Samin Nosrat doesn’t consider herself a chef. “The chefs that I learned to cook under were cooks for 30 years before they became chefs,” says the cookbook author, instructor, and most recently, the host, heart, and soul of Netflix’s hit food documentary series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Nosrat, a Chez Panisse alum who’s also an accomplished writer, launches into a thoughtful discussion about how much words matter — how meaning can be inscribed through intention and compounded over time. In the case of a “chef,” the word references a cook who’s moved their way up the ranks to run a professional kitchen. “This particular thing, it’s been defined: a chef is this, a cook is this,” Nosrat says. “I’m a traditionalist, so I’m a cook.”
But, with all due respect to this year’s recipient of Eater’s Chef of the Year award, while Samin Nosrat might not be a chef by her own definition, she is most certainly the chef we need right now: a culinary leader who shapes diners’ tastes, who inspires cooks (both professional and amateur) to let loose and experiment, and who has a pointed vision for what the future of food should look like.
In a year where, more than ever, the industry has questioned the mechanisms that led us to celebrate and champion chefs of a certain mold — male, white, ambitious to the point that creating a toxic workplace seemed more a badge of honor than a glaring problem — Nosrat is a breath of fresh air. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the show, celebrates makers to the point of leaning slightly Marxist. It gives audiences a still-subversive image of a woman unabashedly enjoying the act of eating: As Jenny Zhang wrote for Eater earlier this year, “She makes no apologies for occupying space and for consuming, even requesting more.” It placed women at its center, asserting their presence as experts and storytellers. And everything in it looked really, really delicious.
Nosrat may not be a chef by the classic definition — someone who conceives of a restaurant menu and wields that title within the confines of a professional kitchen space — but she certainly has the expertise. The Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat cookbook is a serious, thoughtful study that adheres to its use of the word “mastery” in its subtitle. But like any great chef, Nosrat has bestowed more than simply knowledge. As Hannah Giorgis articulated in the Atlantic, Nosrat offers “something much more substantial” to her followers: “a cooking philosophy.” That enthusiasm for ingredients, her sincere appreciation of other people’s expertise, and her joy in the moment of eating, creating, and cooking are infectious — to the point of inspiring her own unique kind of brigade.
The excitement surrounding Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat has fostered a community; after the show dropped, many excitedly started online conversations about being inspired to make bread or ragu for the first time. “It’s like a tidal wave,” Nosrat says of the viewer response. “There’s so many sort of hyperbolic, so positive, such loving feedback coming my way. It’s almost too much for one person to take.” Nosrat may not be the figurehead of a restaurant kitchen, but her chosen menu — less focused on specific dishes and more about getting people to “start taking the thing you learned, applying it in other situations, and figuring out how to be a better cook” — has landed in homes across the country.
Like any good leader, Nosrat has also been wrestling with the questions of representation, appropriation, and abuse that dominated the restaurant industry over the past year, identifying how her new profile puts her in a position to champion people who have historically not been given opportunities. “It behooves me to find and train and support and nurture other people as quickly as possible so that it’s more of us, so that there’s interest [in more people as experts and figureheads], so that everything is diversified,” she says. “Because there’s so much strength in diversity in many senses of the word.” Nosrat notes that there are currently no solid plans for a Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Season 2, but says in all realms, “now that I have the [ear] of all these people, it’s my job to raise up other people as soon as possible.”
Regarding what she’ll turn her attention to next, Nosrat says, “I want to be challenged and creatively pushed. I want to move things forward.” There are few people in the industry with the ability, the point of view, the drive, and the magnetism that can do exactly that. Are we on board with Samin’s vision? Yes, chef.