Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Samin Nosrat (@ciaosamin), a chef, who has been called “The next Julia Child” by NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a teacher, and the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, which is a New York Times bestseller, a James Beard Award winner for Best General Cookbook, International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year, and a soon-to-be Netflix original documentary series produced by Jigsaw Productions. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Samin, welcome to the show.
Samin Nosrat: Thanks for having me, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: I know that people are going to say, wait a second, he just mispronounced your name, and I want them to know that I double- and triple-checked it with you beforehand. A lot of people say Samin because that would be English-friendly, but the correct pronunciation of your full name is what?
Samin Nosrat: Samin, yeah. You’ve graduated past the appropriate American pronunciation. You’re going for true Persian right now, so it’s good.
Tim Ferriss: Going for Farsi, you know? I will get there. I will get there. I struggled with deciding where to begin, topically, this conversation, but one thing really jumped out at me and I wanted to begin there since I like to follow my interest, and that that is the manifestation journal. Can you tell me about your manifestation journal?
Samin Nosrat: I’m so happy you’re asking about this. I don’t know where the idea for my manifestation journal came from. I think it may have been a self-help blog in approximately 2008, but it’s just a notebook that I bought at an art supply store. It’s just a sketchbook, and I just decided to start writing down the things that I envision for my life, whether they were really big, and I would ever be too embarrassed to articulate them to anyone or whether they were really little. I sort of knew initially that I should be as specific as possible, and what’s pretty bananas is sometimes I’ll misplace the journal. It’ll slide under my bed and I’ll forget about it for, I don’t know, six months or something, and then I’ll pull it out. I think at one point I lost it for about two years and I’ll pull it out and I’ll look, and I’ll be like, oh, my gosh, word-for-word, so many of these things have happened. There are also many things in there that have not come true yet or maybe I was misguided, and I changed, and goals shifted, but it is really sort of mind-blowing to go back and look at how specific goals come to life when you plant a seed.
You achieve things when you plant a seed and you’re really clear about it, and I’ve always known that and I’ve always really adhered to that, and so it’s just one little practice that I have. At this point, I like to look at it around my birthday and around the New Year. Those are sort of the two times of year that I pretty diligently will check in and write into it, but it’s not a big thing that I do all the time, but it is really incredible, especially as I’ve started to achieve bigger goals in my career, to go back and look at it and say, wow, I wanted always to write for this publication and now I am, or I really specifically wanted a book deal with a certain amount of money and I achieved.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I have so many follow up questions because I’m a nerd when it comes to journaling and notebooks, and it’s something that the comes up a fair amount in this podcast. From the profile in The California Sunday Magazine, this was discussed in a few lines, and when the interviewer in this case flipped through the notebook, which I’m jealous of immediately, it gave a few examples.
“Next to small, candid instructions to herself (Chin hairs under control!) and general life notions (Bay leaf piñata!) [I’m not sure what that is, but that’s okay, we’ll come back to that.], there were goals that I found striking in their precision. Go to Italy. Write and publish at least one story in print. Start writing her first book. Those were dated 2008, and all have come true.”
My question is: do you still use the journal? If so, generally speaking, say from 2008 forward, how frequently do you write in the journal, and then what does the review process look like?
Samin Nosrat: I do still use it. I probably write in it two or three times a year, and I also probably look at it two or three times a year. It’s a treat to look at it. Now it’s become this amazing treat where I get to go back and see, did something happen, did I achieve something, or did some thought or notion that I had at some time come true? It really is. Often, it’s a nice thing to sort of help me refocus where I’m headed. I feel like, with my career in a lot of ways, it’s had a really, what’s the word, I was going to say an amorphous shape. There has not been one super clear goal or one super clear path that I can model my career on. There aren’t a lot of other writer-chef-teachers. Often, people just write about food or just cook, or just teach, and so I have done all those things and more and I’ve always just followed my gut.
That can be really overwhelming because I get really distracted quite easily by shiny objects, or a lot of money, or the opportunity to work with somebody, or make a decision because I’m worried what will happen if I say no. I feel like the clearer I am about what I do want to do, the more easily I can say no, or just make better decisions about where I’m headed, so even just a couple times a year having a little bit of quiet time, and usually, I’ll pick up the thing a couple days before my birthday and start thinking about what I’ve done in the past year, good choices I’ve made, bad choices I’ve made, and it is a nice personal check in. I don’t know, there are a million names for these things. I don’t know why I wrote manifestation journal, but it really is that, also just a journal.
Tim Ferriss: When you look at a page, is it dates and then under that, just a series of bullets for things that you hope to achieve?
Samin Nosrat: Basically, yeah. I mean, if I were a little more organized, there would probably be some sort of method to the madness, but in the beginning, it was just bullets. Do you want me to go grab it?
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Samin Nosrat: I pulled it out the other day. Okay, it’s just here. Let me grab it, then I can read. All right, so it started out as bullets, and the other day, I was reading some of the ones from the very first page for someone. I was saying how, oh, there’s all these things like, I don’t know, publish four books, popular, well-reviewed books that I’m proud of by good, well-known publishing houses, and then, at the very bottom in tiny, tiny writing, so small I could barely admit it to myself, and I certainly can’t believe I’m about to tell you, I wrote, in the tiniest writing, MacArthur Genius Grant. It’s just so embarrassing.
I had a page for long-term goals, I had a page for what I hoped to do that year, ideas. There’s the bay leaf piñata. I wanted to make a piñata that covered, instead of with crepe paper, with bay leaves, so when you hit it with a baseball bat, it smells really good, and we did it for my 30th birthday.
Tim Ferriss: If you’re looking at this journal, picking it up three times a year, let’s say, two or three times a year, is the significance that you are planting a seed in your subconscious? It sounds like you’re not going back and reviewing it in some type of spreadsheet fashion, looking at the progress towards the end goal in each of these cases. You’re visiting it two or three times a year. Is the importance then that you’re planting a seed in your subconscious that will somehow very subtly direct your choices in a different fashion? I know that a number people who have been on this podcast, my friend Josh Waitzkin who is the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer, Reid Hoffman, do quite a bit of intention setting or journaling either right before bed or first thing upon waking up which has that flavor to it, but why do you think this has had an impact in your life if it has had an impact?
Samin Nosrat: I definitely think this lines up with the idea of planting a seed in my subconscious and also helping me remain accountable to myself, and then I also have all manner of other intention setting and goal making and list making. Just at my office above my desk, I have lists. Actually, it’s funny, I had a list of interviews I would to do and yours was on the list, and so I looked at that list every day I went to work and sat at my computer. There’s a list right next to that of maybe projects I would like to do, and then right next to that is a list of collaborators I would to have. There are people on there, wildly. I sort of just stopped being embarrassed at some point about having what seemed wildly unachievable dreams, or I put Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay on that list. Do I know them? Is there any possibility? I don’t know. What do I know? I just put them on there because they’re people I would like to maybe work with whose work I respect. I just had to stop being afraid that someone would come in my office and see that and judge me and be like, what is this?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, of course.
Samin Nosrat: For a while, when I first started writing the book, I wrote, visualize Oprah’s Book Club, and I had that on a Post-it note above my desk for years, and then Oprah’s Book Club ended, and also, I don’t think she puts cookbooks on her book club. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been embarrassed to dream big, and I think the better I have gotten at articulating my dream in words and then really just being mindful of them, and whether it means coming back to them once or twice a year or looking at them every day, I do feel like it makes a difference and it helps me stay on track.
If I look at that list and after a while, some goal or some name or some idea doesn’t feel right anymore, I can cross it off. I don’t know, it’s a nice thing, especially when I’m in the rock bottom part of the creative process where you’re doing the boring stuff, you’re doing the accounting, you’re doing the accounting, you’re doing the terrible writing that’s not coming out easily, it’s nice to look up and be like, oh, yes, I am a creative person who has big ideas and sometimes makes things happen. It’s like a little bit of cheerleading for myself, I guess.
Tim Ferriss: This is really important, so I want to explore it for a moment, and this is going to be very non-chronological. We’re going to bounce all over the place. I do have questions about San Diego, but we’re going to come to that. First, since you said the rock bottom of the creative process, when you are in the rock bottom of the creative process, and almost anyone except for a few mutants here there who just seem to always operate in the proper gear, but for most people with any large or unfamiliar creative project, there’s going to be maybe one rock bottom, maybe many different rock bottom difficult moments. We’re talking about, in some ways, future tense, the things you want to do. When you are in that rock bottom place, do you use anything from the past, things you’ve achieved, or milestones you’ve accomplished, or anything from the present tense to also help buoy your spirits, or is it mostly keeping your eye on the ball that is ahead of you, that future tense that helps you?
Samin Nosrat: I think I need some more therapy and meditation to get to be the kind of person who can feel good about my past accomplishments and let them buoy me, to buoy me forward. I think I sort of achieve the thing and then I forget about it. It’s even hard for me when I receive praise. I get so many emails all the time which are so meaningful in a way. Maybe the most meaningful kinds of feedback that I get is from people who are like, “I read your book and now I cook vegetables for my kids and they eat them, and it tastes good,” and that kind of stuff is really, I think, the most powerful for me, but still, there’s a way where I’m like, oh, somebody else did that, and it’s really hard for me to praise or really fully feel in my body pride and happiness at having achieved these goals I have listed on papers all over the place. I do a lot of work in therapy and meditation and just trying to be better about my body and connecting with my body and feeling that stuff.
Here, up until now, I have not historically used those things to get me through the creative lows. I do have to sort of keep my eye on the prize. I think in therapy and in just my own life, I have had to do a lot of work in reframing what success means and what it looks like so that as I work toward, quote-unquote, success, I’m working towards something that will be positive for me rather than also beat me down. I’m a crazy perfectionist child of immigrants who was raised in a family where nothing was ever good enough, nothing I did was ever perfect. I’m a perfectionist from childhood and then I entered a profession, in particular, began working in an institution which is run by a world-class perfectionist. Nothing that any of us ever did was good enough, which is good because it keeps us pushing all toward doing better, but I haven’t historically had a lot of positive feedback and really allowed myself to feel that, so I’m doing a lot of my own work to sort of be proud at the things that I do, whether they’re perfect, quote-unquote, or just good enough or whatever.
I had a lot of fear before my book was released because it was the biggest project that I have ever worked on. It was the longest dream that I had ever worked toward. I had put everything I had into it and because it took me so long to do, I felt the pressure of a lot of people looking at me and at this book, and people were waiting for it and I knew they were ready to respond in whatever way. I didn’t know what way. I have always worked for external praise and I’m aware of that, and so, I went to therapy and I told my therapist, “I’m really worried that when this book comes out, I am going to sort of sink or swim on the world’s reception of it and I don’t want to do that, so how do I get out of that? How do I exist in a way where, whatever the reception is of this thing, I will still be okay and not break into one million pieces?” He said, “Well, we have to create a definition of success that’s on your terms,” so it took me a lot of months and a lot of thinking, and eventually I came back to him and I said, “You know what? I’ll feel totally successful with this if I know that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to make it as good as I possibly can.” And that means never being lazy and not doing another revision, or never not doing the research, or never not hiring the fact checker, or never not testing the recipe again, or whatever.
