Samin Nosrat built her career and her identity as a chef, but what she really wanted was to write. Ann talks with Samin about confronting her fear of pushing the reset button and the rewards that can come with doing it anyway.
SAMIN NOSRAT: The core idea of working in a restaurant and being a cook? Your feelings don't matter. Not only your emotional feelings but your physical ones. Like if you burn yourself, you just keep working. If you cut yourself you wrap a rag around it, and you keep working. You don't stop to feel, you don't stop to think, “How does this make me feel?”
ANN FRIEDMAN: Samin Nosrat started her career in one of the most famous kitchens in the world—Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Now you may know her as a writer and the author of the popular cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. And sure, there are a lot of chefs who also write cookbooks, but for Samin this was about an identity shift. She wanted to go from the culinary world to the writing world. But first, she had to confront her fear of pushing the reset button.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It: a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
On this episode: How do you learn to stop saying yes to other people, and start saying yes to yourself?
NOSRAT: It's hard to say no. For a long time in my office I had this little index card that I wrote “Say ‘yes’ to ‘no.’” [laughs] If you're saying yes to everything then you can't focus on anything. As a sort of professional people pleaser and lifelong people pleaser that is what I come up against all the time.
FRIEDMAN: Now you’ve been a chef for almost 20 years, you've worked in a bunch of different acclaimed restaurants, food startups, you've written a book about cooking...how did you start out?
NOSRAT: I sort of accidentally became a cook. It was never my goal.
FRIEDMAN: Why not?
NOSRAT: I always wanted to be a writer. And I sort of stumbled into kitchens at a point where I realized I needed some sort of skill that I could make money off of. And it was really enchanting and inspiring the way that it happened. So I started cooking and I loved it. It gave me a great community and something I could care about and work hard on. But I at no point saw the like arc of my life leading me through restaurants and to chefferie.
FRIEDMAN: But you’ve had this really impressive restaurant career, and it was kind of always impressive from the beginning. You got your start at Chez Panisse, which is a place that I have always to eat, and I think a lot of people want to eat. And then later on you took a risk working at this restaurant in Berkeley that a friend of yours was opening, called Eccolo. Tell me about Eccolo.
NOSRAT: The chef who opened the restaurant Chris [Lee] was my mentor and he’d really given me my first chance earlier in my career, and I felt very loyal to him. I was excited to go work for him because I had just come back from living in Italy, and he was cooking Italian food, and I was so just excited to go have freedom there and be given responsibility and chance to grow.
But it became apparent pretty quickly in the life span of that restaurant that we were fighting an uphill battle for way too many reasons.
And I wanted to quit so many times... I did quit. I also I had a bad temper and I was quitting all the time and coming back the next day. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: Tell me about one of the days when you tried to quit.
NOSRAT: There was a big fight over parmesan cheese. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: Wait, what?
NOSRAT: [laughs] Only in my career. It’s called Red Cow parmesan cheese and it’s made with the milk from the Vacche Rosse, which is a breed of cows who basically were the original parmesan cows. They don’t produce a lot of milk—modern breeds produce a lot more milk—but their milk is exquisitely fatty and full of amino acids which become umami. So parmesan cheese made with the milk of red cows is the original parmesan. And I wanted to live in the world where I could buy the most exquisite parmesan cheese. [laughs] Not the $8.99 stuff, who knows where it was made. But compared to the prices that the people who owned this restaurant saw their other restaurant spending, they were like, “Well we get parmesan cheese for, whatever, I don’t know, eight dollars a pound. Why are you spending twice that?”
We all go through this thing where we sort of have to be broken out of our idealistic fairyland vision of what a restaurant is, and then we come against the wall of reality of what it is to have a restaurant.
FRIEDMAN: Can you pinpoint the beginning of the end?
NOSRAT: Little things just started being taken away from us. First it was the discount for eating at the restaurant went from four people to two people. That just felt like, I don't know, some indignity. The way we would find out was these notes on the bulletin board. I was like, what, you’re not even gonna tell us?
