Engaging the Senses

There is a simplicity — a purity — to Samin Nosrat’s approach to food. To her, nature stands supreme: we cannot improve upon it, and so our job, instead, is simply to engage with it. The cook, writer and teacher, based in Berkeley, California, takes a similar approach to her life — the beauty in the world is there for us already, if we involve our senses fully.

Nosrat, a Chez Panisse alumna, is currently finishing her first book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In this interview, she discusses being a mentor, the importance of storytelling, and how food can be a force for good.

Growing up, how was creativity cultivated within your family?

I don’t feel like, in my early childhood, my family really encouraged creativity. My parents are from Iran — they emigrated to the States right before the revolution. There’s a strong stereotype in the US that all Iranian kids grow up to become doctors, or lawyers, or engineers, and growing up, everyone in my family encouraged me to go down that route too. And for a very long time, that’s what I thought I would do with my life. We weren’t a very artistic or creative family at all — it just wasn’t built into the culture.

What was built into the culture though was a deep love of eating, and of coming together around the table — of bringing people together. A big part of that, I think, was my parents trying to reclaim the flavours of their homeland that they’d lost. They were trying to hold on to a part of their culture. So there was definitely a strong cultural focus in our family, but as for creativity — not so much.

Would you consider yourself a creative person now?

Yes, absolutely. I feel like creativity has always been something deep within me. All I had to do was listen to it, but there were all these forces pushing against it: my culture, my surroundings, my own sense of identity. All these things were stopping me from listening to it. But now, all I do is listen to it.

What was it that finally allowed you to listen?

At various points, growing up, there were people who recognised creativity within me, and who really supported it — without those people, I absolutely could not have done it. The first really important person for me was my English teacher in 11th grade.

How did they help you? How did they foster your creativity?

In high school, I was always in the “smart kids” classes — the super-duper advanced classes. I was in this class that was so “advanced” that we didn’t have desks at all: we all sat on couches, the class was called Independent Study, and all the kids in there were the kids who scored really highly on the tests. The culture of the class — from the students and the teachers — put a huge focus on grades, and on doing well on tests. Being an immigrant kid, and a perfectionist, I just wanted to please whoever was in charge. My entire identity, throughout my whole childhood, was being a great student.

At some point though, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I realised that I needed to opt out of that program. I made the decision to leave the most advanced class and go one step down, so that I could study with this teacher— Mr. Dorman. He was already my cross-country running coach at that point, and I knew he was a person who cared about creativity.

Opting out of the program was such a big moment for me — a moment of going against the tide. But it really ended up being the best decision I’d ever made up to that point. This teacher had us keep journals, he taught us how to write from our hearts. He was the person who first showed me what The New Yorker was; he recognised something in me as a writer, I think, and really encouraged me to keep writing. That was the moment for me when I realised I didn’t actually want to be a doctor, I wanted to be a writer — and from then on, I pursued that instead.

Opting out of that advanced program, and, to some extent, of your “great student” identity — that must have been scary. To lose such a big part of who you were…

It was terrifying! But — and this sounds so melodramatic — studying with Mr. Dorman was the first time I ever felt like I was doing what was making me happy, rather than just what I thought I should be doing. The pull of creativity can be really scary, especially when there are all these other forces pushing in the opposite direction, but the most important and powerful thing you can do is listen to that pull.

That scariness is still there, but it’s changed form throughout my life. These days, maybe it’s making a choice that’s less smart financially, or won’t look as good on my resumé. In a way, that choice I made in eleventh grade was the beginning of my honing an ability to listen to myself, which is maybe the most important part of being a creative person. Being creative is about being able to listen yourself and follow your own vision, when everything in the whole wide world is trying to make you do otherwise.

You’ve had a lot of mentors along the way — often people you’ve actively sought out.

For me, it really started with that teacher. And then when I got to college, the first thing I did was find people to apprentice myself to. I did the same thing as a cook, and I’ve done it as a writer too. To me, it’s all about the people you surround yourself with — I feel like I’ve learned that lesson over and over in my career. Nowadays, that manifests in who I choose to collaborate with — I want to be around the most interesting, most creative people. The people who can complement what I know and what I have with things I don’t know and don’t have. It’s about pushing each other, raising each other up.

Whenever I’m talking to groups of young people, I always suggest they go find somebody to help them. It’s so immensely gratifying, for the mentee, but also for the mentor — it’s not a one-way thing at all. A good mentoring relationship is good for both parties.

And now, of course, you’re a mentor to others. How has that had an impact on your life?

Yeah, when I was running restaurants, there were a lot of people I was responsible for. I was still very young at that point — mid-twenties — and it was really hard: to be a woman in charge of mostly men, some of whom were older than me. I didn’t always succeed in being the best leader that I could be, but I learned by trial and error, and eventually came to have a few people whom I’ve mentored, and I continue to help them along their way. I take it really seriously when people come to me for advice — I feel like I have to pay all the help I got forward.