Once I know I’ve given everything and turned every stone, then I will be able to respond to any criticism, I’ll be able to accept any praise because I’ll know that I did anything. To me, a big thing about responding to criticism is, if there’s a reason I made a choice and I can speak to that articulately, at least then I’m happy to accept criticism because sometimes it’s just a difference of opinion, but if I felt pressure to do something or I know that I didn’t do my best or whatever, then a lot of times that criticism really sort of gets me in the gut.
I really did that work and I also committed to not reading reviews, and not reading comments and stuff, and so I’ve sort of shielded myself from a lot of stuff, but I have felt generally really safe and strong since the book came out. It’s nice that there is all of the praise or whatever, but I also just feel good about what I’ve done, and I know the ways I could have done it better and I get to go do more work in the world and try and do that better. That’s okay.
Tim Ferriss: How did your therapist help you or how did you put systems in place so that that definition of success would be at the forefront of your mind? I don’t know, of course, because I don’t have telepathy, but I suspect there had to be some point where you saw, maybe it wasn’t a negative review, but they just a lukewarm response or perhaps just some idiot on the internet with a loud voice yelling something or other, and for at least a moment, you were back in your old mindset of looking for external validation and in this case not finding it. Did that happen at all?
Samin Nosrat: Oh, it happens all the time.
Tim Ferriss: How do you take that, I think, very enabling definition of success and kind of bring it onto the front lines with you? Were there any exercises that you did? Was it speaking to the therapist on a weekly basis? This is something I struggle with. I also have historically beaten the hell out of myself for the smallest mistakes and always looked for the things that could be improved rather than the things that we’re done well, so this is also just selfishly something I’d love to pick at you on that.
Samin Nosrat: Tim, I want to give you a hug.
Tim Ferriss: It’s true, it’s true.
Samin Nosrat: I know.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s true.
Samin Nosrat: I mean, I feel you. I don’t know why we’re wired this way, but we are, and it’s its own struggle. I still get those emails. One really clear example that I can think of, here, you know what, this is so epic, I had two separate fact-checkers check my book for cooking science just because I’m not a scientist and I’m sure I got some things wrong, and it turned out I got a bunch of things wrong. Luckily, we caught almost all of them, and in the last-minute sort of shuffle to input all of their changes, I accidentally said something positive when I said I should have used a negative. I inverted the thing, and it ended up being on the very first page of anything science related in the book, Page 29, and it was the most basic definition of osmosis. I accidentally inverted it and gave the opposite definition, which really sets me up to look like an idiot for the next 400 pages.
I didn’t realize that this had happened until the day of publication when the first Amazon reviews went up. Someone very kindly mentioned it in an Amazon review and I lost my mind because 70,000 books had been printed. I was like, 70,000 people are going to get the wrong information and understand osmosis wrong because of me and think I’m stupid. This comes true, my greatest fear, that I’m not a brilliant food science person, which I’m not a brilliant food science person, all of this stuff. That was really hard for me to let go of and be like, well, I made a mistake. It’s a mistake. I tried my best at everything else, there’s going to be many more copies of this book, we’re going to fix it for the future, and so I sort of was able to work through the idea that I had made a mistake, and a mistake is totally different than making a bad choice. I had to forgive myself for making a mistake.
Maybe a year after that, I received this really nasty email from somebody. He was a scientist, and so he took the time to write this really angry email about this mistake. It’s basically like he actualized the things that I had been so afraid of a year before and he made it true. He manifested my worst nightmare. He wrote me this really mean email about, how could this have made it to publication and how lazy was I and my publisher, and don’t we do fact-checking, and if this mistake is on Page 29, then he couldn’t possibly trust anything else I have to say, all of this kind of stuff.
By that time, I had forgiven myself for this mistake so clearly that I was able to write back to him and say, listen, this was a mistake, I’m sorry for this mistake, we’ve remedied it since in future printings, and I really hope that the next time you make a mistake, people treat you with more compassion than you just treated me.
He actually wrote back, and he was super sorry, but it came on official letterhead of his university. It was a whole thing. That was a good practice for me to sort of understand the cycle of this thing, and of course I’m going to beat myself up, but then what do I do right after that? How do I reframe it? Often, what I like to do is think about how I treat somebody else or how I would talk to a friend of mine who made such a mistake or received such criticism, and I would always be way nicer to anyone else, so I’m trying my hardest to treat myself like that now, too, but that’s easier said than done.
Tim Ferriss: It is easier said than done, but I think it gets easier with the addition of examples like that, and people hearing that so that they don’t feel quite as alone, A, but also, B, enabled in a sense because they see that it can be improved. I have to share one book story because it’s not entirely dissimilar, but I don’t know if I’ve shared it before, I just feel compelled because I’m over-caffeinated, which is, I remember when my first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, is getting printed and I’m going to get my first real copy. I come home for lunch at one point and there’s this thick yellow padded envelope that has been shipped to my house, on the doorstep, and I pick it up and I know it’s the book.
I did not open it. I said to myself, I know when I open this book I’m going to find a typo, and I need to prepare for that typo, so I waited all day until 7:00 pm, poured a glass of wine, sat at my kitchen table, and opened this book. Right in the fucking dedication, huge typo, even before we get to the front matter. I’m like, you have to be fucking kidding me. I’m glad I have my wine.
At that point, it’s the same thing. You’re like, okay, there are however many tens of thousands of these floating around and people are going to open it, before they even get to my first paragraph of prose and be like, what? Oh, my god, what a feeling.
Samin Nosrat: Oh, man, I mean, it still gets me. I write a column for the Times magazine where it goes through two editors, at least, a fact checker, and a copy editor, and still, mistakes get through. People really take the time to write to me about grammatical errors. I have a little punch in my gut, and then I’m just like, well, it was a mistake. I’m getting better. One small way in which I’m getting better at being nicer to myself is letting go of mistakes. I do think it’s really funny for people like me and you when we’re literally faced with them on the very first page. It’s just a good reminder no one’s perfect.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, no matter what, every single time you have a piece of writing that is important to you, there will be some error that I think has a consciousness of its own and just wills itself through all of the copy editors to make its way into print, but so it goes. I’m not proud of this, but I’ve never gone to therapy. I’ve actually had a few sessions here and there, but really something like three or four sessions over the course of my life and I never took to it. Have you found any particular type of therapy to be helpful for you?
Samin Nosrat: I love my therapist. He’s the only one I’ve ever been to. I met him because he was my friend’s boyfriend’s therapist. Being an insane person, I’m just really highly anxious and highly kind of neurotic. I Googled his name a whole bunch of times before I went to go see him and after I started seeing him to try and figure out as much information about him and the kind of therapy that he practices as possible, and he’s definitely an old school therapist. There’s no information on the internet about him, so I actually don’t even really know. I’ve asked him so many times and he’s really evasive about the specific kinds of things because he incorporates, I think, so many different types of methods into his work.
We’ve been together not quite 10 years yet, but he’s changed a lot. I can tell that he’s going out and learning and the things that he focuses on changes a lot. Very frustratingly to me for a really long time, his answer to almost anything I would say would be like, “And how do you feel in your body?” I was like, “I don’t want to talk about how I feel in my body; I want you to tell me what to do! What’s a solution?
Over many years, he has trained me to really be attuned to my feelings and my body, which I think that’s a lot of somatic work, and I think technically what he does is CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so that’s the larger framework, and then, within that, we do a lot of meditation and a lot of this somatic work. I feel like, for somebody like me who is so much in my head and so much about action, it is such a nice practice and such a great gift to myself to have this place where I go once a week where I am just led back into my body and into my feelings, and have trained myself to really be aware of my feelings and not just my thoughts. I’m so grateful to him and to this work for that.
Tim Ferriss: This is something that’s top of mind for me because a friend of mine just came back, I want to say about a month ago, from a Goenka Vipassanā meditation retreat, and I’ve never gone to a Goenka meditation retreat, but it seemed, at least in his experience, to focus almost, if not completely exclusively, on bodily sensations. You’re not following your thoughts, you’re always returning to focusing on these different bodily sensations, and I’d love to hear, if you’re willing, because I do think this is very important for me and potentially for a lot of people listening, how this somatic awareness, this reconnecting to the body and the feelings, ends up translating to your life. Could you give an example situation?
Samin Nosrat: I absolutely can, for sure. This, Tim, is so crazy because this is not that different of a conversation than where we started with the manifestation journal, to be honest. I have always been a really gut-led person, intuitive person, and especially in my career, like where I am making decisions about, well, it doesn’t feel right to go work for this or it doesn’t feel right to accept that job. Any time I’ve regretted doing something or I’ve gotten myself into some complicated professional pickle, or a personal pickle, it’s often because I ignored that gut feeling, that gut voice.
What this work teaches me to do is I’m basically just strengthening the muscle of that gut feeling, and sometimes it’s not just my gut, it’s sometimes my heart feeling, but I’m teaching myself to listen to the really quiet, everything else, really as much as possible, quiet my mind, and all the things telling me, well, you should do this, or there was this much money, or shouldn’t you do this thing because then you would get to be on a billboard with so-and-so or whatever? All these other reasons, it sort of gets rid of the reasoning, and it helps me listen to my heart and my gut. Let me think of an example that recently happened.
Tim Ferriss: You could disguise the details to protect the guilty.
Samin Nosrat: No, no. I have been in a lot of emotional pain for the last several months. I’ve been, really, sort of just feeling the weight of the world. I have been learning a lot of things about my own life and things that I feel responsible for in terms of ways that I’ve participated in, I don’t know, systems that have put me down as an immigrant kid with a funny name, and I had made decisions, maybe if I achieve enough, that people won’t notice that I’m different and then they’ll accept me. There’s been a lot of that in my life of, let me infiltrate this elite institution and make my way to the top and then there will be no way that anyone can deny that I belong here. Looking back at my life, that’s been the pattern of everything that I’ve done, and I am sort of reckoning with what that’s meant for me and how I want to continue moving forward and there’s a lot of pain in that for me.
I have been really down, and a lot of my friends can really tell that, and to the point where a lot of them started checking in on me via phone, via text, via email, and I didn’t know why a lot of people were checking in on me because I just have been in such sort of rage and pain, and I have had this boulder of anger and sadness and hurt in my chest. About a month ago, I went to go talk to a friend who reached out to me and she said, please come talk to me, I want to talk to you about this. I’m worried about you. I’m worried that you don’t have the kind of deeply mutually supportive relationships in your life that will support you through this, and also through all of the stuff that’s coming your way with this show coming out and all this kind of stuff.
I went there and I thought she was going to give me a hug and tell me how much she loves me, and tell me how great I am and I deserve all this great friendship or whatever, and she actually sat me down and she said, you know, these are these ways in which you have been letting down me, you’ve been letting down the people around, and I know that you’re in pain because you feel really lonely and separate from us, but you’re actually doing it to yourself. If you can work on some of this stuff, I think it will not only improve your relationships, but you’ll feel better.
It was a really intense come-to-Jesus. We were standing on the corner of the street in San Francisco. We were both crying for two hours. It was really intense. I did not expect it at all, and she said all this stuff and my immediate reaction was to be really defensive. As soon as I started to form the defensive sentences, but this, but that, I realized, well, it doesn’t even matter because her experience of me has nothing to do with my reasons for why I have not been there for her in this way or that way.
