My friend said to me, 'Every time I see a success, I know that there's implicit sacrifice.'
Samin Nosrat is teaching us to be better cooks, sure. But she’s also inspiring us to be better people. The food writer and TV host’s warmth, laughter, honesty, and, my God, her hugs are what these bonkers times need. She is a bright new role model for dark times.
The last time I’d sat down with her, her book, Salt Fat Acid Heat, was a year from publication. We were shooting at her friend Sarah Ryhanan’s—then of Saipua—magical farm upstate for Bon Appétit. Samin and another cook had bought 100 cinder blocks and built a formidable outdoor grilling kitchen (I particularly loved the chickens strung from a garden trellis straddling the flames), and we talked about the long road to publication—SFAH took about 17 years to come to fruition. Now, thanks to her fantastic cookbook, her Netflix show, and her column for the New York Times Magazine, Samin is famous in the way that I seat her facing a wall when we dine outside at Nyum Bai, a fantastic Cambodian restaurant in Oakland, California, not far from where she lives. Yet people are still drawn to her, perhaps hearing her laughter, or sensing her—how to describe it?—loving presence.
With her now-trademark openness and self-doubt (she’s working on it), she talked about getting it together and, on the flip side, learning how to say no.
X: What gave you the courage and the conviction to see your book through? How many years was it?
Samin Nosrat: Well, it took me two years to write the proposal, and then it took me three years to write it, so five years. I’m really bad at giving up, is one thing. Also probably fear of being embarrassed, frankly. But also, I really believed in this idea. From nobody at no point in time did I ever get the message that anything about the idea was wrong. I knew that the idea could help people, and so that was a big part of it, I think.
Did you have your team of cheerleaders?
I work in an amazing office of writers.
How does that work?
It’s just a funny office building in Oakland that is completely nondescript and there’s maybe twentysomething of us. There’s book writers, there’s science writers, there’s a bunch of Times and NPR people. There’s a few novelists and poets. We’re all different. So no one’s ever stepping on anyone’s toes. But before I had an agent, I would ask people, how do you get an agent? How do I know who’s the right agent? No one’s ever watching over your shoulder. Half the time they walk by and I’m online shopping. But there’s a way, too, where they notice if you’re not there for too many days.
Having a place to go to and being part of a writing community definitely was a big part of it, which was funny, because I struggled a lot. First, I was like, I need a magical writing residency! So I went to MacDowell, which was great—I basically wrote a whole draft of the book there. And then I got a residency at the Headlands for a year, and I had this studio that overlooked the ocean, but getting there, sometimes it was 45 minutes to an hour. I did get a lot of amazing work done, but I think I had to just realize, oh, I don’t need a magical, perfect, in-the-nature thing. I just need to go to work and do my job.
I interviewed Stella Bugbee recently. She said—and I think it was her husband who originally said this—you don’t succeed unless people want you to. Unless you have a network and a community.
Totally. For me, I learned that very early with Chez Panisse, with cooking. I was still an intern in 2001, and that was the year I graduated college. I skipped my graduation because I was so into all the stuff I was learning. I interned instead. At the end of that summer, it was the 30th birthday of Chez Panisse, and the celebration was this huge dinner for 500 people on the UC Berkeley campus, and we were roasting these lambs right in front of the English department building. In my mind, I was like, this is my graduation! But also, that was the first time before my very eyes I understood: over a hundred cooks came back to Chez Panisse from around the world. Martha Stewart was there… It was Steven Spielberg. It was poets. To understand that Alice [Waters] had created this thing that was about so much more than just cooks, that she is part of this incredible creative, artistic world of amazing achievers. I very clearly remember thinking, If I work hard enough, one day I’ll be able to break into a circle like this. And have a circle like this.
So by 2006, when I took a class with Michael [Pollan] at the journalism school, I understood the power of community in the food world. But I didn’t know anything about writing or anyone who knew about writing, so not only did I get to meet Michael, but there were 12 of us, and that was the seed of my writing community. And a few other people who weren’t in the class but who were part of that little group of J-school students, that’s how I got into the office where I work, that’s how I got to know all the people at Pop-Up Magazine and California Sunday, who are a big part of my writing world. And so I already had the hunger for that taste, because I had tasted it in the food world, and now I was like, oh, I want to make this for myself.
Are you mentoring?