I had a young cook who worked for me back at Eccolo — he had some low-grade mental health issues. When he started working for us, aged sixteen, he really struggled to do even the most basic tasks. I almost fired him every single day, but we decided to really stick with him, and eventually, we learned about his mental health problems, and helped him get to the doctor and get medicine.

And from there, he really surprised us — he turned into a totally different person. Two or three years in, he came to us and said “I’ve applied for a program in Italy — I hope you aren’t mad at me.” We were just so happy: this person who, a few years ago, could never get to work on time had all of a sudden found the motivation to apply for a study-abroad program in Italy — to make a life for himself.

It was this incredible lesson for us in how you never really know how you’re affecting someone, how you’re supporting them. Just being there for someone can be so much more powerful than I could have ever imagined. And he’s continued to work in restaurants, and has blossomed as a cook. It’s incredible to watch.

Whether it was the advanced program you were in at school, or the restaurants you’ve worked in, it seems like pressure is something you’ve thrived upon in your life.

Like I said, as a child, I really defined my value, and my identity, by how good of a student I was. And that very quickly, I think, translated into my cooking career. Restaurant work is really hard, and you’re very much defined by your toughness: that you never take a sick day, or that you work really long shifts, or that you keep working if you burn yourself. I think that really appealed to the sensibility I already had — it was a way of life that I already knew. I got really swept up in it — all through my twenties, and into my thirties, that was how I worked.

Physically, I can’t work like that anymore, but I also wouldn’t want to. It just doesn’t make me happy. I’m working really hard now to change how I value myself, so that it’s not dependent on how hard I work. I’m just learning how to take care of myself.

A big lesson that I’ve learned over the past few years, as I’ve transitioned more into writing, is how important it is to nourish the creative part of yourself. To fill the well. Sometimes that’s really hard for me to do — for over ten years of my life, a full day of work meant working myself to the bone, until I was bone-tired. Now, a full day of writing might be ninety minutes long — the rest of the day is spent taking a nap. It’s really hard not to feel like I’m being lazy.

How have you overcome that sense that you’re being lazy?

I don’t know that I have overcome it. I know a lot of brilliant writers and artists, who are all enormously productive and successful, and the ways they work are all so different. Very few people can just get to their office and work from 7am until 7pm — it’s not normal. There’s no one best way to be creative.

You’ve written about “the value of amateurism.” When you have so much experience in cooking, how do you find that place of amateurism again?

I think, with food, the world works in a way that ensures you’re always an amateur. Most vegetables are only in season for three months of the year, so when, for example, asparagus comes into season, I’ll pick up that first asparagus and it’ll have been nine months since I last held asparagus in my hands. I’ll have had time to forget what it tastes like, and what my favourite ways to prepare it are. The world is constantly teaching me that I don’t know everything, and it’s then my responsibility as a cook to develop a relationship with that ingredient again.

Of course, over the years, things build up — I remember all of the basic things about asparagus, but it’s the little things, that you become so familiar with, that you forget each year, and that’s where the beauty of that relationship lies.

The other thing is that the minute you get cocky in the kitchen, things go wrong. The minute you think you know how to cook in a wood-fired oven and don’t need to pay attention is the minute the log falls off and rolls onto your pizza. Cooking requires this attention of you that never lets you own it. You’re never better than cooking.

When I first started cooking, every chef told me that I wouldn’t know anything about cooking until I’d been doing it for 10 years. There was just too much to know. And it was true. I believe so much in the value of hard work, of practice, and of working to achieve mastery. Really, working to achieve mastery isn’t actually that different to amateurism: the nature of both is that you haven’t yet mastered it. That you’re not there yet. And I’m definitely not there yet — still, when I’m cooking for myself, the phone will ring in the other room and I’ll ruin whatever I’m making. Cooking has this great way of constantly putting me in my place.

To what extent does faith, religion, spirituality — a sense of mystery or wonder, maybe — play a role in your life?

For me, the highest power is nature. And I don’t see that as any different to a god. I’m not religious, but I don’t think there’s a way that someone can be aware of the natural world and not be in total awe of it. There’s no way to improve upon nature, so my job, as a cook, is to try to deliver the most unadulterated and delicious form of the natural world. If I find a farmer who’s grown the most perfect tomato, then there’s very little I need to do — or can do — to make it any better. Yeah, I would say that my god is nature — my everything is nature.

In his poem Ostinato Rigore, Jack Gilbert writes about making heaven for oneself — composing your life to be one that fulfils you wholly. How do you create heaven in your everyday life?