I just sort of deflated and I looked at her, and I said, well, what do I do? How do I be better for us, for you, for me, for our friends? Later, she said, I can’t believe you didn’t even have a single defensive reaction. I was really prepared for that and it was really amazing that you didn’t, so we had this very intense three hours together where we unpacked all of this stuff, and I asked her what I could do. She gave me a whole list of basic ways in which I could be a better friend, and ultimately, I felt very loved because I think it’s really hard to tell somebody, have those hard talks, so I felt really loved and cared for by the fact that she took the time and the energy and set the intention of setting me straight in these things. As I was driving home, I got back into my car, I think when I buckled the safety belt and it went across my chest, I realized that this pain, that this boulder of pain that has been in my chest probably at least since December, at least six or seven or eight months, was gone.
It wasn’t that I felt so great all of a sudden, but this rock that has been weighing down every breath was no longer there. It maybe had been broken up and dispersed into my body, and I woke up the next morning and I cried. I mean, I was still really upset about receiving this very difficult feedback, but I also realized I felt really empowered because so much of my pain has been about a feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that there’s so many things going on in the world that I have no power to change or improve. She gave me something I could do something about, and not only could I do something about it, but I could make my life better and my friends’ lives better in the process.
I think having power and feeling the very strong and pure love of my friend really helped to dissolve this bad feeling, and this is not to say my depression has lifted. I suddenly feel so much better, but I will say there was a marked difference, a marked immediate difference, and everyone who I have been around is like, “Oh, wow, you’re so much lighter,” and I really do feel a lot lighter. I don’t know if that was really clear for you.
Tim Ferriss: I think this is important territory to explore, so I appreciate you being game, and we will probably come back to some of this, but I want to make sure that we explore the entire map of the terrain up and down. You mentioned love a few times, so I thought, perhaps, if you’d be willing to share, you could answer the question, when did you first fall in love with food? Was there any particular moment, any particular meal where it just really kind of grabbed you by the collar and made you become as involved or excited about food as you are today?
Samin Nosrat: Oh, wow, I don’t know, because my mom is such an incredible cook, and cooking for us and shopping for us and spending time on food was the primary way that my mom really showed us her love. I think I’ve always associated cooking and eating with that feeling of maternal warmth, and it’s what I try to put out into the world. I have so many pictures of myself as a little kid and the stories. Also, for me now as a cook, there are so many things that I understand about the length that my mom went to to make this really delicious and nutritious and culturally meaningful food for us every day, and how much work went into that and how much time and labor.
There are a lot of things that, in retrospect, I have so much appreciation for her about that I probably just couldn’t have ever imagined, but there’s this dish that she, quote-unquote, invented called Samin polo, and polo just means rice. It was, I think, the food she fed me when I was teething. It was this mushy basmati rice with really soft pieces of potato and tomato and chicken, and so it was just all these typical kid foods, but really, really soft so that you could eat them even if you didn’t have teeth. I would eat that with yogurt, and I loved it so much and I loved that there was a dish named after me. I still sometimes go make that for myself.
To me, I think the Samin polo is a great example of that, and it’s funny because there have been, for sure, some really meaningful meals that I’ve had and there’s the one that sort of led me to become a cook that was really important in the story and in the timeline, but very rarely is a meal for me about the food. It’s almost always about what happens at the table and the conversations and the feelings and all that kind of stuff. I think, yeah, for me, it’s maybe also not the healthiest thing to associate food with love, but I do.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let me just ask the question, where did you grow up?
Samin Nosrat: I grew up in San Diego. I was born there. My parents came from Iran in the mid-70s to San Diego, and then I was born in ’79. I lived, in retrospect, this really funny life where my high school was two blocks from the beach, I grew up going to the beach all the time, eating fish tacos, driving around in cars with all my very American friends, and then I would come home, and my mom always said, when you come back home, this is Iran. At home, we spoke Farsi, there are Persian rugs everywhere, we ate Persian food. She insisted that we follow the traditions of the traditions of the culture and respect our elders. I very much had these two worlds that I was very aware of and still sort of look back and think a lot about how that’s defined me.
I think it led to me feeling like an outsider no matter where I was because I never quite belonged, and in a way, I think that feeling of never quite belonging is one of my superpowers because it’s very easy for me. even as I become more, quote-unquote, popular or successful or whatever to imagine what it’s like on the outside, so it really has made inclusivity and inclusion be a fundamental part of all of my work. Whether I’m writing a recipe for the New York Times magazine, I constantly put myself into the shoes of someone who doesn’t live in California and have access to the world’s best produce, or what ingredients can anyone buy at any grocery store, or will these instructions make sense to anyone, or am I using language that will make you feel like you don’t belong here, or whatever. To me, it’s this funny thing where these things that caused me so much sort of pain and confusion as a kid ended up being really wonderful tools in my work.
Tim Ferriss: I’m so glad you’re talking about not fitting in being a gift. It’s so timely, and I feel like we should definitely hug it out at some point, but literally just a week ago, I was reflecting on how many of the things that I’ve viewed from my past as having damaged me or resulting in me being damaged have actually been gifts. One of them was always feeling, in a sense, that I didn’t fit in and being an observer. I don’t know what your experience was like, but I very often ended standing in a room and feeling like I wasn’t actually there, but I was like a camera on the wall observing what was happening.
What I notice, for instance, in your writing, and I’ve read a million cookbooks, except I certainly would not consider myself a real chef as you are, but have read a lot, I keep very few in my actual kitchen and your book is one of those books because you are so good at putting on the lens of beginner’s mind and really putting yourself in the place of whoever it is you are writing for, who’s intended to receive the teaching that you are putting down on paper or on the screen.
I wanted to dig into that a little bit because I feel that that reframe is so powerful, and it’s easy to, too. It’s easy to forget to put those glasses on with that reframe.
Samin Nosrat: For sure. I definitely have a response to your question, but also, you said something so beautiful and so crazy that I feel like I need to read you this quote that I just saw on Instagram yesterday.
Tim Ferriss: I’m ready, I’m ready.
Samin Nosrat: Okay, so I just pulled it up. It was by Marco Pierre White; do you know who he was?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, that’s, what is it, White Heat or White Hot, what was the book? [Ed. Note: White Heat 25]
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, he’s still alive. I don’t even know how to describe him, he was a trend-setting avant-garde chef in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was kind of the original bad boy, if you will, like a proto Anthony Bourdain in some ways, just known for his aggressiveness and his sort of brilliance and his creativity, and I think he’s just sort of this tortured bad boy kind of guy. There’s this beautiful picture I saw of him on this account called Nitch on Instagram and this quote from him. He wrote: “I believe there’s really two species of human beings. The first species is the most common, there’s more of them. They are individuals who, like we all, are born into a certain world and they become a product of that world. They absorb that environment they are born into, they become an extension of it, they become part of it… The rarer species, in my opinion, is the individual who has been damaged as a child. They have suffered misfortune and great tragedy. This doesn’t mean that they are better people, it just means they have suffered… And very few individuals suffer that tragedy. But what happens… is an invisible shell covers you. It protects you, so you don’t absorb the world you’re brought into, you don’t become part of that world… you observe that world.”
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Samin Nosrat: It was exactly what you just said.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s incredible.
Samin Nosrat: I don’t know that my life has been so dramatic to have been filled with that level of tragedy, but absolutely, I think small pains and small traumas or whatever, just the circumstances of our lives can make us feel. And also, the whole idea of being an outsider lately, I’ve been thinking, I’ve always felt on the outside, but does anyone really feel on the inside? I don’t know.
In terms of the beginner’s mind and that work, I think there are two parts to that for me. I think when I started teaching people how to cook, I never forgot what it felt to be 19 years old in a world class kitchen and not know anything. I didn’t know the difference between parsley and celery, or parsley and cilantro. I did know parsley and celery. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know any fancy terms. I didn’t know even the most basic things. Everything just was overwhelming and too much information, and so, I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being so overwhelmed and lost and having nothing to cling to, and I feel like, as long as I can remember that and return to that every time I go to teach or talk or write, then I’m really serving the people that I’m trying to serve who are the people that don’t know.
There are so many times where I had to reset myself and remember I wasn’t writing my book or doing my work to impress my peers. It’s not for them. Also, there are a million better chefs out there than me, and I’m not out there to compete with them. I’m there to sort of be a translator for the amateur from the professional kitchen. If I can remember that and remember the feeling of being the beginner, then I can do my job right, and as a writer, I would say the person who really has served as a model for me in that more than anyone else is Michael Pollan.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. We’re definitely going to dig into Michael.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah. I talked to him right after he recorded with you. I think you blew his mind.
Tim Ferriss: Well, the feeling is mutual. I don’t know how that guy speaks in finished prose, but maybe I’ll figure it out one day.
Samin Nosrat: It’s bananas. He really taught me, and this wasn’t something he actively taught me. I learned by reading his work and really sitting with what it was that was so moving and effective about the way that he writes. It’s an old, time-worn journalistic tool to go do the experiential journalism. He just has this incredible way of immersing himself in really complicated worlds and being able to articulate what he’s experiencing and what he’s learning in a way for anybody. He did that with really complicated things about GMO corn, he did that with the botanical world, he’s done that with the architectural world, and most recently, he’s done it in the psychedelic world. When I first sat down to write, I was like, okay, I’m going to do this the Michael Pollan way, and I tried to do what he would do, which was to be this guide, this newbie guide, but I realized that wasn’t who I was.
What I needed to do was establish some authority as a teacher, so I couldn’t take you on this journey with me. He’s so good at doing it in a way where he’s not condescending at all, but yet he’s so informative, and so I really had to sort of sit with that and let it distill through my bones and through my mind and figure out, how can I take that kernel of not being condescending, of being really clear and articulate, of holding your hand and bringing you through here, yet also having some authority. The best way that I found to do that was to do what I did when I teach people how to cook and when I talk to them, which is to tell the stories of when I didn’t know anything, and all of the 9,000 times I’ve messed everything up because that is the closest that I can be to being in your shoes as a person who maybe doesn’t know how to deep fry or is afraid you’re going to burn your house down or whatever. Ultimately, I couldn’t be Michael Pollan, and that’s fine, for both of us, but I could learn from him and really sort of put some of his techniques into action.
Tim Ferriss: We are going to revisit that because I’m fascinated by writing process, which, really, for people reading, people reading, if you’re reading this, then I want to figure out how you’re achieving synesthesia, but for people listening to this, writing process, you can just substitute creative process, it’s same-same, same with experimenting in the kitchen, same with you-name-it, composing new music. You had mentioned age 19, and this might be a good segue to the question, how did you first get exposed to Alice Waters?
Samin Nosrat: The very first time I ever heard of Alice Waters was when I moved to Berkeley in 1997 to attend college, and at my freshman orientation, somebody was like, “Oh, and there’s a famous restaurant with a famous chef in town.” To me, coming from San Diego eating mostly home cooked food and sometimes fish tacos and Mexican food and Chinese food or whatever, I had no concept of what a fancy restaurant or a famous chef was, so that sort of went in one ear and out the other. The following year, I fell in love and my boyfriend was from San Francisco, and we spent all of our time, all of our free time eating.
Tim Ferriss: Good place to do it.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, totally. He took me to his favorite ice cream place and his favorite pizza place, and all of the sort of childhood places, and he had always wanted to go to Chez Panisse. I still didn’t really know what it was. I knew it was expensive, so we saved $220.00 over the course of seven months, and there’s a whole thing where you have to reserve your table at Chez Panisse a month in advance, but the menu, which is fixed, only is published a week in advance. I was not yet a really adventurous eater, so we did this complicated thing where we reserved for four nights in a row, and then when the menu was published, we chose the one we wanted and canceled all the other ones.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, because the menu is different each day?