I definitely have had a couple baby cooks under my wing. In terms of writing, you know the lovely Kevin West. I was telling him recently how I love my editor Claire Gutierrez at the [Times] magazine so much. I feel very cared for and protected by her. But then…every once in a while, either Jessica Lustig, who’s the top editor, or Jake [Silverstein, editor], I’ll get a little one-line email from them that’s like, “That was a really good one,” or “That one made me smile,” or whatever. I will float on it for three weeks! From one line of praise from somebody who I’ve no relationship to. I was telling Kevin that, and he was like, yeah, you’re that for other people now. And I said, You know, I kind of understand that in some ways. Part of it is believing in yourself enough to think of it like anybody cares what you think. I have to remember, people care what I think. It does matter. And supporting people is important.
Kevin was like, you need to get yourself a stack of correspondence cards and send a card once a week to a young writer whose article you like. I haven’t done that yet, but in the meantime, I’m doing emails and stuff. Anytime I read something good, I make sure to tell them. And it’s such a different time now. There are so many people saying stuff. I love Priya Krishna. She wrote this piece about growing up in Dallas, going to Neiman Marcus café birthday parties as a brown girl and not fitting in. Because of how my mom wanted to send me to the better school in the next suburb over, I went to school with a lot of rich kids, and I was not rich or white, so there was a lot of me feeling very confused about what a cotillion is or all those kinds of things that are basic wealthy white people rites of passage. So just the fact that all these different people are out there now, it’s really exciting. I’m like, oh, I’m not the only weirdo. I’m not the only outsider!
And then you make their year. What’s been the biggest source of support for you?
I hang out with a lot of families and kids, and kids are so awesome. They only care about what’s right in front of them, and force me to get out of my head. Being around families has been really wonderful. There’s a little triangle of us that I can walk to for dinner or whatever. I have a lot of good friends. That’s been a big part of it. One of my brothers lives up here, and it’s nice because you can ask your brother stuff you can’t even ask your best friend. I’m like, can you come move my car?
What is it like now that everyone wants to be your friend?
I go to therapy every week and that’s a huge, huge source. I would say sitting together with friends at the dinner table. Do you know Greta Caruso? She’s just a magical human. She moved back to New York maybe a year and a half ago, and I think once she moved into her place, she was eating out a lot, and then finally she was like, I’m just going to commit to cooking dinner every Sunday and have a standing invitation for people. And it’s this thing where it’s so special. She doesn’t make anything too fancy; it’s not about what the food is at all, but she definitely knows how to set a beautiful table. And I think because she has this wonderful group of friends, there’s no rule you have to put your cellphone down, but people mostly do. They don’t even ever talk about work. You’re just talking about the world. Every time I go to New York, I just add a day to the trip to make sure that I’m there on a Sunday.
When I host, I take it as the highest praise if no one posts.
It’s so private and wonderful and you’re just there. Greta was telling me about a book called The Sabbath. She said, You should read that, because I think there’s a lot in that about what Shabbat is for people: It is about so much more than religious anything; it’s just time
With all of your work, what’s the first thing that you’re willing to let drop?
One of my friends said something really smart to me. In a lot of ways, our careers have been pretty analogous. I really leaned into the work and she decided to have a family. One time we were having a really frank talk about it and I said, “I’m worried about sometimes sharing my successes with you because I don’t want to make you feel like I’m rubbing them in your face. But then if I don’t share them with you, it’s hard, because I feel like I’m keeping a secret from you and I know that you know I’m not telling you everything. That’s a complicated thing, and I don’t know what to do about it.” And I said, “I get that I sold a big book or whatever, but you also have a lot of things that I wish I had: You live in a home with a dog and a wonderful husband and you have a son, and those are things that I wish that I could have and they haven’t happened for me. I have a lot of sadness about that. I get that in part I get to have this success and I get to be the person who gets on a plane and goes places and goes to Australia and New Zealand and Japan because I don’t have that.” And she put it so beautifully. She was like, “Oh, I don’t resent you at all. Every time I see a success, I know that there’s implicit sacrifice. In every wonderful thing, there’s all the other things that you didn’t get or have or had to say no to.” So that’s part of it I try to remember.
And so that’s one part of it. What am I ready to… balance wise? I definitely could exercise more. I am getting better at protecting my sleep. Usually what I give up is taking care of myself in order to make somebody else happy. I’m trying so hard to be better at that. I’ve learned a few tricks. One thing I’ve realized is having someone else who asks for the thing for you or says no for you is really helpful. One of the things I would like to do is get an assistant or somebody to be just the mini wall between me and the world. I have a friend who has a fake assistant—she actually responds to her emails as her assistant. Which is so smart.
It’s interesting with women, saying no and apologizing for our success.
There’s a plugin for Gmail called I’m Sorry, and it catches when you’re being too apologetic. When you’re like, “Dah dah dah just“—I put a lot of justs in. It underlines the justs. I had it for about a year and then it trained me and I got a little bit better at it. Another thing I do all the time is I’m always like, what would David Chang do? How would a guy write this email?