And then after that I think the next thing to be taken away was like shift drink—we couldn’t get a glass of wine or beer or something. These were all cost cutting measures. But to me they felt like they were, [sigh], hurting the culture of the place. They were like, “Why should we be giving you drinks when you guys are not bringing in any money?” And I was like, “Well, that's not a way to get people to feel like they're invested in a place.”
Now it’s so clear to me, I would never work in a place or create a workplace where that generosity wasn't built in.
FRIEDMAN: I mean yeah, you totally have these standards, I hear that. But was there something else that was at play?
NOSRAT: Well eventually after about a year and a half I sort of became in charge of the kitchen. And so I was maybe at that point 24 or 25. Being a good cook doesn't mean you're going to be a good teacher or a good manager. Being a good cook means you'll get promoted to the next station and then eventually to a managerial role. But there's rarely if ever any managerial training. And so I didn't have any tools to be in charge of the people below me. And I had never been taught how to wield that power. And frankly like, I was a young brown woman in charge of mostly slightly older white men.
So like in this very sort of fast paced, very stressful environment, it was really hard for me to figure out ways to assert myself without resorting to anger. A lot of kitchens like Gordon Ramsay trope is like the throwing in the yelling, and the cursing and stuff. I wasn't that kind of angry. I was much more passive aggressive.
FRIEDMAN: Like what kind of stuff would you do when you were upset in the kitchen?
NOSRAT: Oh my god, there were entire employees who, once I realized they were hopeless and never going to listen to me, I just couldn’t even look at them anymore. Like I wouldn’t look at them! [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: You would just shout an instruction without making eye contact?
NOSRAT: I would sort of mumble as I walk by. [laughs] I shouldn't be laughing. I had a short fuse so like, I would show someone how to do something one day and they would do it that way, and then the next day they'd be doing it a different way and I'd be like, “Why? I just don't understand, why are you not doing it the same way as yesterday?” And I would just take that thing away from them and do it myself. There was a lot of that. Like, if you can't do this like I'm just going to do it myself.
FRIEDMAN: Oh wow. That is a recipe for burnout real fast, huh?
NOSRAT: Yeah. And that happening like a million times a day and a million different ways. It was just it was brutal. It was really brutal.
FRIEDMAN: If you could go back and whisper into the ear of yourself at that time, would you have said, like when the first note went up, it was time to start moving on? Or like walk away because it didn't match with what the kind of environment you wanted to be working in?
NOSRAT: That is such a hard question, Ann. Even sitting where I am now, I don't know what the right choice would have been. I put myself and some of the people around me though a lot of pain by staying. I felt so sure in that moment and through those years if I left that Chris would probably, I was like “oh he's going to have a heart attack and die if I leave.” I had this feeling of being so responsible for him—which is probably overblown ego on my part. But I knew instinctively that I was carrying a huge burden. And I knew that nobody else would carry that, because like I wasn't getting paid that much money. There was nobody else who cared about Chris and about the idea behind this restaurant as much as I did.
And so in a lot of ways the work itself and the environment itself just amplified all of my own sort of self-harming tendencies, and I was probably attracted to that because it was the way I knew how to be in the world was just buckle down and work harder.
FRIEDMAN: So after about five years, Eccolo closes its doors in 2009. How did the decision finally get made to say, “we’re done here”?
NOSRAT: You know by that point I was basically running the place with Chris and so I was aware of all of the conversations. And by then, I had been begging him to get out for two years. And there were so many different little things that happened that would give him a little bit more hope. This was the thing that his career had led to, was having this restaurant . So for me to say “let's get out” was a totally different thing than for him to decide to get out.
FRIEDMAN: It sounds like you weren't willing to leave just yourself...
NOSRAT: I had savior complex. [laughs] I don’t know. I was afraid. Yeah, I was scared to leave I think.