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, it’s different each night. I was like, “Oh, that one looks good.”
Tim Ferriss: Clever.
Samin Nosrat: Then we went in, and yeah, I was 19. I was wearing a blank tank top and denim skirt. We were very out of place in probably Berkeley’s fanciest restaurant, I think everyone probably knew that we were not regulars, and we had this really special meal. I grew up eating really, really delicious food, so it wasn’t like this food was the most amazing thing I’d ever eaten, it was the entire experience was unlike any I had ever had in a restaurant. I really felt like I was at somebody’s house and they were caring for me, and they were so attentive to everything.
The bread and butter were never empty, the water was never empty, the plate, the second we were done, was whisked away. There was just this sort of attention that I had never received in a restaurant before and I think that really got me. When the dessert came, it was a chocolate soufflé, and the server asked if I had ever had soufflé before and I said “No,” and she said, “Would you like me to show you how to eat it?” I said, “Yes, please, sure.” She said, “Well, you poke a hole with your spoon in the top and then you pour this raspberry sauce in, and that way, every bite has sauce.” I did that, and I took a bite, and she said, “How is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s really good, but it would be a lot better if I had a glass of cold milk.” I had no idea that it was so rude to tell this person in this fancy restaurant what would make my thing better, and also, I had no idea that in fancy dining, fine dining, it’s considered a total faux pas to drink milk after 10:00 a.m. That’s why, in Italy, if you order a cappuccino after 10:00 a.m., they know you’re American because only babies drink milk after 10:00 a.m.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, I had no idea. This is good to know.
Samin Nosrat: Even having the idea of asking for milk with chocolate after dinner is so gross to people in fancy food, so she kind of laughed. She’s like, “You want milk?” I was like, “Yeah, hello, hot chocolate thing, cold milk, good combo,” and so she went and then she also brought us each a glass of dessert wine to sort of teach us the refined accompaniment and it was this really sweet gesture.
Tim Ferriss: Once you’ve enjoyed your cold milk, you may want to sample another option.
Samin Nosrat: I don’t know, it was like a little education. I was so moved by this whole experience and this whole dinner that I wrote this letter to Alice Waters. I brought it in a few months later asking for a job as a busser. I always had sort of a basic job that I worked throughout college. I brought it in and they said, “Oh, you have to bring that to the floor manager,” so they led me to the floor manager’s office, and when she opened the door, it was the soufflé lady. She remembered me. In retrospect, I think she was probably really desperate because she was like, “You want to start tomorrow?”
I started the next day, and pretty immediately, I was just so enchanted by what was happening in the kitchen that I wanted to learn what those people knew. That restaurant really exists like a pyramid and the cooks are at the top. They’re the most respected, most skilled people who work there and I wanted that. I was so attracted to that.
Tim Ferriss: What did the letter say that you wrote to Alice? Do you remember any of it? Because you have a letter thing as far as I can tell in the homework that I’ve done, but do you recall any of the elements of that letter?
Samin Nosrat: I’m sure I used the word magical. It’s a very simian word. I’m like, I had a magical dinner at your magical restaurant and I was so inspired, and I also don’t think Alice Waters ever saw that letter. I think it stopped with the floor manager probably, but I had never worked in a restaurant. I’m sure I revealed that, that I was just so moved by this incredible dinner that I wanted to work there, and can I please have an opportunity. I think it was a pretty straightforward one. I’m pretty good with the flattery, I would say. That’s an important part of these letters in my life where I’m writing to someone because I’m a huge fan and I’m looking to collaborate or for some opportunity, so I start really with laying it on thick, it’s genuine, and then I do my big ask. Yeah, I had the Alice Waters letter, then, years later, I had the Michael Pollan letter.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s pause on the Michael Pollan. Place us, time and place, when you get a letter to Michael Pollan.
Samin Nosrat: When’s the letter to Michael Pollan?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, where were you, what were you doing?
Samin Nosrat: Oh, so that was about 10 years later. Was it about 10 years later? Yeah, almost 10 years later, I was working at a different restaurant in Berkeley and I saw Michael Pollan’s name in the reservation book and I was a huge fan of his, and I had met him a couple times at Chez Panisse and he’d been involved with Alice and her work. Their work really intersected, and so they were big supporters of one another, and I remember, before came out, that, for whatever reason, we had a copy of a galley at Chez Panisse that we were passing around and reading and I was like, “Who is this person? This is amazing.”
Since I had read that book, I had been a voracious reader of anything that he wrote, and I really admired the way that he was an advocate and so eloquent about the things that I care so deeply about and work on. To me, he was somebody who I really looked up to, also because, even though I began cooking, I never let go of the idea of wanting to be a writer. I always wanted to be a writer since way before I was a cook, and that was something that I really kept pursuing in small ways, even as I was cooking.
By the time that Michael Pollan’s name appeared in our reservation book, I had applied to a few different creative writing programs and gotten in and deferred and never taken a leap, and I knew that he was teaching at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. I quickly scrawled out this card saying I’m your number one fan, you mean so much to me, I would love to come audit one of your classes, and basically that. It wasn’t even a super big letter, but then I gave it to the servers, and I went home that night and I asked them to give it to him when he was eating. Then they did, and then a few weeks later, I mean, this speaks so directly to who Michael is, he wrote me back. He wrote me an email and said,
“Why don’t you come in and talk to me?”
He wrote me back, I went in to go talk to him, and I asked him to audit his class. He said, “It might be a little bit tricky because a lot of people want to audit the class, but there’s one spot, there’s one extra spot, so why don’t you come on the first day and you guys can all vie for that spot.” I showed up the first day of this tiny class and there was 11 people in the class, I think, and I think over 200 people showed up for that last spot. We each had to write an index card saying why we wanted to audit, so we did and then we went away.
Later that day, I was lamenting to my friend that there was no way that I would ever get the spot, and my friend said, “Don’t you know anything? Don’t you know anything about academics?” I was like, “I don’t; tell me.” She said, “You need to write him right now and say that he needs to give you this precisely because you are a cook and you will bring a different viewpoint into this class, and the conversations will be different because you’re from the inside of this world.” Because the class was called Following the Food Chain and it was about the food industry.
I did that, even though it felt so wrong to write to Michael Pollan and tell him what he needed to do from some 23-year-old. I don’t know how old I was, 29, maybe. I did, and he was like, “Okay.” It was so simple and weird. I asked. I did the thing that I was so scared to do and then that led to me auditing this class, which ended up being a really incredible and pivotal moment for me that I don’t know that I could have put my finger on at that time, but now I look back at it and it’s not only when I got to work with Michael and what led to us working together on writing and cooking, but also, I became part of an incredible community of journalists and writers, which is a thing I had always wanted.
By then, I had a really vast network of cooking people and I was part of an incredible cooking world, but I didn’t have a community at all to support me as a writer. I didn’t know what a pitch was. I didn’t know anything about writing. I didn’t know articles are measured in words. I didn’t know any of that, so I learned a lot of that, not only from that class, but also just from being around these people and having peers who I could ask all these questions of, and now I work in an office, a shared writing space with so many of those people. I’ve gone on to collaborate with them. They are my community who I am constantly reaching out to and now I’m able to support in my own ways. That was a really important thing that I asked for.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s look at the nitty-gritty of that. You start with a note in the restaurant that says, “I’m your biggest fan, can I audit your class?” Were there any other ingredients in that?
Samin Nosrat: It was a card. I remember that it was a card. It was not a letter on paper that was folded.
Tim Ferriss: We’re talking card like a Hallmark card? Are we talking a business card?
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I think, because on the street where that restaurant was, there was a couple stationery stores, so I think I bought a card, like some sort of greeting card, so it wasn’t so long, whatever I wrote. I think, really, it said, “My name is Samin, I’m a huge fan of yours, I have always wanted to write. I really would like to come audit your class. It would mean so much to me.” There’s no reason why Michael Pollan should write me back.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not sure you’re giving yourself enough credit. That’s part one. Part two, he writes you back, you show up, it’s like the gladiatorial games with 200 competitors, and you write an index next card. Do you remember any of what you put on the index card?
Samin Nosrat: I don’t remember that.
Tim Ferriss: No problem.
Samin Nosrat: I wish I had the index card.
Tim Ferriss: No problem. All right, so then your friend says, “Hey, don’t you know anything about academics?” “No, I don’t, please tell me.” You need to write this, so you send this follow up email. Do you remember the subject line, anything else that you put in that email?
Samin Nosrat: No. I don’t know if I had his email address then. Should I search for my oldest email to Michael Pollan right now? I could send it to you later.
Tim Ferriss: We could look it up. You could send it to me later and if you find it, I’ll put it in the show notes for people.
Samin Nosrat: I think the thing for me is that I know that I’m very verbose, so any time I sit down to ask for something, and I intuitively knew this before and now I know it really clearly and articulate it to myself and other people, which is, if you’re writing an email to somebody to ask them for something, just get to it.
Tim Ferriss: Right, yeah, don’t beat around the bush.
Samin Nosrat: Right, I don’t need your whole backstory, I don’t need the boo-boo-boo, just say the thing, so I’m pretty sure I did that one pretty tightly because we were already in this conversation.
Tim Ferriss: You need to have me in the class because I’ll bring a different viewpoint.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, because I’m a cook and I work in the sustainable food world. I sort of glossed over this before, but what he had told me when I had come to his office hours before I went to that first day of class was he said, “Listen, I know you want to take this class, but it’s never going to happen because I have obligations to a long list of people and you’re at the very end of that list, because, first, my obligations are to the students of this graduate school, and then of the other graduate schools of UC Berkeley, and then to the undergraduates of UC Berkeley, and then the community. There are so many other paying students ahead of you that you are low priority to me.” I mean, he didn’t do it in a mean way, but it was just like he was telling me what it was.
Tim Ferriss: Telling it how it is, yeah.
Samin Nosrat: He was like, “But if you want, you can come to this day,” so I did. I saw it in action, the fact that there were so many people. I also think he’s a softie at heart, even though he comes across as a rule follower. So even though there were only supposed to be 12 people in that class, I think there ended up being 15 of us. I don’t think if I had not followed up with that email and said, “Listen, you need me precisely because I’m not one of those people further up on this list; that that was why I was so enthusiastic.” Since the class, during the class, and since the class, it became really apparent that I did do precisely that, that I did bring a viewpoint that nobody else in that room could have, and I helped arrange for us a field trip to this wackadoodle sustainable farm and there were ways where, because I had an insider’s perspective, I could connect other students with the kinds of stories that they probably wouldn’t be able to find on their own because I was living it and immersed in it. I don’t think he regrets it. I hope not.
Tim Ferriss: We’re talking about a writer who’s had a big influence on your writing, your career. Let’s back step for a second to books that have had a big impact on you. In the course of doing my homework, I don’t know when this came about, and you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, so feel free to correct, but a list of books that the Chez Panisse chefs gave you. This is something that came up and then there are a few folks who came up, I guess Marcella Hazan, Patience Gray. Could you describe how that list got to you and what were some of the books on that list that had a big impact on you?
