Samin's Exuberant Berkeley Kitchen
When I arrived at Samin Nosrat's house, her front door (which, appropriately, also happens to be her kitchen door) was wide open. I could see her shuffling around inside with a rag underneath each foot as she hastily dried her freshly washed kitchen floor. With sparkling eyes and a wide smile she shuffled forward and welcomed me into her kitchen.
Samin is a true treasure of the Bay Area. A professional cook and freelance writer, she often cooks at Chez Panisse and teaches always sold-out Home-Ec classes at Pizzaiolo in Oakland and 18 Reasons in San Francisco. About once a month you can find her at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco where she runs Tartine Afterhours, a family-style, prix fixe dinner with a menu inspired by the seasons, traditions, and her own vivid and inventive palate. People still talk about the Pop Up Market she founded (now closed) where Bay Area locals could sell their small-batch foods and other handmade wares.
Wildly talented, energetic, and fiercely devoted to deliciousness and beauty, Samin's most endearing quality is her generosity. Her kitchen, located in a small North Berkeley rental, reflects all this perfectly. It's not fancy or pretentious, just full of well-loved, well-used equipment, with an eye towards what is beautiful and useful. The shelves are stacked with clay pots, and one wall is decorated with vintage cooking equipment. There's an old table outside the kitchen door that's used for spill-over prep when she's cooking up a storm for one of her parties or events.
For a glimpse into what it's like to cook with Samin and have a meal at Tartine Afterhours, check out this video from the folks at The Perennial Plate.
Samin grew up in San Diego, having just barely missed being born in Iran. She came to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley in 1997 and started hearing about this restaurant called Chez Panisse. It took her 8 months, but she saved up enough money for her and her boyfriend to have dinner there. Soon she was volunteering, bussing tables and apprenticing in the kitchen. She then went on to train with Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini and chef Benedetta Vitali for 2 years, and was sous chef and 'farmwife' for Chris Lee at Eccolo (now closed) for 5 years.
During my visit, Samin insisted that she cook lunch for us, demonstrating her true talent for coaxing blood from a stone. There was only one egg in her refrigerator but that didn't stop her from gently poaching it for us to share. A few thick slices of Tartine bread, some cheese and salami, a bowl of mandarin oranges and a few leftover pastries from Tartine made for a perfect lunch.
10 Questions for Samin (and Her Kitchen)
1. What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
Leftovers. Interesting bits and pieces gathered from various projects. When things aren't perfect, when there's struggle and tension, it can help push something to be better. I love seeing what I do with whatever I am handed. I get a lot of bread! (laughs)
2. What was your childhood food and kitchen like?
My mother made traditional Persian food everyday. We were always peeling favas and eggplants. Persian food is really well balanced: there's hot/cold and bitter/sour/sweet. I didn't know it at the time, but I was training my palate, learning to trust my tastebuds. I was also lucky because both of my grandmothers were around. My mom's mom made jam and Persian fruit leather and my dad's mom made super vinegary pickles. I never thought I would be a cook, though.
3. What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
My birthday party last November. It started with 6 people and then it grew to 35! We took over the old carriage house out back that my landlord's teenage sons use as a club house. We hung lights and set up tables. I made a lasagna with a short rib ragu and set the table using every mason jar, every knife and fork, in the house. We borrowed plates and people brought their own chairs. It was a magical night.
4. The biggest challenge in your kitchen:
I need more oomph from the stove and a bigger sink, especially for washing pots. The kitchen is set up to maximize counter space and to be as efficient as possible. I've fed 100 people at one time from this kitchen!
5. Biggest indulgence or splurge:
Olive oil. I use a local oil from Katz Winery and a Sicilian oil. Good salt is important, too.
6. What are your favorite cookbooks?
Nigel Slater, especialy The Kitchen Diaries. Patience Grey, MFK Fischer, Elizabeth David, David Tanis. And Marion Cunningham. Did you notice that her Breakfast Cookbook is the only cookbook in my kitchen?
7. How would you describe your cooking style?
Scrappy and improvisational! I like to use up everything.
8. Your best cooking advice or tip:
Use more salt, use more acid.
9. What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
My cast iron skillets and mortar and pestle. I'm very unplugged! Oh, and this waffle maker I got for $5 at Urban Ore (a secondhand shop in Berkeley.)
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(Image: Dana Velden)