Samin Nosrat probably doesn’t remember meeting me, but I remember meeting her. She was the main speaker at a fundraiser for a creative writing program, and the truth is, I was a little itchy about it. She seemed nice. She was gracious. I was sure, given her credentials (Chez Panisse doesn’t export a lot of slouches), that she was a very good chef. What she wasn’t, and it stood out prominently given the venue, was significantly creative. At least, not with words. Not everyone is! And not everyone needs to be. It’s just that when you’re speaking to a room full of writers about writing, and how cooking relates to the craft of poetry or storytelling (and it does), it helps if you have a little poetry in you. Nosrat firmly convinced me not to buy her book that night.
That book, Salt Fat Acid Heat, has now been made into a four-part Netflix series, proving that just because Alex Gibney executive produces something does not mean a vital new voice is finally being heard. I sincerely dislike slamming anyone who’s successfully mastered a skill, and like I said, I have no doubt Nosrat’s great in the kitchen. But this show, like the book it’s based on and despite torrents of salt, lemon juice and pork fat, manages to be oddly unseasoned.
It is, I think, intended to be the “instructional” type of cooking show pioneered by people like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin: “You, too, can make a soufflé. Here’s how!” But you never see a recipe assembled end-to-end. Apparently, these days, no one can avoid the travel trope and simply do a cooking show, so we get to go to Very Iconic Destinations for each element. Salt? They make roughly 97,000 totally unique kinds in Japan. Fat? Welcome to the rolling hills of Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, where olives and heirloom pigs and ancient extra-special cattle run the show. Local experts are inserted with no particular context (someone really good at making sofrito is making softrito, but I’d have to Google it to tell you who she is, and I’m not even the total food-novice the show purportedly seeks to persuade).
Individual moments are beautifully shot, or instructive, or both. The “Fat” segment has some legitimately amazing footage of a norcino, a super old school pork butcher, breaking down a pig for salumi. “Heat” actually hits the mark reasonably well on teaching stuff you’ll take with you at the end of the hour. But overall? This is a clearly nice woman and a genuine enthusiast (and doubtless a very accomplished chef) who is essentially devoid of poetry—and without a little of that, a chef’s never going to truly stick the landing, no matter how well-versed they are in the ways of butter or lime juice.
If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I’d direct you to Chef’s Table or early Anthony Bourdain programs. Look, if you want to make a cooking show and specifically not a travel show, make sure you are not constantly upstaged by your locations. (Every single one of them has more screen charisma than Nosrat herself.) If you want to really dig in on how it all comes down to understanding salt, make us truly understand salt! (In fact, make it the first episode, not the second.) Salt is a fascinating substance (Mark Kurlansky got a whole book out of it) with bizarre and amazing properties. It’s cool to see people collecting it from Japanese seaweed, sure, and it’s also intriguing to note that soy sauce-making is actually a dying craft in Japan because corner-cutting industrial methods have destroyed the market for the special barrels it has historically used. In fact, not a single artisan is unworthy of a spotlight and not a single location fails to be telegenic and relevant. The problem? Well, the problem’s actually a funny one, considering the show’s objective. The ingredients don’t really come together. The premise: There are four things you have to understand in order to cook well, and they are basic, simple things, accessible to anyone. Here, folks, is an episode on each, which will embolden you to see yourself as a cook even if you were not trained in France and put through the meat grinder, so to speak, at Chez Panisse. Good? Good.
Except the revelation factor here is near zero. (So, you need to balance flavor elements?), the travel-porn destinations really, really well-trodden. (How many times have you seen a chef go to picturesque locations in Italy, or Japan, or Mexico?) Plus, each locale’s focus is a particularly exotic ingredient a huge percentage of Americans won’t have access to. (Even the chef-host seems never to have seen the indigenous lemons and limes of the Yucatan). And while said host is competent, I’m not sure “competent” is a valid qualification in this genre any more. If Samin Nosrat were really reinventing the instructional cooking show, doubling down on Julia Child (or even Ina Garten with something on her feet) and each hour was devoted to taking on a dinner spread that exemplified one of these key elements (or integrating them from different angles), we might have something unique. As it is, we have kind of a collage of the approaches of many food TV folk of the recent and less-recent past (the influences of everyone from Child and Bourdain to Alton Brown and Michael Pollan are vividly in evidence) and a host who doesn’t have intense charisma, extreme genius or pure curiosity in her corner. Nosrat is competent. Very, very competent.
I’m not saying Sat Fat Acid Heat isn’t worth your time. It might be. But sometimes a program, like a dish, has all the elements you can quantify and there is still something that eludes you, some flash of unexpected revelation that takes it from good to great.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.