Samin Nosrat: For sure. I mean, those are also just cookbooks, so I have other books I can talk about too if you want.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, both, yeah. Let’s do both and you can do it in whatever order you like.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, but in terms of the cookbooks that have been deeply formative, one of the incredible things about Chez Panisse is that, and this absolutely comes from Alice and the world that she’s created, is she is an artist above all else and she really surrounds herself with deeply creative people and artists of all different kinds and so food is just one part of this lifestyle that she really tries to create and teach people and immerse people in, and so beautiful writing is a big part of that.
I think I had a pretty limited exposure to cookbooks before I came to Chez Panisse where I just knew it as the thing that you look up the recipe in to make for dinner. When I begged the chefs there to teach me how to cook and just to set the scene, the time was about, I think this was 2000, the restaurant kept winning Best Restaurant in America from Gourmet Magazine, which at the time was the biggest sort of award of its type. There was no reason for these chefs to let me into the kitchen; there was a line a mile long of much more experienced people than me trying to get this job, and I knew that, and they knew that everyone knew that.
I knew nothing and all I had was my enthusiasm, really, and my dedication and my work ethic. I asked the chefs what I needed to do to earn an unpaid apprenticeship. That’s what I was competing for and they said, “You need to cook every day; you need to watch these cooks every day you’re here; you need to learn how to taste and develop your palate, and you need to go home and read all these books.” They gave me a stack of probably 30 books. I mean, they didn’t actually give me the books, they told me about 30 books to read. They’re like, these are the books that are the Chez Panisse canon. They were books unlike anything I had ever seen.
Patience Gray, who was an incredible writer in the midcentury who traveled with her husband throughout Turkey and Greece and Italy and Spain wrote this beautiful book called Honey From a Weed. It’s like a poem, and yes, there are recipes with cups and measures in there, but there is just a way that, one country to the next, she connects all these dots, and it’s so beautiful and moving and it put together writing and food, in a way unlike I had ever seen before.
That was a really formative book for me. There was another one in the same vein called The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by a person named Roy Andries De Groot. I think it’s his pen name. This one, if a novel met a cookbook, because it was an imaginary world that this guy had created about this magical Auberge somewhere in the mountains and –
Tim Ferriss: Auberge, which is?
Samin Nosrat: Like a mountain hotel somewhere in France.
Tim Ferriss: Hotel.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, a mountain inn, a country inn, I guess, and there were just these beautiful narratives that were intertwined in talking about food that were so moving to me. Then there were the basic cookbooks that I had to learn history and tradition and culture from, things like Richard Olney’s writing and Marcella Hazan and, oh gosh, all of the Chez Panisse books. It was really a kind of world that I had never been exposed to because we, at my house, growing up, we had two Persian cookbooks, our culinary tradition was entirely oral, and then we had a Sesame Street cookbook that had a banana bread recipe that I use to make when I was little, and that was about it.
There was not this deep tradition of cookbooks that I grew up around. This was a really moving and influential thing for me. Yeah, writing-wise, I read so much nonfiction, I mean, I love, love, love John McPhee.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, amazing.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah. To me, I’ve learned so much about structure from John McPhee.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have one or two favorites from John McPhee?
Samin Nosrat: Levels of the Game, I love.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, so amazing, recommend to all people, and if you read the book description, people would be like, what? An entire book on a single tennis match, trust me, yeah, and trust you.
Samin Nosrat: It’s so good.
Tim Ferriss: Such a good book.
Samin Nosrat: It’s so good. There was a period where I was like, maybe I write my book like the Levels of the Game and I find a way to tell a story. He is a master of structure and I find, for me, a challenge as a writer, and also, as now just a creative thinker, probably one of the most thrilling things for me that I’m so excited by, but also intimidated by is coming up with structure for things and being in search of always the simplest, most elegant structure. I feel like you can convey information so much more clearly when a structure is right and simple.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Samin Nosrat: It’s fun. It’s a fun practice. Right now, I’m figuring out if I’m going to do another show, and/or another book, and I think I figured out an idea. Now I’m just like, okay, how do I structure it? It’s just that stuff where I love those.
Very randomly, this book I saw one day at a store when I was struggling on the 900th draft of my own book and it has been so meaningful and moving to me, it’s called Several Short Sentences on Writing. It’s by a writer named Verlyn Klinkenborg who teaches at Yale, and he used to have a column in The New York Times. I think it was called On Rural Living where – and he’s written about writing, and the entire point of this whole small book is: make your sentences shorter. And it really is so good.
Tim Ferriss: If one is to look at your bio, it’s a very impressive bio, right? You’ve been called the next Julia Child by NPR’s All Things Considered, you’re a New York Times bestselling author, you have this TV show, you have all these various accolades, and I think it’s easy for someone, perhaps, to look at that, be very intimidated and assume that you’ve just been getting up at bat and hitting home runs, since you began one after the other. If you’d be open to it, I’d love to talk about apparent failures that set you up for later success and of course those people who’ve read Tribe of Mentors will recognize this question or heard the podcast, I like to ask this question in terms of favorite failures, past failures that really taught you something, that seemed like a failure, but in fact, if they hadn’t happened something else which was a success wouldn’t have happened later. Can you give us any examples that come to mind?
Samin Nosrat: I have a list. There are so many options here. Yeah, I was thinking I came really close to cowriting two other books before I ended up writing my own book, and neither of those felt right, but I was just so desperate to work on a book that I almost did those ones, and I kind of messed up both of those opportunities and I felt really bad, like I would never get an opportunity to write my own book, and if I had done those I don’t think that I –
Tim Ferriss: How did you mess them up if you don’t mind me asking?
Samin Nosrat: The one that I can remember more clearly was it was going to be a book about pickling. It was so specific. It was going to be a book about pickling and I was going to do it with a friend, and there was a way where we met with this agent, a book literary agent who had brought the idea to her. I couldn’t have put my finger on it, but to me, at that time, I was like, an agent, that’s a high powered – you know what I mean? Only fancy people have agents and I felt like I needed to prove myself to this agent, and there was something about our relationship just didn’t feel right and I don’t think I trusted her completely and I felt kind of put down by her. It just didn’t feel very good.
This was so long ago, I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I think I inelegantly extracted myself from that. I had committed to it, and then I uncommitted because I just didn’t feel like it was the right thing, and then I just worried like, oh, no, does this mean I’ll never find an agent or I’ll never get to do a book? That was one. I’m trying to remember. Oh, there was actually another agent. Man, I really have a trail of burnt agents behind me. There was another agent who came to me, and again, she made me feel like I needed to prove myself to her and that my ideas weren’t that good. I had this one idea and she didn’t want me to do that.
Tim Ferriss: How did she find you?
Samin Nosrat: She found me. I used to do these dinners at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco which is its own cult place, and because of that, these dinners that I had, it was called Tartine Afterhours, it became a little cult thing. In a very small world, it was a very popular thing.
I think she sort of was in that world, and so she found me through that and there was just a way – I think what it was, was, yeah, I’ve never actually spent the time to think about it, but in both of those situations, the relationships, the fundamental, primary relationship, which at that time was with the agent, it wasn’t so much with an editor yet or anything, it just was so on uneven ground and it was this thing where I was struggling to prove myself as a creative thinker to them. I didn’t very much feel supported and that is not a great place for me, or maybe for anyone from which to do your best creative work.
I’ve learned that, for sure, in my career now as a writer who’s worked with so many different kinds of editors, my current editing situation at the Times magazine is so wonderful because the editor, I love her so much, and she knows exactly how to lay it to me. She tells it to me straight. She knows how to give me a smackdown when I need it, but she also is so kind and supportive, and so there’s just this very fundamental trust that we have where I used to turn stuff into her every month in my column and I would have a one-page apology that I would write this apology email with each draft, and she was like, “You have to stop sending these apologies; this is insane. You’re doing your best. I know you’re doing your best. I also know you’re not going to phone it in, and also, the stuff you’re turning in is not bad, so stop apologizing.” But there have just been so many different experiences I’ve had where I have been made to feel like I’m dumb or I’m not trying hard enough and actually, I’m trying so hard.
I now have learned from my own self that I need to be smarter and very careful about what kind of creative collaborations I enter, because I need a kind of a relationship that’s vulnerable and open, and it’s not that I don’t want criticism. I actually do want your criticism because I do want to make it better, but how do you convey that to me and also do we have a fundamental trust between the two of us that we both are aiming toward the same goal of making the best possible thing? I don’t know. Sorry, I completely veered away from your original question.
Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. No, I’ll be the guide rails; it’s okay because I want to actually hone in on something that you said about your editor at the Times who can deliver the smackdown, but do so with a delivery that you find very palatable, that you do want criticism, but it’s a question of it being constructive and delivered in the right way. Can you give any examples of how that editor might deliver criticism? It could be a hypothetical made up example, or just what makes it thread the needle of being both affective criticism, but not making you defensive or deflating you.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I wish I had a very specific example, but I can set the emotional tone of it, which is that there is – we have developed – I mean, it’s been over a year now that we’re in constant contact. We have, at this point, developed an understanding that, I know that she wants the best for me and she knows that I’m always going to do my best. If she tells me something, even in short hand, sometimes now she does this thing where she just writes “Do better,” and so now I know, okay, that’s a phrase that I need to do better, or it’s not working.
I think so much of it is the emotional work that we had done earlier and that had come through these vulnerable exchanges where I had said to her, “I’m really sorry,” and she said, “Listen, I know you’re doing your best.” Once I was able to trust her in that way, I think I have let go of a lot of the defensiveness. I’m trying to think. She was a lot gentler in the beginning, and I think that had a lot to do with it. She was very gentle, and she would sort of write out more complete sentences about why something was over explained or maybe too snobby or whatever. I think she really did the work initially to allow me to trust her and feel safe with her and then now we have such a nice short hand where I can just be like, “Can you just do this?” or whatever.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, keep it short and sweet. Before you came to be writing though, we’ve talked about the cowriting opportunities which did not manifest or that you extricated yourself from, then ultimately having the opportunity to write the type of book that you wanted to write. Do you have any failures or missteps from what preceded that?
Samin Nosrat: 1,000.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, like from the culinary world or restaurant world or otherwise?
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, so many. I would say the two biggest failures of my career are culinary and they sit in beautiful contrast to one another. One of them was, I helped run a restaurant for five years that was struggling financially the whole time it existed, and there was a way where it was not my restaurant; I was helping my mentor run it. I felt very loyal to him.
In the beginning, restaurants often lose money for up to five years before they hit. It’s really just a terrible financial model. There’s a way where they often lose money for a long time before they sort of hit steady ground and we actually hit steady ground after three years, but then, in 2008, the economy crashed, and so it was sort of just this thing where we knew we were never going to make it okay. There was a culture issue in that restaurant that now, with so many years of distance, I can see was almost insurmountable, and if a culture in a place isn’t sort of supported, it’s really hard to turn the culture of a place around, I think.
In some ways, to me, I was ready to call it quits after three years, but for my mentor, this was his big shot that his career had been aiming toward and he wasn’t ready to give up. I stayed for two years longer than I wanted to, and I was really unhappy. I was really unhealthy, just physically, I feel like it took a toll on my adrenal system. I had a really bad temper. This would eventually lead to the breakdown that led me going to therapy. I was emotionally just out of touch.