But the people aren’t going to respond to it the same way they would to a guy.
I guess it depends. WWDD?
Who have been some of your role models?
For sure in a lot of ways I’ve looked to how Alice [Waters] has done things. And some of the things are ways that I do want to do things, and other ways are ways that I don’t. But it’s really nice to have somebody to look to. There are other ones where they’re my dream role model—I just look to them and I’m like, how are you such a goddess of brilliance? Like Michelle Obama. I feel really lucky that I’ve had Michael [Pollan] to look up to. He has shared so much with me. He has been so generous over the years. And also housesitting for him and understanding what the life from the inside has been and what that feels like. I’ve never really allowed myself to dream that I could have those things for myself. It’s not about the things, it’s about the feeling of wholeness and quietness and safety. And now I’m like, oh, maybe I finally can.
What do you want people to learn from you?
Cooking. I hope that you learn and take care of yourself and the people around you, but more than that, I hope that the… how can I say it? I hope there are a few good things that I do and usually, when I hit the wall of my own humanity—my baser instincts of jealousy or greed or whatever—I’ll be like, after going through this, how do I want to look back and see that I acted? I’m learning to take more responsibility and value people as fully as I can, and I hope that that comes through in my work in a way that inspires people. I think that’s maybe the most powerful thing about the show. In terms of technique, the book is way more thorough. But the show, I think because it really captured me—and not necessarily all of me, but definitely a true piece of me—that that seems to really resonate with people. If people are writing to me and saying they want to be my best friend. It’s because of warmth. And I can put that out in the world and hopefully if that’s something that you wish you were close to; maybe you will enact that, too.
What do you think it is about food that makes for such a satisfying career?
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I don’t think it’s the food. And I think in some ways the food world is really frustrating. But I do think food is a really convenient way to communicate with people and to bring people in and to make them feel like they’re part of something and to give them the power to do that for themselves. I’m just looking for those magical communities, those little magical enclaves of people who put people first. Maybe it’s just my job to inspire people to make that for themselves.
What advice do you give people that you never take yourself?
Mine mostly would be “Say no.” Which I still have not done.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Everything in this interview has a theme of saying no. And I think again it’s about learning to say no. I can’t even remember who told me, but before the tidal wave started, I was going around seeking advice. I was like, who can I look to? I’ve always looked to people. I looked to Alice, I looked to Michael, I watched them, but this isn’t exactly like either of them, because in a way, I’m the product.
And Tony’s [Bourdain] not here.
I can’t even imagine. And then at Netflix, nobody there could have promised… they don’t want to give you a promise that something’s going to happen. In my mind I remember having a moment where I was like, I think the people that this will be the closest to is the Queer Eyes. The way that the Queer Eyes went from being nobody to somebody that people are obsessed with. It’s funny because I totally understand people’s imaginary relationships to me, because I have an imaginary relationship to Jonathan Van Ness. We’re total BFFs in my imagination. I’m like, oh, of course we’re friends! So I totally understand the way people feel about me because I feel it. And I have a lot of compassion for it. But at some point I realized I would not be able to keep up with everything that was coming at me and I would just have to say no. I’ve been categorically saying no to everything, which feels good. It was easier just to tell myself I wasn’t going to make any decisions about anything until I could come down off of this wave and look at everything and figure out what I actually want to do, because I just don’t know yet. It’s too soon. I’m still in it. It’s amazing, I feel so grateful. I’m just more tired than I’ve ever been. And probably more unhealthy than I’ve ever been. I would like to exercise and eat some vegetables.
The world needs the warmth and hugs and honesty and humanness that you offer. We don’t have that.
A lot of my friends are like, you should be careful. I know you like to talk and tell people everything. You should be really careful about what you’re talking about to the press. You should decide before you go into this about what you won’t talk about. I was like, here I am, being like, antidepressants, therapy, broken heart, sister died of cancer….but what are people going to use to hurt me? I honestly can hurt myself so much harder.
I’m so grateful for the response, but if anything it shows me that people are really hungry for something, and that this means that I shouldn’t be the only one and it’s my job as soon as possible to lift up some others. Because if they’re this hungry for me, there is so much more out there. I always joke, true diversity isn’t when there’s a black person and a white person and a brown person. True diversity is when there’s as much black and brown and queer mediocrity as there is white mediocrity. It’s like having more total. And there’s room for everyone. And that’s why the things that hurt me the most and make me the angriest are when people are working out of scarcity mindset and saying no and you can’t have this because there’s only enough for this.
There are enough cookies for everybody.