FRIEDMAN: Hm. I mean I relate to that so deeply, that’s why I’m “hm”’ing. [laughs] It's interesting how it can be this kind of self-propelled or self-fulfilling prophecy once you get in a situation like this, and you can tell yourself that that’s the way it’s gotta keep going, even though it’s grinding you down, physically, emotionally, psychologically. And there was this other thing you really wanted to be doing at the time, right? You wanted to be writing.
NOSRAT: Even through all of the years of working at Eccolo, I, every year, would apply to graduate school for different things. An MFA in poetry, MFA in nonfiction like or a journalism degree, an English Ph.D. I was always sort of trying to figure out where it is that I was going and what I was doing. So staying at the restaurant wasn't because I... a part of it was like this is this thing that I'm doing. If I leave I'll have to take a hard look at like, who am I? And what am I going to do? And I've already invested seven or eight years in this weird career path. Like it’s scary to try and figure out what I’m going to do. I didn’t always get into the schools I applied to, but I often did, and then I would always just be like “well, do I have ninety thousand dollars to spend on a poetry degree?” So there was always something that talked me out of it and I would stay.
FRIEDMAN: I would think that that would make it easier to leave. Like if your passion isn't running a kitchen or things like that. Were there any conversations with friends who were like “um, hello?! Why are you not quitting and pursuing this writing passion?”
NOSRAT: No because most people around me were like “How lucky for you to have found the thing you love—food.” [laughs] So as much as I somehow knew in my belly that that wasn't the thing I was working toward, I think it’s hard to be doing the thing I had always thought I wanted to do, which was to write.
FRIEDMAN: Wait, why were you so scared to do the thing that you always wanted to do?
NOSRAT: [deep breath, long pause] Um...I am a really methodical person. [laughs] I like to do my homework. I like to figure everything out before I make a decision. And so here I had just spent my entire adult life basically investing in a career of cooking, and all of the sudden I was faced with the thing that, you know since I was 12 years old I wanted to do. I had the opportunity to do that. And I had no idea how to do any of it!
When we finally decided to close Eccolo, I just knew in my belly, I was like, this is my chance to go be a writer. I had my freedom now. But freedom is scary! [laughs] And freedom is a big it's a big burden and a lot of ways. So I took on rent at an office. It was 80 dollars a month. Can you imagine? It was so terrifying. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: Why was that terrifying?
NOSRAT: Because it was like an expense. Like was I ever going to make enough money as a writer to pay an 80-dollar-a-month rent? [laughs]
It's funny ‘cause like for all of those years when I was cooking all I wanted was to have some of my time and energy going into some intellectual pursuit. When all of the sudden all I had was me and my brain, all I wanted was to also work with my hands a little bit.
FRIEDMAN: So you and Chris, your old boss, started making food again. Kind of at a smaller, more informal scale. And you made pasta and sausages, which had been your specialities at the restaurant before. People placed their orders online, and picked it up from you in person. And you called the whole thing Pop Up General Store. And...then what happened?
NOSRAT: Really quickly, our first ones were in December of 2009 and by February of 2010, there had been a ton of press and the mailing list that we'd started with like 1,200 names, had jumped to 20,000.
FRIEDMAN: The way you talk about it is like almost without your consent it became this other, full time thing.
NOSRAT: Oh, a hundred percent. [laughs] Within six months, basically, to go from a failed restaurant to this food business that all of the sudden, everyone wanted to be a part of it. I was getting international press. I was getting suddenly credit for being like a brilliant thinker. The amount of attention and business we were getting far outstripped our resources to run a business and feed people. This was me in my apartment with an intern and an assistant printing out labels on my inkjet printer. It was just so held together with scotch tape and twine.
Of course I loved the attention. I loved that people were saying positive things. I loved that after Eccolo and the heartbreak of it and the pain of that, that we could make basically the same food and get praise for it. I proved myself finally. I was finally valued for this thing.
But it started to suck away all of my time and my energy.
FRIEDMAN: I've been picturing your writing desk sitting empty in the coworking space.
