Growing up in the restaurant industry, I’ve learned a thing or two about cooking. I know my way around a busy kitchen. The sights, sounds and smells are baked into my mind like a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet: the sizzle of the sauté pans, the crackle of the grill, the hurried chop of knives on cutting boards, pots clanging, sous chefs cursing — a frenetic symphony moving at a hundred miles an hour.
But, given a choice, I’ll take my quiet kitchen at home every time. Distance from the commercial demands of the industry grants me space to actually enjoy cooking for cooking’s sake. At home, I’m not cooking for profit, I don’t have to take shortcuts for time or cost. In my kitchen, I can take pleasure in the craft itself.
The new Netflix series “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is a cross-cultural celebration of cooking that similarly steps back from the hurriedness of the industry to luxuriate in the the joy of eating great food. Based on the James Beard Award-winning book of the same name by chef Samin Nosrat, the series takes its name from the four basic elements of cooking that make food delicious. Nosrat, who honed her culinary chops under Alice Waters at the famous Berkley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, has built a reputation as a curious and conscientious chef and food writer.
Each of the four gorgeously shot episodes focuses on one of these elements by traveling to a location that best exemplifies them. For salt, Nosrat goes to Japan to learn about sea salt, soy sauce and miso. The fat episode takes her to Italy to talk about olive oil, cheese and pork. Acid brings her to Mexico for a dose of citrus and honey (technically, an acid). Finally, she returns to the U.S. for a study in heat, from grilling to frying to boiling.
“SFAH” isn’t your typical food and travel show. Nosrat bypasses famous local haunts and hip, bucket-list dining experiences altogether. Instead, she traces the food back to its source and the virtuosic artisans who remain connected to the land, keep their hands in the dirt, and maintain time-honored culinary traditions.
In Mexico, Nosrat meets an elderly woman who travels each day to the local mill to grind corn for tortillas, and honey makers who measure their yield by drops not gallons. In Japan, she finds a soy sauce producer who talks to microbes while they ferment, and miso makers who still prepare the salty paste by hand in clay pots. In Italy, we watch a maestro of focaccia gently massage a mound of dough and a loving nonna make pesto with a mortar. Back at home, Nosrat’s mother demonstrates how to prepare tahdig, a traditional Iranian crispy rice dish.
Nosrat’s slow-food mindset is a simple yet radical political statement. In our postmodern world of fast food and mass production, we have become separated from long-held food culture traditions that were once commonplace. Implicit in the show is an unstated, bittersweet admission that such traditions, once widespread and common, are now a mark of the kind of high-end cuisine not generally accessible to all people.
By tracing food back to its sources and stripping cooking down to its basic elements, Nosrat has, with “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” created a simple, accessible and unpretentious celebration of food that never alienates. A large part of that is due to her cheerful, respectful demeanor. Nosrat welcomes viewers to join her at the table. Her exuberance is contagious; her love for cooking is genuine, and rooted in something deep and elemental. She understands the unifying power of food; how the simple act of breaking bread can be a transformative and profound experience. While a three-Michelin-star meal or waiting in line for the latest Instagram-able pastry are also experiences, they’re not the same — they’re superficial and leave our souls hungry in a way that a meal, lovingly prepared and enjoyed with family and friends, never will.