I was not that kind to the people who worked for me. It was not great. It was not my greatest hour. I think staying through something and feeling how bad that made me feel, how bad it made other people feel and that it ultimately fizzled to this slow painful death really taught me that I don’t ever want to be part of that situation again. I want to be the one calling quits. I want to be the one who determines the end of a story and when I think about it, in any creative project, or business, probably. In some ways, a business is not so different from a creative project. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even when people sit down to write a movie or to write a series, even if you want to pitch a TV series, an ideal life span for a TV series is five to seven years and before you even start, you know how the series is going to end. There’s a way where it’s not a bad idea and ending is not necessarily a failure.
I really got to put that into practice a couple years later when, after the restaurant closed, I started this small food market that immediately became a huge success and got so much media attention. I started it because I just missed cooking for people and I wanted to cook a little bit in my spare time while I was figuring out how to be a writer, and then all of a sudden, all of my time and resources and energy were going toward running this food market that wasn’t even the main thing I wanted to accomplish in my life.
Even as it grew, and we got more followers and more customers and were making more money or whatever, I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Instead of letting that also fizzle out, I ended it after two years and all the food media was like, “What’s the gossip? Why is this closing?” I was like, “Nothing’s wrong. I’m just closing it because I want to do something else.”
Tim Ferriss: Was that an easy decision, a hard decision? I mean, walk us through, I don’t know, the weeks before making it official, this is over.
Samin Nosrat: Months!
Tim Ferriss: Months, okay, yeah.
Samin Nosrat: It took months. I knew in one way it was an easy decision because my gut told me that I didn’t want to do it. In practical terms, it was much more difficult because there were a lot of people who I felt responsible to who relied on this market for their income or they thought they relied on the market for their income. There was a story that we all were telling about how important this market was in all of these people’s lives. I have very maternal instincts. I feel a lot of responsibility for the community that I create and to them, and if anything, I felt a need to stay for them rather than for myself and that was really brutal.
Around this time, I was really into yoga, super into yoga, and when you go to yoga class, often what they talk about is setting an intention. I was doing a lot of yoga talk and I had this thing where I realized that because my career was so amorphous because there wasn’t some other person on whose career I was modeling my own, there wasn’t an easy way for me to know that I was moving in the right direction toward anything I wanted to actually accomplish.
There weren’t these landmarks of, when you want to be a doctor, you do this, this, and this and this. When you want to be a lawyer, you do this, this, and this. I didn’t have that, so how did I know I was on the right track to where I wanted to go? I really started to hone this thing for myself, which was, well, since I don’t know where my ultimate ending point is, or my ultimate goal is, what I do know is that it’s a feeling. I have a feeling in my belly –
Tim Ferriss: I like that.
Samin Nosrat: – that I want to work toward, and that when an opportunity come to me or a professional decision comes to me, I can think about it in terms of, if I say yes or no to this thing, will it take me closer to or farther away from this feeling that I try to feel and also create in the world. Probably the biggest conflict in deciding to close that market was that that feeling has a lot to do with community and supporting people, and I knew that closing the market would, in the short term, maybe take me farther away from that, but I also had to fundamentally believe that it would give me the space to, in a different way, on a larger scale, go back toward that.
Tim Ferriss: A few questions related to that. Why was the food market so quickly popular? Were there any particular reasons that come to mind?
Samin Nosrat: I think part of it was timing of it. What it was, I was really good at making pasta. I lived in Italy for two years. I made pasta every day for 10 years. I really love making pasta. When the restaurant closed, I would sort of bump into people in town and they’d be like, “Well, we really miss your pasta.” I really enjoy the beautiful manual labor of making it and the folding, and the cutting and the whole thing. I thought, “Well, what if I cut out all of the parts of having a restaurant that I hate, and I just make the pasta and sell it to people?”
I had these friends who had a commercial kitchen that was empty a lot of evenings; they let me use it, and I was like, “Okay, well, how do I sell this pasta to people?” I think it was 2009, so I think it was before Instagram or it was certainly before Instagram was really big, and I maybe had a Twitter with five followers, but really, Facebook was the main thing that I used, and so I think I put on Facebook, “I’m going to sell some pasta, does anyone buy it?” And I made a Google Doc and people started buying it.
I opened a little Shopify storefront where people would order the stuff online, so I would know exactly how much to make because a big thing in food is, it’s already so hard to make money, and really, if you’re not efficient in terms of every decision of how much labor and ingredient, you’ll really lose money. By sort of taking my orders in advance, I knew exactly how much to make, and nothing was going to go to waste and then people would come pick up their stuff.
Then, very quickly, it grew from just pasta to pasta and sausages, to pasta and sausages and cookies because everyone else that I knew who is an unemployed cook who maybe wanted to start their own food business also wanted to do these things. We started doing this, and all of a sudden, it became this online marketplace where you could preorder and prepay for your food and then come and pick up your stuff a week later. It was sort of this way to get beautiful restaurant quality stuff at home, but it was certainly before Caviar, it was certainly before a lot of these internet food things and it was also before Good Eggs, which is a food tech startup that was sort of born out of this thing.
It was definitely one of the first online, I don’t know, order your food thing. I don’t know, it was just a weird time. Then, we had a mailing list from the restaurant and I started sending it out to that, and then, very quickly, because the press was very interested in this weird way that I was operating this thing, the mailing list grew to many, many tens of thousands of people, way more than I could support.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, yeah, that’s a lot.
Samin Nosrat: It was a whole thing that grew out of control beyond the resources I had very quickly, and I was always struggling to keep up and that became such a source of stress. All I had wanted to do was to make some pasta.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, funny how things –
Samin Nosrat: All of a sudden, I’m managing 9,000 business licenses and permits and health department and taxes and sales tax and vendors, and vendor inviting, and people wanting their beans vegan or whatever. It was so much more than I ever wanted to do, and it took so much energy and I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.
Tim Ferriss: You have this feeling, “I can’t do this anymore,” which I think a lot of people have, and yet, they keep doing it for a long time and maybe forever to a certain extent. Now, while this is happening, you have these maternal instincts kicking in which make you feel obligated on some level to help these people who, at least in your head at some point and in their heads, depend on this income. Do you remember the meal, the drinks you had with a friend, the walk you took where you’re just like, “You know what? Fuck it, I have to close this down.” When you went to thinking about winding it down to, “Okay, tomorrow morning, that’s it. I’m doing it.”
Samin Nosrat: I’m pretty sure it was therapy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, okay, all right.
Samin Nosrat: I’m pretty sure it was therapy and I’m pretty sure, I think the thought that really hit my body, that I realized it was that I had, by that point, spent 10 years cooking. I had been wanting to be a writer since I was 15 years old. I finally had a chance to make the time to be a writer. I even had an office that I had that I shared. I had everything in place.
Because this thing was ruining my life and making me miserable, I couldn’t do the thing that I always had wanted to do and was basically ready to do, and not that it was some easy thing to just go be a writer, because, what? I ended up writing blog posts for yogajournal.com for $25. It wasn’t so much income or anything, it was just, I knew that this thing was making me emotionally and almost physically ill. I just had to stop, and I think now I’m just so much more attuned to that moment, to the feeling of knowing this thing is bad for me.
No matter how many other people it’s good for, it’s making me sick, and it’s making me feel really bad. I think I try to be a lot more aware of that and sometimes now I get into situations or projects or jobs where that feeling comes up again, but I’m already in it and often now a lot of the work that I do is temporary. I do one project, I do one article, I do one story, I do one whatever.
Now, for me, it’s more about learning and being really attuned to what’s happening, even just, for example, in the process of making the show. I had never made a show before. This was this incredible opportunity that came to me. I was so excited and felt so lucky to go make it and go do it, and I still feel so lucky and so excited, but a lot of things happened throughout the making of the show that I was like, “Oh, this doesn’t feel very good,” or, “This doesn’t feel very fair,” or, “I don’t ever want to be in a situation like this again.”
Now that I know what’s possible, I know that negatively and also positively, I know what to ask for and I know how to articulate that. I will forever insist, to me, I’m going to insist on working with a lot more people of color in the future. I’m going to insist on making sure that I have a lot more power creatively in anything that I do, because I realized I became very frustrated when I didn’t have as much power as I needed or wanted. There are just things, it’s a constant learning thing, nothing’s perfect. We figure things out as we go, and we try to do our best, and what is failure? I don’t know.
It’s not that big of a deal, especially if there’s some sort of positive take away that you have, and maybe my therapist would be really proud of me. Maybe it’s really bad for me to even say that my therapist would be proud of me, but I do feel like all of these stories and all of these experiences really always come back to me sort of paying attention to my feelings.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, hear, hear. That’s something that I’ve also personally been working on because I think I muted my feelings or viewed them as a liability for so long and I’ve –
Samin Nosrat: Me too.
Tim Ferriss: – realized, holy shit, you cannot spreadsheet your way out of everything, nor onto everything.
Samin Nosrat: No, me too.
Tim Ferriss: You really have to pay attention to that, the feelings.
Samin Nosrat: I think about that all the time. I came from a culture that’s very much about appearances and not very touchy feely in a lot of ways. I came from a family that wasn’t super touchy feely. What did I learn to do? I learned to shut down all of my own feelings and then I made my way into a profession who literally tells you to shut down your feelings. When you’re a cook in a restaurant, you don’t have time or room or space for feelings and not only emotional feelings, but if you actually burn or cut yourself, there’s not time or space to address that. You just sort of wrap your hand up and keep going.
There’s this way where I have been trying to unravel the many years of emotional shut down that I have been conditioned to be in. Now, I’m gone way to the other end where I’m like, what is the – I read about Jill Soloway’s sets and she’s the director and creator of Transparent. The other day, I was listening to an interview with one of the actors from Atlanta, and I read about these TV sets where everyone’s really touchy feely and checks in with each other all the time, and they have an emotional check in every morning. I’m like, that’s the kind of place where I want to work. I just want to work where the camera man is – and we are crying together.
Tim Ferriss: If you do have that experience, I want to have a follow up conversation to see if you’re like, “Okay, that’s my home” or if you’re like, “You know what? Pendulum swung too far the other direction, I think I want somewhere in the middle. I can only have half the camera people crying.” You have tackled so many different projects in so many different ways, you’ve had some missteps, you’ve made your mistakes as we all have.
Your book was, at least from the outside looking in, a real flag in the ground that has allowed you to do a lot of things, and it’s a very good book. Like I said, it’s one of the few I keep in my kitchen, and I’d love to chat just a little bit about the genesis because I think it was, let’s say, around 2006 when you slipped this note to Pollan. When did your book come out?
Samin Nosrat: Last year; what’s last year? 2017.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, last year, 2017, okay. This is not a book that you turned out really quickly. You didn’t just assemble another cookbook, which you and I both know are everywhere, and it did make a mark. I’m really curious to know, you’re auditing this class with Michael Pollan, what are some of the early ideas for the book or early titles for the book that never saw the light of day?
Samin Nosrat: After I audited the class with Michael, he started writing a book about cooking, which ended up being Cooked. He asked me to teach him how to cook. When I would come over to his house, we would cook together and talk about cooking, and every week when I went over there, I’d bring over a different book idea.
Tim Ferriss: Smart.
Samin Nosrat: There were so many bad ones. I can’t remember all of them. I do remember there was one where I had this sort of mentee employee who was kind of like this bipolar gutter punk.
Tim Ferriss: What is a gutter punk?
