My face has never been warmed by the Tuscan sun. I have yet to feel the icy crystals of Sicilian granita crunch and dissolve between my teeth. My version of Bolognese is adding browned turkey to a jar of Ragu. For most of my life, I’ve had a goal to eat my way through Italy, but thanks to Samin Nosrat, it feels like I already have.
Her new Netflix documentary series Salt Fat Acid Heat is a love language to the senses, despite being a two-dimensional audio-visual experience. I watched it through twice last month, once with my partner and again with my parents at my strong behest (who loved it), and I can still recall specific dishes, cooking techniques, and the people who created them.
At its core, Salt Fat Acid Heat is a cooking show. The sort of show you put on when you want to turn you mind off. Through her storytelling, Nosrat invites you to engage with the ingredients in a whole new way, from considering the crunchiness of salt to how many years it takes to produce a good soy sauce. Rather than trusting the proven formula of a successful show, she brings her full self to share with an audience, and the results are mesmerizing.
We All Want to be Friends with Samin
If viewers are honest, the most compelling thing about Salt Fat Acid Heat is the host herself. We know who Nosrat is the first time she laughs: uninhibited, thoroughly in the moment expressing surprise and delight. There is no pretense in her demeanor. You get the sense if you met her in person she’d be the same person you met on screen. She’s refreshingly honest at a time when chefs are hiding behind prestige and flashy competitions to get attention.
Nosrat is deeply passionate about food and teaching people approachable ways to cook it. Rather than listing ingredients and where they’re sourced from, she takes you to Liguria so you can see how the olives are harvested for luxurious oil. She sips some from a cup and unfiltered emotion crosses her face, her eyes widening with joy. Through her honesty we get to experience Ligurian olive oil with her.
As a restaurant owner, it would be impossible to arrange for each guest to meet with the head chef. It’s essential for a chef’s personality and perspective to come out through their food. Yet until a guest has eaten at your restaurant, what you have to offer needs to be evident in all of your branding. Everything surrounding your food will tell the brand story.
So here are some questions to consider: What’s the main thing people think of when they come to your restaurant? What sets it apart from another one with similar offerings? Do you offer dishes that remind you of home, calories be damned? Does the food you serve come from a particular culture you have ties to? Can diners be sure to get the same thing every time, or does your menu rotate based on the season and the fresh ingredients that are available?
Teasing out these details is incredibly important for crafting a brand story. They’re the reason why you make the food you do. They make it easier to figure out where you stand and to continue the story as time progresses, especially if your restaurant is already part of a broader narrative. Your brand story informs the food you make, the interior design, uniforms, even the typeface on a menu. When all these pieces tell the same story, your restaurant will be about more than food in a way that reminds diners why they love eating there.
A different way to slice it is your brand story is also the personality of your restaurant. Natural light, neatly designed menus without clutter and well-presented plates can feel like the smile of a dear friend. Once you set the tone, stick with it. You can pick whatever personality you want, but like Nosrat, it needs to be honest to resonate with your customers.
Samin knows what she believes and it shines through her work.
The phrase core values has become an overused term for whatever a business wants to stick on the wall of a breakroom. If they truly are core values, you don’t need to ask. They seep into everything like a head of garlic. Hopefully you like garlic.
Another reason Salt Fat Acid Heat resonates is Nosrats’ values are evident throughout the show. She believes in appreciating and learning from cultures that make the food she loves. She’s not “discovering” something new and sharing her revelations with the viewer, a common trope for travel food shows. She’s listening and learning along with us, allowing the chefs to speak for themselves.
She also believes in elevating the work of women, and it’s obvious in that they are the majority of people she partners with in the show. She doesn’t open the show telling you her intent to let women show off their expertise. She shows you. You might not even realize it until looking back or someone else points it out. Salt Fat Acid Heat sets out to showcase women without shouting it from the rooftops.
Similarly, restaurants need to know what they stand for: ethically sourced, high-quality ingredients, compensating your staff well, breathtakingly excellent service, giving back to the community or interesting beer and camaraderie. It can be anything. Of course, some of these are selling points that are great to note on your website or menus. If they are truly core to how you do things, eventually you won’t need to. Each new decision should be made deferring to the values you started with. You’ll be known for serving single-origin coffee with a smile, and your customers will love you for it.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is visually gorgeous.
It’s hard to compete with the Italian countryside for natural beauty. The show’s exquisite cinematography and tight editing makes you forget you’re sitting on a couch and not standing next to Nosrat, tasting 15-year-old parmesan that brings you to tears.
Fortunately, restaurants have visually compelling imagery for the taking naturally built in: food and restaurant design. For someone who hasn’t been to your restaurant, it’s the easiest way to show them what to expect. Seeing a well-styled plate on an Instagram feed is a compelling way to keep visitors coming back, reminding them of what they’re missing out on. Professional photography is absolutely essential for your website, as it’s likely the first impression a potential customer will have. It can be an investment, but the difference between shooting something with your phone and a professional with years of experience will show your food in the best light, and will result in photography that can be reused for years. Excellent photography also lets your audience know you take what you’re doing seriously.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is a dazzling example of storytelling at its finest. The show is honest, knows what it believes and is executed with excellent craft. These principles can be applied to any kind of storytelling. The food and beverage industry has a particular advantage in that they are truly providing a multi-sensory experience that’s easy to showcase. Providing excellent service and quality food are table stakes in a time when you can have food from a selection of restaurants to your door. Showing off a personality allows diners to remember the feeling they had when they ate your food, and entices new customers to get to know you.