Samin Nosrat begins the final episode of Salt Fat Acid Heat with an apt metaphor: “Heat is the element of transformation.” Nosrat, a chef and author, is calling attention to one of cooking’s essential tenets—but also, slyly enough, to a new movement of food shows on Netflix and elsewhere that spurn the pallid and passé images of shows past, turning away from white domesticity to a broader vision of food acceptance.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is not a revolutionary leap forward, but it is a necessary one. It’s a strangely, surprisingly pleasurable piece of democratic fare that follows the Chez Panisse-trained chef to Northern Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Berkeley, California as she devours, teaches, and learns about what she considers to be the most foundational pillars to cooking. In Nosrat’s telling, the craft is about returning agency, power, and knowledge to the people involved. It’s about trial and error. It’s about not knowing and ultimately figuring it out. Nosrat’s is an open-armed, for-everybody approach to cooking: I did this and so can you. There’s no pretense, no feeling of exclusion or needing to get everything right. Instead, it’s the rare breed of program more consumed with providing access—into other cultures but just as powerfully opening new windows into the self as a tool of empowerment—than perfection. (Something the genre always was, or should’ve been, but didn’t always seem to be.)
Based on the best-selling book of the same name (although one that has commas), Salt Fat Acid Heat joins a class of food shows from Netflix—including Ugly Delicious, Chef’s Table, and Nailed It—that have distilled its interests into a smorgasboard of inclusivity, history, and humor. The grand metaphor that undergirds these shows is the clashing of cultural differences, and the harmony birthed from the ongoing frictions. It’s a bit like cooking itself: unfolding its layers, braising its textures, shedding and learning anew.
Before Anthony Bourdain became the unofficial bard of modern food TV—I dare you to find a more poetic rendering of America than his explanation of Waffle House—it was the Food Network that ushered in an era of unrivaled programming, with shows that ranged from the instructional to the purely competitive. Emeril Live!, Iron Chef America, Barefoot Contessa, and the Rachael Ray-hosted 30 Minute Meals were among the network’s early standouts. According to Kathleen Finch, the chief lifestyle brands officer at Discovery Communications, which owns Food Network, the channel’s current strategy is a considerable pivot from the network’s nascent years. “Our job is not to teach people how to cook,” Finch told food blog Grub Street. “Our job is to make people want to watch television.” Today, programming largely consists of cooking competition shows like Chopped and The Great Food Truck Race.
As Bourdain’s ever-searching, ever-curious world-hungry appetite spread, he became an anomaly: a carnivore for the untamed and unexplored, one who opened the world to viewers, imbuing them with a sense of voyage into the uncharted. But The Food Network’s creative stall prompted Netflix and networks like Viceland to experiment with alternative programming that tested the boundaries of what a food show could encompass. With a millennial eye for consumption, the Action Bronson-hosted Fuck, That’s Delicious and Huang’s World—an obvious descendant of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and an even more obvious model for David Chang’s Ugly Delicious—were clear innovators of the genre. Both shows were about the politics of taste and had an incessant appetite for cool, which often resulted in shows not just about food, but culture; both pushed viewers to challenge their own hangups and preconceptions.
Still, an even more radically evident reason that such fragmentation was allowed in the first place was the medium’s decay, from the inside out. TV cracked and with that crack came the universalization of streaming platforms. This shift—be it strategic or simply evolutionary—stuffed screens fat with competing shows, some of top-tier quality, but many more, as critics have pointed out, that were simply just OK. As it stands, the content landscape is undergoing a democratization. It’s one of the reasons why the four-man Bronx food collective Ghetto Gastro were given a web series, The Cook Up, on Spotify this year. Or why personality-driven cooking series on YouTube, like Binging with Babish or The Burger Show, have such colossal followings.
In the 2016 documentary City of Gold, venerable Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold puts it plainly: “You can’t look at cuisine as a singular thing anymore.” Gold, who recently passed away from cancer, was a blue-collar gourmand attracted to the everyday, the obscure, the familial. He loved tacos of every assortment, strip mall hot dogs, and the pinch of spicy southern Thai cooking. In his three decades of food writing, he ravenously scoured the outer edges of his beloved LA in an attempt to prove how food, in its deep and dense plurality—a marrying of family histories, ingredients, and love—was really about unification. Gold’s statement extends to the state of food TV as well. The programming can’t just be a singular thing. If the goal is exploration and understanding, what I consider the heart of all great food shows, then the approach need only be one that is non-singular, multi-view, and poly-sensorial. Which, really, is just another way of saying: It’s time to apply more heat.