I think it’s about engaging the senses. That’s something my cooking really focuses on: using your senses to become a better cook. Cooking really does engage all of your senses — at least, good cooking does — but for the most part, I feel like I’ve spent the last fifteen years honing, above all, my senses of taste and smell. I love being around people who are really good at what they do, and who, through that, have honed a different sense to the ones that I have.

My friend Sarah Ryhanen is an amazing florist, so she’s developed an incredible aesthetic sense — she sees the world in a really beautiful way. She’s also developed a great sense of smell, which also informs what she does.

I’m working on a podcast with this incredible radio producer, and she showed me how she edits radio. And what she does is so crazy — she’ll have the host record a statement, like, twenty times, and then she doesn’t just choose the best take, she picks the best time each word is said, and the best pause in between each word. The level of sensitivity in hearing that that requires is amazing. I was blown away watching her, because it seemed almost intuitive to her. It hit me that people must think the same about me when I’m cooking. And it’s not intuitive, it’s just that I’ve honed a different sense to the one she’s honed.

When I get to be around people who see the world, or hear the world, or smell the world in this incredible, beautiful way, that’s deeply, deeply inspiring and nourishing to me.

You almost always start your recipes with a story — something personal that puts the food into context. Story seems to be so central to your approach towards food.

Absolutely. To me, the two greatest loves of my life are food, and stories. As a teacher, I think stories are maybe my most powerful tool in helping people learn — in bringing them to a place they might otherwise have felt intimidated to go. They might think something’s too boring, or too scientific, or too technical, but if I can tell them a story about how I learned that task, and how I messed it up a hundred times, it humanises it — it gives people something to hold onto.

As much as I’m a cook, my work has never been about the food. It’s always been about the land from which the food came, or the way the food affects people sitting around the table. Food, for me, is a way to get to the stories.

My friend got picked up from the airport in New York a while back by this cab driver — an old Italian guy, who said he was just driving cabs to have some sort of social life. It was raining as he was driving my friend into the city, and he started telling this story about how, in his village in Italy, when it was raining, you could never find anyone — nobody was home, the whole village looked deserted. And, he said, that was because when it rained, everybody — the whole village — went into the forest to hunt for snails.

It was this deeply transportational story that took my friend totally by surprise — and through it, she was able to travel to Italy back in time with this cab driver. I think stories are a deep, human part of our culture — we eat, we sit around the table, we tell stories. Those are fundamental parts of our identities as humans.

To what extent, do you think, can food be a force for good in the world?

There’s this incredible project in Pittsburgh called Conflict Kitchen — they have this space that, every few months, they close down and re-open as a new restaurant, serving the food of a country that the US is in conflict with. Right now, it’s Iranian food, and in the past they’ve had Cuban food, Palestinian food, North Korean food. It’s this beautiful and delicious way of teaching people without proselytising — they’re not lecturing people, they’re just getting to them in the most direct, most fundamental way, which is through something that tastes great.

I’ve ended up as a cook through a series of serendipitous events, but I think that no matter what I would have ended up doing, I would have ultimately made it about bringing people together — about fostering community, fostering good will. Cooking is a very straightforward way of doing that, because eating is such a social act. People, by their very nature, want to come together around the table and eat. People are hungry for an excuse to come together and eat — to come together and do anything, really.

There’s a quote from E.B. White: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” What do you feel more compelled to do: change the world or enjoy it?

It’s so hard, and I don’t think I have a straightforward answer. There are times, especially when the seasons are changing, and the new vegetables are coming into season, that I just feel there could not be anything more perfect than nature. There are times when I’m so moved by the world, just as it is, that I feel the most important thing I could do is to just appreciate it.

On a daily basis though, I see so much wrong with the world. Right now, in the Bay Area where I live, there’s so much change, so much gentrification, so much poverty. There’s such an insane split between the most wealthy and the least wealthy that’s just heartbreaking to see. And I see it every day. I’m not able to control my heart, and I’m always re-evaluating the importance of what I do, and wondering how I could make a difference for those people. How can I make what I do important? How can it have value in the face of so much human suffering? It’s really hard.

But you can’t wake up and take on the whole world every day — you have to make it about the small things you can do. If I can make a small improvement in people’s lives — perhaps that’s encouraging them to cook with their families, or making them feel like they’re a part of something — then I’ll feel I’ve done something good.

And really, it’s impossible to know how much good you’re creating in the world. Say I inspire someone to cook for themselves, and then they invite their friend over for some food. That friend notices their yard, says that they’re a landscape designer, and offers to help create a beautiful vegetable garden, and a place for them to relax. There’s no way of knowing how one small thing can have a positive impact down the chain. I guess that’s the only thing I can hope for — that by putting goodness out there, I am making more goodness. That the goodness is cumulative.

Interview date: March 9th, 2016
Images: Aya Brackett, The British Library

Samin Nosrat

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