SAMIN NOSRAT is a writer, teacher, and chef. Called “a go-to resource for matching the correct techniques with the best ingredients” by The New York Times, and “the next Julia Child” by NPR’s All Things Considered, she’s been cooking professionally since 2000, when she first stumbled into the kitchen at Chez Panisse. Samin is one of five food columnists for The New York Times Magazine. She lives, cooks, surfs, and gardens in Berkeley, California. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
Paul Stamets’ Host Defense MyCommunity mushroom complex is the most incredible immunity supplement I have ever taken (and I have taken a lot of them!). No matter how much I travel, how many hands I shake, or how exhausted I am, I don’t get sick as long as I take the supplement diligently.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I have had so many spectacular failures, but looking back, I can see how each of them led me a little closer to doing what I actually wanted to do. Years before I was ready to write a book of my own, I bungled two opportunities to co-write cookbooks with other people. These mistakes haunted me, and I was sure I’d never get to write another book. But I waited, and I persisted, and after 17 years I wrote the book I’d always dreamt of.
In 2002 I was a finalist for a Fulbright grant, but didn’t receive it and felt like I’d never get to study traditional foodmaking methods in Italy. Instead, I found my way back to Italy and cooked and worked there for a year and a half, and now, 15 years later, I’m working on a documentary that will take me there to study traditional foodmaking methods!
I worked at, and eventually ran, a restaurant that was failing financially for its entire five-year existence. It was grueling, especially because I cared about it as if it were my own. I knew chances of our success were slim about three years in, and was ready to leave then, but the owner, who was also my mentor, just wasn’t ready to give up. So we dragged things out for two long years beyond that, and it was really challenging. Unbearable at times, even. By the time things were done, I was exhausted and depressed and just really, really unhappy. We all were. But it didn’t have to be that way.
That experience taught me to take agency in my own professional narratives, and that endings don’t have to be failures, especially when you choose to end a project or shut down a business. Shortly after the restaurant closed, I started a food market as a small side project, and it ended up being wildly successful. I had more press and customers than I could handle. I had investors clamoring to get in on the action. But all I wanted to do was write. I didn’t want to run a food market, and since my name was all over it, I didn’t want to hand it off to anyone else, either. So I chose to close the market on my own terms, and I made sure that everyone knew it. It was such a positive contrast to the harsh experience of closing the restaurant. I’ve learned to envision the ideal end to any project before I begin it now—even the best gigs don’t last forever. Nor should they.
On a much, much smaller scale, while cooking, I have ruined more dishes than I can recall. But the wonderful thing about cooking is that it’s a pretty quick process, really, and it doesn’t allow for much time to get attached to the results. So whether a dish stinks or turns out beautifully, you have to start over from scratch again the next day. You don’t get a chance to sit around and wallow (or toot your own horn). The important thing is to learn from each failure and try not to repeat it.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
Ten years ago, while running a restaurant, I made the time to audit a class at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley with Michael Pollan. It seemed crazy at the time to leave the restaurant for three hours once a week to go sit in a classroom, to get home after 15-hour days and read the books and articles on the syllabus. But some little voice inside me told me I had to find a way to do it, and I am so glad that I did. That class changed my life—it brought me into an incredible community of writers, journalists, and documentarians who have inspired and supported me along this crazy path. I got to know Michael, who encouraged me to write. He also hired me to teach him how to cook, and over the course of those lessons he encouraged me to formalize my unique cooking philosophy into a proper curriculum, go out into the world and teach it, and turn it into a book. That became Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is now a New York Times bestseller and is on its way to becoming a documentary series. Total insanity.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
American cheese. I don’t eat it often, but I find the way it melts on a burger to be entirely irresistible.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I have to be on a lot of the time, whether to be able to think and write clearly, or to be out in the world teaching and talking about cooking. Both parts of my job require extraordinary amounts of energy.
Over the last five years, I’ve started to become more attuned to the various ways I need to take care of myself. And at the top of that list is sleep. I need eight to nine hours of sleep to function properly, and I’ve started guarding my sleep time mercilessly. I spend a lot more quiet nights at home, and when I do go out to dinner, I’ll insist on an early-bird reservation or cut out early. I’ve even been known to go to bed while my guests are still partying. They’re happy, I’m happy, it’s all good. My obsession with sleep has improved my life immeasurably.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
When in doubt, let kindness and compassion guide you. And don’t be afraid to fail.
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
Truth be told, I’m still working on getting better at saying no. But I will say this: the more clear I am about what my goals are, the more easily I can say no. I have a notebook into which I’ve recorded all sorts of goals, both big and small, over the last ten or so years. When I take the time to articulate what it is that I hope to achieve, it’s simple to refer to the list and see whether saying yes to an opportunity will take me toward or away from achieving that goal. It’s when I’m fuzzy about where I’m headed that I start to say yes to things willy-nilly. And I’ve been burned enough times by FOMO-based and ego-based decision-making to know that I’ll always regret choosing to do something for the wrong reason.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I try to get out of my head and into my body. On writing days, this usually amounts to getting up and going for a walk around Downtown Oakland. Sometimes I throw in the towel completely and go for a swim. Other times, I decide to go to the farmers’ market to look at, touch, smell, and taste the produce and let my senses guide me in the decision of what to cook for dinner.
When I’m cooking or doing other physical work and I get overwhelmed, it’s usually because I’m not taking care of myself, so I’ll take a break. I’ll make a snack or a cup of tea. Or I’ll just drink a glass of water and sit down outside for a few minutes. It’s usually enough to get me calm and clear.
But the thing that will always get me unstuck is jumping into the ocean. It’s been that way ever since I was a kid. I’ve always loved the ocean, and now, whenever I can, I’ll go to the beach to swim or surf or just float. Nothing else resets me like the ocean.