Samin Nosrat: A gutter punk is, well, we have a lot of them in Berkeley. He was just this kind of punky kid, had all these tattoos, and listened to loud music. I don’t know. He called himself a gutter punk and he had a lot of learning disabilities, and I had given up hope on him. I don’t even know why we hired him, and eventually, I gave up such hope on him that I couldn’t look him in the eye for months, and at some point, there was some moment that he had where he turned himself around and he came to work, and suddenly, I think it had to do with taking, honestly, his mental health medication.
He just became this incredible student and I felt really bad for not having been a better supporter of his, but then I also became motivated to really teach him and support him, and this incredible moment was when he came to work one day, and he was like, “I don’t want you guys to be mad at me, but I’ve been going to community college and I signed up for a study abroad program and I’m going to Italy.” I was like, “We are not mad at you. This is the most amazing thing that you somehow went from basically being nearly homeless when you started coming here to caring about food so much that you signed yourself up for community college, you got yourself to go to Italy. This is incredible and we’re going to help you as much as we possibly can.” I learned probably as much from him as he leaned from me, and I was like, “I’m going to write a memoir of teaching Robin how to cook,” and Michael was like, “That’s a terrible idea. Nobody wants to read that.”
I had this other idea where I was going to write The Tartine Afterhours Cookbook, the menu cookbook of all these dinners that I had made, that I was making in Tartine Bakery, and Michael was like, “That’s fine, but I know you’re thinking it’s going to be easy and no books are easy.” Yeah, he’s just like, “There’s no such thing as an easy book.” Oh, he would interview me periodically to get quotes for his book and he said, “What’s the deal? You’re so obsessed with these four elements.” I was like, “Oh yeah, salt, fat, acid, heat, that’s the system that I used to teach myself to cook, I used to teach other people. I always thought I’d write a book about it one day.” And he was like, “Well, there is your book, write that.” I was like, “No, no, no.” I was like, “That book’s going to be really hard to write; it won’t have beautiful photos because it’s not about that kind of cooking, and I just can’t do that.”
I remember this so clearly. He said, “Listen, you live in a delusional universe where everyone who you know who’s written a successful book is already a celebrity of some kind, either a celebrity chef or some famous writer, and you have this really confused notion that book and celebrity are somehow tied together or notoriety or something, but really, what publishers want is a unique and strong idea and that’s what this is. I’ve never heard this before; it makes so much sense and this is your book.” He’s like, “Stop messing around and go do this.”
I was like, “Great,” and then I just felt the weight of this huge task being set before me. Like I said, I didn’t really have the tools in the beginning. I sort of knew what went into a book proposal, he sort of told me, but I also knew that this would look much different than any book proposal he had ever written, and so I just sort of started going to my office, I got a writing residency, and I went to go figure this out.
Tim Ferriss: What is a writing residency?
Samin Nosrat: Oh, sorry.
Tim Ferriss: No, you’re good.
Samin Nosrat: It was an opportunity to go write for two weeks uninterrupted in a beautiful setting and be housed and fed, and that was maybe a mistake to go so early in my writing process because I wasn’t really writing. I was still very much ideating. I just had a wall of Post-it notes, and then everyone else at the residency would come down to the dinner table and be like, I wrote 5,000 words today, and I’d be like, well, I put seven Post-its on the wall.
Tim Ferriss: I always want to slap those people, no offense if anyone listening is one of those people, if they’re like, “Oh, man, I had a pretty tough day, I only knocked out 5,000 words,” and you’re like, “What? I barely figured out what font to use on the first page.”
Samin Nosrat: Totally, I laid in a hammock a lot, and that first round, anything I wrote during those two weeks, that was definitely the time when I was attempting to be Michael Pollan, and eventually, I realized that wasn’t working for me. And then I tried for a short while to be another writer, and then that wasn’t working either. And then eventually I was like, “Oh, I just have to be myself.”
Tim Ferriss: Who is the other? If you don’t mind.
Samin Nosrat: It’s my friend Tamar Adler, who’s an incredible writer. She just has such a beautiful way of writing that I very much enjoy reading, but it’s not me.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not you, yeah.
Samin Nosrat: It’s so good that I want it to be my words, but it’s not my words. I had to just be okay with whatever comes out of my mouth or onto my page is my thing, and I’m still learning that. There are so many times, even when I got this column for the Times Magazine, which at the time when I started cooking was really the highest sort of writing that was coming out about food. To me, it was the thing that I had always dreamt of, was to be able to write the food column for the Times magazine.
I couldn’t believe it when it finally became my job, and I still can’t really believe it and I still have so much terror every time I sit down to write it where I’m like, “This is going to be published in the New York Time’s magazine. Oh, my god, I’m not smart enough for this. I’m not good enough for this.” There was this way where sometimes I’ll just be lazy, and I can’t figure out a different way to say something, so I’ll write the silly stupid way that I would say it, and that’s the stuff the editors are always like, “This is amazing; you’re so good,” and every time I’m like, “Oh, I thought that’s what you were going to cut.”
There was this one time when I said something like, “Hello, my name is Samin.” I basically wrote, “Hi, my name is Samin, and I’m an artisan bread hoarder,” which is such a silly dumb thing to say, and she was like, “This is amazing,” and eventually I had to ask her, I said, why is it that you always like this really silly stuff that’s not crafted? And she said, “Because it’s you and you’re here because we like your voice, and the truer you can be to your own voice, the better that is.”
And I said, “But isn’t that the cheesiest possible stuff? I figured you would cut all those dumb jokes that I make,” and she said, “Maybe if it came from someone else we would cut it, but when it comes from you, it sounds so true to how you would actually talk or what you would actually write that it makes sense for us to keep it,” and I said, “It is how I actually talk.” She said, “Yeah, that’s why we want it.” I’m still getting it through my head that the thing that people value about me is me. Not me trying to be a MacArthur genius or whatever.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned earlier how Michael said to you something along the lines of, “Publishers are looking for unique and clear ideas,” and I just want to take that and expand it a bit because, for people who are listening, I would also say that what any audience or potential audience, the people out there who are part of your tribe or who want the version of you that is the true you that you can put on the page also want, not just unique and clear ideas, but they want a unique and clear voice. I’ve had friends come to me who have incredible stories and are well spoken, but they say, “I’m not a writer, I can’t write, I don’t know if I could ever tell my story, although people tell me I should write a book, I should do this, I should do that,” and that’s a longer conversation. Whether you should write a book or not is –
Samin Nosrat: Do you want to have the most miserable four years of your life? If the answer’s yes, write a book.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right, if for whatever reason it exercises more demons than years it pulls out of your life, then yes, but what I try to convey, and this was said to me, actually, is that you don’t need to be John McPhee, you don’t need to be Michael Pollan, you don’t need to be anyone whose writing you admire so much that it intimidates you to actually be a good writer, if that makes any sense. If you have a unique and clear voice and you can consistently be you, then you’ve won more than half the battle, and if you don’t know how to use a semicolon, it’s fine. Not the most material problem and I think you accomplish that really well in your book, and I would be curious to know, as someone who’s dabbled in television a few times now, what did you find most rewarding and challenging about the television format, and why did you decide to say yes? Because you go from a relatively solitary queen of the castle environment when you’re writing a book.
Now, granted, you have editors and so on, but it’s kind of your gig in a lot of ways to, “Holy shit, who are all those people, what am I going to do? Am I supposed to interact with everybody? How do I?” It’s a completely different environment. Why did you decide to do TV and what were things that surprised you?
Samin Nosrat: Well, in terms of this solitary versus social, I have always been both, which is why I continue to cook, because I really enjoy both the manual physical part of it, but also the really communal part of it where I get to go be in conversation and ask other people what they’re cooking and eating and learn new things from other cooks. I think I’d go bananas if I was only sitting at a desk all day, every day. I enjoy having both things. To me, the decision to go work on some collaboration that would bring me into work with a lot of people all the time, that really wasn’t a negative thing at all, and then, I don’t know.
I was so excited about the opportunity to bring this philosophy of cooking to a broad audience that that was ultimately the thing that I was seeking, and to me, I think after the first or second cooking class I ever taught, which I think was around 2006 or 2007, I remember coming to work one day with my friends, with these other chefs, and I said, “This is really inefficient. Here I am teaching 12 wealthy ladies how to, I don’t know, use the right amount of salt or whatever.
“How many of these 12-person cooking classes am I going to have to teach before I actually teach a broad audience this fundamental and really life changing information?” It seems like it’s going to be hard to reach a large crowd, plus just the economics of it for my time and the ingredients and renting a kitchen or whatever, it wasn’t inexpensive. I had to charge a lot of money. That meant that it was already naturally narrowing down the group of people to whom I could teach the stuff.
I came in to work one day and I was like, “I think if I had a TV show, I think if I had a cooking show where I taught people how to cook, I could reach so many more people. I could do it so much more efficiently and it would really make a difference,” and being Berkeley, my two friends were like, “That’s a terrible idea, you are a terrible capitalist who has totally sold out,” because in Berkeley, most people don’t have television; they don’t let their kids watch television, so the idea that I could possibly want to do television was just so morally uncouth or whatever. That really sort of stung me at the time, but now I recently remembered, I was like, “Oh, this has been something I’ve thought about and wanted for a long time.”
When the opportunity to turn the book into a show presented itself, I was like, “Yes, this is amazing. I get to do something different.” I think there’s a lot of food TV out there. There are sort of two types of it. There’s the really accessible everyday cooking stuff that is generally shot in a studio with not-so-great lighting and is meant to be like getting you to make some simple stuff at home, and then there’s the really aspirational cinematic stuff like Chef’s Table, which is not so much about cooking as it is a hagiography of a different chef, and it’s really aspirational and quite elite.
I was really upset when I thought about it, that there was nothing that existed that was beautiful and cinematic, but also accessible. Why didn’t something exist at the intersection of these two things? I knew that I wanted to make something gorgeous and just inspiring, but also be for everyone, and there were ways in which that was very easy for me to translate because I had already been distilling those ideas into the book and into the way I wanted the book to look and the vision I had for the way the book would be in the world and function in people’s lives. And then there were entirely new things I had to learn throughout the process because I have never made a show before.
One of the things, looking back after having gone through both all of the preproduction and then 40 weeks of production and post production, I kept saying to people, they’d be like, “When will you have time?” I was like, “Imagine I’m pregnant, 40 weeks. Imagine I’m pregnant, call me when the baby’s born because that’s how intense this thing is going to be.” One of the things that I did not anticipate but realized pretty quickly that I was so good at and I really enjoyed doing was, for some weird reason, I don’t know why, I have this ability to ignore the cameras and just be me. I don’t change at all. There’s a way people kept saying, “Oh, you’re a natural,” and so I think that’s what they were referring to, was that I’m the exact same on camera as I am off camera, and I had to learn some basic things like where to stand and what’s light, and where do I look and where do I not look.
Tim Ferriss: That was great, perfect, one more for safety. You’re like, “Oh, one more.”
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, totally. You also have to do everything 50 times, and I also, because I’m a perfectionist, would take it really personally at first, and I’d be like, “Oh, no, I did it wrong, I have to do it again.” Pretty quickly, I realized, “Oh, we’re doing it again and it has nothing to do with me doing it right or wrong. It’s because they need a different angle, or the sound guy missed something.” There were just so many different variables, so the way that I could deliver the energy high every time, and that was stuff that I guess isn’t something that everyone has, so I had that, so that was great.
