Every highfalutin foodie docuseries has a few sequences that feel almost obligatory. The trip to the best Parmesan factory in all of Italy, followed by the shot of a knife breaking off a shard of unimaginably beautiful cheese. The stroll through a Japanese fish market, musing about and ogling various silvery bodies stretched out over heaps of ice. The snap of ripe fruit being pulled directly from a tree branch. It’s a familiar language for anyone who watches lots of these shows: Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious, Cooked, the legacy of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. They play with a set of tropes that’ve coalesced into a recognizable genre, and Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat hits all of the same buttons. The slo-mo footage of salt streaming into a boiling pot of water, the expression of ecstasy as host and creator Samin Nosrat takes a bite. They are beautiful images, even if they’re now routine.
But Salt Fat Acid Heat doesn’t just deploy those familiar images as a box-ticking exercise to produce pleasant TV. It is a celebration of Nosrat’s food ethos, while also being the kindest, gentlest, most warm and welcoming rebuff to food-porn exclusivity. So many of those other series are set in restaurants, or feature the glorification of exotic ingredients, or wax rhapsodic about un-replicable techniques for the home cook. So many of them throw tidbits of fact at the viewer without connecting the fact to a broader explanation, or using an individual recipe as an entrance into deeper knowledge. So many of the experts, not coincidentally, are men. When Nosrat shakes her handful of salt over a pot of boiling water and shares the experience with other people, nearly all of them women, it’s not just a rehashing of every food series you’ve seen before. It is an alternate vision of what’s possible in food culture.
Like Nosrat’s cookbook of the same name, the docuseries divides its four parts into four areas of cooking that provide the foundation for how to make delicious food. It begins with “Fat,” an installment that takes Nosrat to Italy to explore cheese and olive oil, the role of eggs in making pasta, and the way fat in meat creates flavor. “Salt” is a trip to Japan, where Nosrat fishes seaweed out of ocean beds and marvels as factory workers extract their salts to become seasonings. “Acid” takes her to Mexico, where she explores ingredients like the sour orange and extracts lemony honey from rare, stingless bees. In “Heat” she goes back to home territory in Berkeley, California — where she worked at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse for four years before apprenticing with Benedetta Vitali in Florence and then returning to Berkeley where, among other things, she taught Michael Pollan to cook — and watches one of her mentors sear steaks over a roaring fire in Chez Panisse. There’s no shortage of travel food voyeurism, in other words: Nosrat does not shy away from discussing ingredients no American home cook could readily access (like melipona honey from stingless bees in Mexico, or brick-red miso paste that’s been aged in a clay pot for years), nor does she eschew the kinds of food snobbery we use to differentiate the “dinner in 30 minutes or less” crowd from the serious chefs.
That may seem like more box-ticking, but it has a different valence coming from Nosrat. In Ugly Delicious, David Chang ventures to a home in rural China to watch a grandmother cook dumplings, and although he’s absolutely doing so as an act of veneration, there’s still a palpable space between Chang and that grandmother. Here’s how she does it, he says, and now let’s watch how it’s done in a professional kitchen. He always puts his own “spin” on it, because otherwise what is he adding to the culinary world? What’s his legacy? The implication is not buried very deeply: Chang, his genius, and his role his food culture are always at the center. And try though he might, there’s a gendered dynamic to his suggestion that while grannies make “real” dumplings, his are the bad-boy-ified, “elevated” version.
Nosrat also puts her own “spin” on every dish she makes in Salt Fat Acid Heat. This is no surprise: The recipes are hers, the aesthetic and the emphasis and the joy are hers. But her ego is less central, and subordinated to something she cares about far more than her own legacy: your ability to cook well in your own home. That’s not to say that the series is a step-by-step how-to; anyone trying to follow along with her buttermilk chicken as she makes it in “Heat” will be immediately flummoxed. From the point of view of pure pedagogy, you’re much better off using the series in combination with Nosrat’s book, where you’ll find all the measurements and gorgeously illustrated sequential directions your heart desires.
What makes Salt Fat Acid Heat feel so gently revelatory is its nonchalant, cheerful integration of its highbrow visual flourishes and remote global flavors with quotidian rules of thumb for everyday cooks. You don’t come away from her buttermilk chicken sequence with any measurement for how much buttermilk to use (and indeed, she happily glugs buttermilk into plastic bags direct from the carton, no liquid measures anywhere in sight). But you do get a very snappy, thorough explanation for why the back of your oven is always the hottest spot, and how you should use that information when you’re cooking anything at all.
It’s never as explicit or clunky as “And now that we’ve seen this technique in the Yucatán, here’s how to bring those flavors to your own home!” It’s more basic, and more encouraging than that. It’s, “Here’s why funky flavors like yogurt and lime are useful tools.” Or “Here’s what happens if you roast too many vegetables in the same pan.” Or “Here’s the difference between two commonly available brands of grocery store salt, and here’s why that information is worth knowing.” Nosrat, whose Chez Panisse roots are mentioned more than once, is as pedigreed and well-traveled and the snobbiest TV chef around. But her message is less David Chang (or Massimo Bottura, or Juan from Documentary Now’s food-TV spoof episode “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken”), and more a Julia Child throwback. Be informed! Cook well! But also, don’t stress. Use a pot from TJ Maxx. Enjoy yourself.
Speaking of which, a word on the ingredient in Salt Fat Acid Heat that I found most delicious, and most impressive: Samin Nosrat’s laughter. Lots of TV chefs laugh. Bourdain laughed regularly, often most sincerely when he was surprised by something he loved. Chang laughs a lot too, typically when being served food by someone else or watching someone else execute something in a way he loves. Nosrat laughs at all of those moments, and also, fantastically, while she herself cooks. She is breathless with appreciation in the kitchen: In one moment, Parmesan actually brings her to tears. But in this series, Nosrat’s default emotion is almost always somewhere between respectfulness and a burbling, delighted laughter.
Among the cohort of food shows featuring oh-so-masculine bravado, airless exclusivity, and the suggestion of auteurist brilliance, there’s nothing so happily and revolutionary as Nosrat, standing together with another woman — whether it’s a friend, a teacher, or a mentor — laughing and cooking together. It is a stake in the ground. Not just a “we belong here” flag, but a reminder that women have always been in the kitchen, laughing and cooking. And the food they make is amazing.