Empowering people to make better choices

‘‘I really enjoy seeing what other people are doing and learning about different conditions, how they treat ingredients and how they extract flavour and so then I incorporate that piece by piece into the food I cook.’’ — Californian chef Samin Nosrat Phot
Samin Nosrat. Photo: supplied

Californian chef Samin Nosrat had a childhood obsession about New Zealand, so when she was invited to speak about her best-selling Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Canongate) at the Wellington Writers and Readers' festival recently, she jumped at the opportunity.

The first morning she arrived, she went to a powhiri where people from local iwi talked about the three pillars of Maori culture and how generosity was a really big part of that, she said.

''I must say I've felt that every moment of being here. People have gone out of their way to take care of me and it's just been so extraordinary.''

She'd also heard about Fleur Sullivan and her restaurant, Fleur's Place, at Moeraki from a friend who had visited and written about it.

''When I told him I thought my publisher would send me to New Zealand, he said 'you have to go to the South Island and find this woman Fleur Sullivan'. He just knew I would love her and how precious she was,'' she said in a phone interview from Moeraki.

So with the help of the festival organisers and Wanaka food personality Annabel Langbein, she visited Fleur's Place last month.

''What I love is there's nothing overly precious or fluffy about anything in [Fleur's] sensibility or in her food. It's really almost exhausting to watch how much energy she gives out to people who come to the restaurant from near and far. That place, the food is very special in its simplicity and its freshness, but it's pretty clear that it's about Fleur. She is the soul and spirit of that place.''

Nosrat (39) loves travelling ''and meeting all the Fleur Sullivans of the world'', she says.

''I really enjoy seeing what other people are doing and learning about different conditions, how they treat ingredients and how they extract flavour and so then I incorporate that piece by piece into the food I cook.''

Growing up in an Iranian family in San Diego, California, she loved food but her life was changed after eating at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley near San Francisco, which focuses on local organic and sustainably-grown ingredients.

A student at the time, she and a friend had to save up to eat at the celebrated restaurant and she was so inspired by the food and the experience, that she asked for a job. Abandoning her university studies, she learnt the secrets of cooking, distilling food down to four elements - salt, fat, acid and heat. In her book she explains that these four are universal to all cooking, whatever the cuisine, and the different ways of using them need to be mastered to produce consistently delicious food.

''My curiosity is boundless and I love going round the world and seeing people and understanding how different conditions arrive at the same conclusion. I started with this Iranian base and then built a Western European base on it and for me now it's going about exploring the world.''

But her concern for food also raised her cultural, social and environmental awareness, she said.

''In the US agricultural system many of the interests are determined by subsidies the Government gives to certain kinds of farmers who produce certain kinds of crops, which are not usually the healthiest, so it's sort of built into the system, that unless you have money you can't really eat healthily,'' she said.

''If you are working two or three jobs you don't have the time to come home and cook for the kids so you just buy junk food. That I think is something a lot of people are uninformed about.''

If people can cook they don't need to rely on manufactured and processed food from multinational corporations, she said.

''For me, creating equitable and just food systems where everyone has access to good food is definitely a priority but within that, I do believe that it's everyone's responsibility, especially people who do have access to good food, to really learn and make better decisions.''

As a teacher, she aims to help educate people to make better decisions.

''I feel like it can be really overwhelming. There is so much information on labels like 'organic' and 'free-range' and 'cage-free', and all this stuff, it can become too much information for people. So a goal for me is to make it accessible and make it simple.''

Diets, such as paleo or low-carb, that promise all sorts of benefits, are confusing and add a lot of baggage to what you eat, as well as making it difficult and more expensive, she said.

Her journalism teacher, Michael Pollan, author of The Carnivore's Dilemma and several other books, offered her some simple advice: ''Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.''

It's a great mantra because it really encourages moderation, she said.

''The portions in the US are so huge, especially when it comes to meat, so it's a big mind shift to shift away from that, but [meat] is really resource intensive, so it's really in all our best interest to shift to eating more plants.''

She sees her role as a cooking teacher to help empower people and encourage them to take responsibility for their own cooking. Then they feel like they can have some power in the whole process, she said.


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