NOSRAT: Empty. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: Was there a day or a specific moment when everything came to a head and you were just, “I can’t do this anymore”?
NOSRAT: When the Marketplace woman came...
‘MARKETPLACE’ CLIP: “It's the site of the Bay Area's latest foodie craze, a kind of a farmers market for specialty gourmet food called the Pop-Up General Store. ‘I'm not going to say this too loud, but I came with nothing but an appetite and a wad of cash.’”
NOSRAT: I had a breakdown, and I start crying in the corner during the interview. [laughs]
It was on a market day, I think probably a thousand shoppers came that day. We honestly maybe only had enough food for like 300 people. So people were pissed that there wasn't enough food and singling me out and the lady’s there with the microphone. And I was like, “This is a disaster. What have I created?”
That was sort of a first alarm moment. I had a lot of friends who were doing it with me. And I noticed that I hated my friends, and they hated me.
FRIEDMAN: Oh god.
NOSRAT: [laughs] I felt like they didn’t understand the pressures I was under. And they were like, “you’re being really awful to us and not generous enough.” There were moments where I just was like, “I don’t want to go down this road.” It felt so familiar to the ways in which I had been unhappy and passive aggressive when I was in the restaurant.
FRIEDMAN: And did it feel familiar in terms of, like, literally how your body felt?
NOSRAT: Yes exactly the same. I started to dread it. And by now I knew what that felt like. I may not have been clear about what it was exactly that I did want to do. But I did know that what I wanted to make in the world was a feeling of community around food and that I wanted to be happy and I wanted to be creatively fulfilled. And I knew that that wasn't I wasn't getting that from this project.
I just started telling myself, “OK. Like it's okay to end something and not let it be a failure. You know it's okay to control the narrative. It's okay for a business to have—or a project to have—a beginning and a middle and an end that I control.” And only by choosing to say “no” to this thing, would I ever have the space and peace of mind and clarity to ever get to do the thing that I really wanted to do. Which was to write.
I said, ok, by December it’ll be our last two markets, and we’re gonna close. And everyone—food gossip sites, blah blah blah —everyone wanted to know what the juice was behind the story. And I was like, “There’s no juice. I just don’t want to do this.”
FRIEDMAN: I would love for you to talk about what it felt like to be able to say the reason is, I just don't want to?
NOSRAT: Ann, it was the best thing that I have ever done! [laughs] It felt so amazing. I felt such freedom and light. I felt so happy and I just felt like a totally different person starting the next January. Because I said no to that, because I ended that, immediately all of these other things—all of the opportunities that led to me writing my book appeared. And if they may have appeared earlier and I probably wouldn't have been able to do them. Or I would have taken everything on, and then sort of crashed and burned.
FRIEDMAN: What do you think would have happened if you hadn't quit? If you hadn't listened to that instinct of like, it's time to shutter this?
NOSRAT: I just think I would have worked myself to the bone and probably until like an adrenal breakdown. And instead of ending the narrative on my own terms, it would have ended as a failure.
FRIEDMAN: Samin left her people-pleasing ways behind in 2011, and she sat down at that desk. In 2017 she published her first book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which became a bestseller. She’s now a food columnist for the New York Times Magazine, and she even has a Netflix series—that’s right—it’s also called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. You can watch it now.
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp, hosted by me, Ann Friedman. These episodes are seasoned and plated by producers Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell. It was scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to the bro-lific Max Linsky, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
FRIEDMAN: On the next episode: What happens when you’ve convinced the world that your relationship can be saved, only to realize that you don’t want to save it?
GLENNON DOYLE: I remember looking at Tish, my middle child. And she was always the one that I thought, well I could never leave. Because it'll break her. And I remember looking at her and thinking “OK. I'm staying in this marriage for her. But would I want this relationship for her?”
ANN: Best-selling author and activist Glennon Doyle had to decide if going through it in an unsatisfying marriage was better than blowing up her life to be with a person she loved.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
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