cooking stars: domestic goddesses or queens of the hearth, sliding from one end to the other, rarely venturing outside the home kitchen but always in the public eye.
Nosrat traverses a different path, one that bridges the divide between the woman’s world in the kitchen and the man’s world at large, and that grapples with the optics of being a first kind of anything. “I’m not trying to be the most beautiful... whatever,” she said on a recent episode of the Eater Upsell podcast. “I wear Birkenstocks and weird overalls, and my house is a little bit messy, and I make a huge mess in the kitchen. I’m not perfect, I’m not Martha Stewart, I’m not Alice Waters. It’s different, I’m different, and those are actually things to celebrate, rather than try to scrub out.”
Eating as a woman is fraught. Given that more than half of American women have unhealthy relationships with food or their bodies, it’s small wonder that dining in public is a mental tightrope walk of weighing indulgence versus restraint, portion sizes versus the eventual, inevitable hunger — all while being acutely aware of how any given choice may be read by dining companions and passersby alike. A salad? She’s dieting. A dessert all for herself? She’s not watching her figure.
Now imagine that amplified on screen, for the mass consumption of thousands and millions of viewers. If eating as a woman is fraught, doing so as a woman on TV is even more so. Food TV most often functions as an escape from reality, transporting the audience to faraway lands or alternate realities in which every bite is creamy, fatty, decadent, transcendent, glorious. But for many viewers, the existence of that fantasy is propped up by an underlying tension: the tangled relationship between food, weight, and self worth. If we had the means to eat like a king, if we had the metabolism — without fear of judgment or the sheer physicality of bodies — would we not just live every day like an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives?
To confront that unspoken tension is to ruin the fantasy, as Great British Baking Show fans discovered with the latest iteration of the beloved baking competition series. “It’s not worth the calories,” judge Prue Leith has taken to declaring as her ultimate critique of cakes, pastries, and other desserts that don’t make the cut. It’s proven to be an inflammatory catchphrase, not least because it ruins the escapist joy of a show like GBBS: It poisons the fantasy with the nagging reminder that, in the real world, calories are the enemy because of the virtue we assign to thinness, and entire lives are reoriented around the axis of consuming as little of them as possible.
What would Leith call the generous way Nosrat eats on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat? “Guilty pleasures,” perhaps, that infuriating phrase that denotes performative guilt and pleasure. We know we’re not supposed to enjoy too much butter in our pasta, according to societal conventions, so we must loudly confess our sin to absolve ourselves for eating it. What is radical, then, is to watch Nosrat, a woman of color who is neither a Giada nor an Ina, eat on camera with no reservations, and to do so without any mention of calories or guilty pleasures. She makes no apologies for occupying space and for consuming, even requesting more.
The goal of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, according to Nosrat, is to get home cooks cooking, but the show breaks new ground in so many other ways: through its revival of the instructional cooking show format in a TV era when travel documentaries dominate; through its unprecedented casting of women and people of color as culinary experts; through its focus on the “grannies” who historically perform so much domestic labor uncredited; even through its radical vision of unalienated labor and food production. But while these parts of the greater subversive mission are deliberate choices, Nosrat’s simple act of eating on camera might prove to be one of the show’s most revolutionary triumphs.
Jenny G. Zhang lives and writes in New York.
Editor: Greg Morabito