Tim Ferriss: Can I pause for one second?
Samin Nosrat: Of course.
Tim Ferriss: Also, I think that, and this is pure speculation, but you’ve taught so much, I think that you hone that ability also in the process of teaching. I’ve see that overlap for some folks. I don’t know how much of it is nature versus nurture versus nurture.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I definitely think, for sure, and also even just cooking itself, cooking is repetition. Cooking is, every day you come in, you do the thing again, whether you did it perfectly yesterday or really badly yesterday. You just have to put your head down and do it again. I feel like there were certain, I don’t know, calluses that I had formed just from my other jobs that made me be ready to be good at this, but it’s funny that there were so many things I didn’t know because I had never done it before and also nobody explained to me.
In retrospect, because maybe I am a teacher who likes to put people at ease and explain things to them through the process there would be these things that I would learn, like distill and articulate, and then at the next day, the next shoot, the next time we were with someone else, I would be able to explain this, because we were going around the world and bringing all sorts of different people onto the screen with us, and almost none of them had ever been on camera before. We show up with this crew of 25 people and all these trucks and all this equipment and lighting, it’s so much stuff and it’s so overwhelming for people, especially in some of the places that we went where it was really off the beaten path, very rural places in Japan and in Mexico.
It’s the beginner’s mind thing where I’m like, “Okay, how do I put myself in this person’s shoes and imagine what it feels like to have this whole rodeo show up?” It’s like a circus and what is that making you feel like and when it’s not explained to these guys, “Oh, we’re going to have to do everything 17 times, but it’s not because you did it wrong.” The things that I learned along the way I would say to everyone, like, “Don’t worry, we have to do it a lot of times, but it had nothing to do with you. You’re perfect, you’re fine,” Or just “Look at me; don’t look at them.” There’s a lot of talking in the background that you have to tune out and a lot of the time they’re calling your name because they’re talking to each other about focusing the camera on you, so I had to be like, “Just ignore. If you hear your name, they’re not talking to you,” because your natural human response is to turn to whoever’s saying your name.
There are these little things that I learned that made it easier for me and then I took great pleasure in being the guide for whoever because it’s my job to put that person, that cook, that grandma I’m cooking with, at ease so that she can be her best self and we can get the best footage from her. I don’t know, it’s that maternal thing or whatever, it’s that teacher thing, and I realized that I was really good at that. Yeah, and it was just nice to have an entirely new field, an entirely new skill to hone in terms of, what is it to be on camera, what is it to work with these different people? That part was really fun. I really enjoyed it.
Tim Ferriss: I’m really excited for you and I’m also really excited for everybody to see this. I’m excited. Just to look at the overall structure of the show, how many episodes are there total?
Samin Nosrat: There are four episodes and each one’s about 50-ish minutes long, and it sort of matches the structure of the book. There’s salt, fat, acid, and heat, and in each episode, we go to a different country to explore the nuances of that element, but then through voiceover and storytelling and beautiful archival imagery, really, our team who’s digging up the archival did such a good job, we were able to connect everything back to some sort of a universal message.
We went to Japan for salt, but honestly, we could have gone to any country for salt. We went to Italy for fat; we could have gone anywhere for fat. It’s this way where, through the specific, I find a way to then connect it to the universal, and my hope for the show and what I think from early small feedbacks that I’m receiving is that what I wanted it to do was to give you a few little nuggets that you could put in your pocket and same as the book, never have to return to the book, never have to return to the show, never have to refer to me again, and these are going to be the little things that change the way that you cook.
From what I’ve heard is that people are doing it. They’re doing the stuff I told them to do. I think especially where Netflix is concerned, there’s so much beautiful food documentary and food-this and even food competitions on there, but I think this is the first show that is really aimed to get you cooking.
Tim Ferriss: I’m so excited. Yeah, I need a reboot. I mean, I do enjoy cooking, but this, I think, is such a fun, culturally rich way to do it. Let me ask you, as people are listening to this and they’re getting excited to not only see these various locations and cultures and learn from you as you’re pulling them into these stories, salt, fat, acid, heat, I read somewhere, I think it was on kitchn.com that, as one of your indulgences, and maybe you’ve changed, you can feel free to change, is a local olive oil, meaning local to you over on the West Coast from KATZ Winery and then there are a few other things. Could you recommend people who want to just grab a few tools?
Samin Nosrat: Oh, yeah. There’s no budget limit, but we’re not going to be buying the latest and greatest super expensive immersion circulator or something, but are there a handful of things, maybe they overlap, like a nice salt, some type of fat, acid, anything that you can think of that most home cooks may have neglected or not incorporated that people can just run out and grab in preparation?
Samin Nosrat: Yes, okay, oh, this is exciting. Okay, for salt, I think that Maldon salt, which is the British salt, the little pyramid flakes that comes in a little white box, that is now more readily available in grocery stores, but also you can buy it on Amazon, and I feel like that not only tastes amazing, but it had this incredible texture that you – just putting a little bit on top of cookies or even ice cream is amazing, but also any salad or tomato toast. I don’t know, I have a huge jar of it that I just reach into all the time at home.
Tim Ferriss: It’s so good.
Samin Nosrat: It’s so good. I think one thing that I learned about on the show that sort of blew my mind that I really hope will catch on after this show is how different and how far superior a good soy sauce is to regular soy sauce, like the regular everyday Kikkoman and the way you know it’s a good one is that it’s been aged in a wooden barrel versus a stainless-steel tank.
Often, it’ll say wooden barrel-aged or barrel-aged on the thing. There’s a brand, probably the brand that’s the easiest to come by in the states is called Nama Shoyu and, again, you can buy that on Amazon, but it’s also in higher-end stores. I’ve also seen it at Whole Foods and it’s a little bit – it’s like $9.00 versus 2.50, but it’s one of those things. The flavor is so much richer and so much deeper and bounces off all of the angles of your mouth. It’s amazing.
It’s so incredible and I would say that soy sauce is really special. Olive oil-wise, I would say KATZ olive oil is really delicious, and also there’s another one that’s local to us in California called Seka Hills, which is made on an Indian reservation. It’s amazing.
Tim Ferriss: S-E-C-A, like dry hills?
Samin Nosrat: S-E-K-A.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, S-E-K-A.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, and those two are two of the nicest California olive oils and, Seka Hills is actually, I think relatively inexpensive and you can buy it in bigger things. That’s kind of my everyday olive oil now, and then acid-wise, I love a lime, it’s my favorite, but if you’re going to buy, again, vinegar-wise, I think a nice rice vinegar is really – I’m just discovering how much more delicious – in my recipe testing, I try to cook with everyday stuff that you can buy at any grocery store so that my recipes are pretty accurate to what anybody’s going to make anywhere in the country instead of very specific niche ingredients, but sometimes when I’m making my own dinner at home, I just want to have the delicious rice vinegar. That same brand Nama Shoyu, they make a really delicious rice vinegar that’s just so fantastic. Yeah, that’s a really good one, and then heat, oh, here, this is a luxury, this is a little bit expensive, but it’s the most amazing.
Tim Ferriss: I’m ready.
Samin Nosrat: I would say you always want to have a great pan, and for me, I often say, just have a cast iron pan. It’s the most used pan in my house, is a cast iron I bought at a flea market for $25, but if you want to graduate up from a cast iron, there is a company, I believe they’re in Virginia, it’s called Blanc Creatives, B-L-A-N-C. They make these beautiful hand-forged pans that are steel. They’re some sort of a cast steel.
They have this beautiful bluish tint. This pan is unbelievable. My best friend gave me one for a gift a few years ago and for whatever reason I didn’t start using it really regularly until recently. It blows my mind how good it is, because it browns just like a cast iron pan, but it’s much lighter. It heats up a lot more quickly and it just retains its heat. They’re just a delight to use. These pans are a delight to use. I don’t know how else to say it and everything that comes out of it is so good.
Tim Ferriss: Do you cook everything, or can you cook, for instance, would you cook eggs in this?
Samin Nosrat: Yes, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: You would.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah. No, and your eggs wouldn’t stick, because it definitely has a seasoning that you have to keep up and it will rust. It will rust even a little bit more easily. Sometimes, if I don’t dry mine really well in the morning, there’ll be a little rust forming so I have to wipe it away, but it’s that seasoning that makes it so beautiful and perfectly nonstick. They’re also very gorgeous and look like a beautiful handmade object. I think they’re in the $200 range, but a pan, I don’t know, people buy the Le Creuset pots for 300 bucks and they use them for 30 years, so I feel okay giving one expensive pan recommendation.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure, and by seasoning, are you say, like heating it up, putting salt in it and kind of scratching the surface or is it really just letting it absorb the various oils?
Samin Nosrat: I think, yeah, it’s just the fat. I’m not so good with the science of metal in these pans and stuff, but I think what happens is, as you cook or if you intentionally run it with some fat and then put it in the oven and let it get warm the fats turn into, I think it’s called polymerization, and the fats almost fill in the little – any holes that might be in the metal, invisible minute holes, and then create a really smooth surface.
The smoother that surface is, the more non-stick the thing will be, which is why you buy a cast iron that’s not yet seasoned, if you even touch it with your fingers you can feel that it’s a little bit pebbly in there and that pebbly-ness is where things stick. That pebbly-ness is sticking stuff and Teflon exists at the complete other end of the range where it’s almost entirely smooth. The smoother the thing is the less sticking you’ll have.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear! Well, Samin, I think this is an exciting place to probably tie up. I encourage everybody to check out the book and the show, of course. They can find you on the interwebs at Instagram and Twitter, @CiaoSamin.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, you’re doing it good.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’m working on it. I’ll just say Samin to keep it easy, but, yeah, @CiaoSamin, C-I-A-O, Samin on Instagram and Twitter, on Facebook, /samin.nosrat, and then saltfatacidheat.com is where they can find information about the TV show as well on that at the URL.
Samin Nosrat: Yeah, book, show, everything will be on there. Also, all the wonderful people, I’m writing profiles of all the people that we got to meet so you can learn more about the people from the show when the website launches.
Tim Ferriss: And I will also link to everything we’ve talked about in the show notes as per usual for folks. For people listening, you can go to tim.blog/podcast for links to everything we’ve discussed including the show and the products, the books everything, that’s coming up.
Samin Nosrat: And if I can find it the email to Michael Pollan.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right and if you can find it, the actual wordsmithing that you used with Michael Pollan, I would love to see that, so I’ll put that in the show notes if we can find it. Is there anything else that you would like to say or ask of people listening or suggest to people listening before we wrap up?
Samin Nosrat: Gosh, no. Happy cooking; use more salt.
Tim Ferriss: Use more salt, don’t forget the lime.
Samin Nosrat: Don’t forget your feelings.
Tim Ferriss: And don’t forget your feelings. What a gift to spend time with you. Thank you so much.
Samin Nosrat: Thanks so much, this was so emotionally resonant and fun, and just really beautiful, so thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my pleasure entirely. Maybe my therapy is doing this podcast.
Samin Nosrat: It sounds like it is.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe that’s my version of therapy. Well, once again, I really appreciate you taking the time today. The show looks beautiful. I really hope people check it out, and to be continued, I hope we have many more conversations.
Samin Nosrat: Me, too, Tim. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, as always and until next time, thanks for tuning in.
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