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‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ a joyous, flavorful escape

| Monday, November 5, 2018

Joseph Han

I often watch cooking shows for the same reasons that people watch videos of magicians. I am terrible in the kitchen, but I like to live vicariously through obscenely talented chefs — to marvel at the deft slice of a knife and the confident flourish of a whisk. In shows like “Chef’s Table” on Netflix, I marvel at the fantastical wonders of high-end restaurants around the globe. It’s intoxicating.

Enter a new four-part Netflix documentary, “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” hosted by the award-winning author-turned-TV host Samin Nosrat. Unlike the magical realism of other cooking shows, Nosrat’s show has a uniquely democratic message. “Good cooking is universal. The ingredients may change, but the fundamentals are the same,” she preaches.

Her style, unfussy and approachable, is markedly different from the single-minded perfectionism of some high-brow chefs, despite the fact that Nosrat has an elite culinary background. In the show, her voiceovers are simple and clear, eschewing technical language for precise and beautiful metaphors, reminiscent of her work as a writer.

In each of the show’s forty-minute-long episodes, Nosrat dives into a detailed exploration of what she labels the four essential aspects of good cooking: fat, salt, acid, heat. She begins the series in Italy, shaking olives from trees and crying over slices of aged parmesan, then moves on to exploring miso in Japan and puckering her lips at sour oranges in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Each episode loosely equates a place with a fundamental taste — Italy for fat, Japan for salt and more — but also incorporates many kinds of recipes and examples into the exploration of a theme, building an argument for Nosrat’s universalized system of food.

Like “Chef’s Table,” the camera work in “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is sublime. Yet where other cooking shows tend to speed through a montage of images of incredible dishes in a frenzy, this camera, like Nosrat herself, takes its time. The viewer is invited to linger on beautiful doorknobs, salivate over the sizzle of a steak and gasp at the thin wisps of floury dust rising from a batch of freshly-cut pasta dough.

With her platform, Nosrat also pushes back against the macho ethos of other cooking shows. Many critics, in writing about this show, have noted that nearly all of the experts Nosrat calls upon in the show are women. We also often see Nosrat in a kitchen, with a woman beside her, learning how to prepare a dish — not unlike how many women learn to cook in real life. Nosrat is a classically-trained chef with international pedigree, but she exhibits a profound appreciation for the home kitchen as the traditional center of domestic labor and good food. In a scene in Italy, Nosrat kneads dough and describes the effort of the work. “I can feel it in my haunches,” she describes, and then notes how women over the centuries have developed ways of kneading so as to minimize the intensity of the work, which can be exhausting on one’s body. Preparation of meals is not all glitz and glamour, she implicitly reminds her audience. Food is hard work.

Most cooking shows rely on a spirit of discovery to add a dimension of excitement to the show. A singular personality host, often American, will jetset around the globe, tracking down the mysterious “source” of a particular flavor. Nosrat’s show buys into this trope to a degree, but it also subverts it. She has gathered around her a circle of experts and friends — many of them friends who also happen to be experts — to teach her and learn from her about umami, egg pasta and how to braise beef short ribs. A collaborative spirit pervades the four episodes. It’s no surprise that the end of each episode ends with a meal, where Nosrat sits and eats with her friends, the conversation punctured by her bright smile and infectious laugh. Salt, fat, acid and heat are all there, on the table — but their product, community, seems to be another essential ingredient of her practice, and something which Nosrat inspires in each place she travels.

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