For her cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat wanted to avoid the kind of glossy magazine food photographs that can intimidate new cooks with their perfection. That’s partly because Nosrat’s book is an “anti-cookbook,” a guide to cooking without recipes based on an understanding of the elements of what makes food taste good. But Nosrat’s goal was even more specific than that. “I didn’t just want it to be illustrated from the start,” she recalls, “I wanted it to be illustrated by Wendy from the start.”
Nosrat hadn’t met Wendy MacNaughton, her favorite illustrator — just “stalked her” from afar. “I loved her sense of humor, and flattered myself by thinking that I was funny in the same ways,” Nosrat says. So she cold-pitched MacNaughton — just as she’d cold pitched her way into the kitchen at Chez Panisse after eating there as a Berkeley undergrad, and then into a class with journalism professor Michael Pollan, whom she later taught to cook for his book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Now, Nosrat credits MacNaughton’s illustrations with much of the success of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. One of Samin’s own teachers, Alice Waters, calls it a “beautiful, approachable book” that “not only teaches you how to cook, but captures how it should feel to cook.”
To learn more, Eater spoke with Wendy MacNaughton, who found new appreciation for both cooking and illustrating food while working on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
On not knowing how to cook when she started the book
“We went out to coffee, at which point I told Samin I don’t like to cook — I just like to eat. She must have thought I was exaggerating... but I was not. When she came over to my house to see what I had in the cupboard, all we — my partner Caroline and I — had was, like, protein powder and bars and microwavable popcorn. We have a kitchen that’s good for cooking, this beautiful kitchen getting no use whatsoever. ‘La Cucina Pristina,’ Samin called it. I was totally green, and that ended up being a good thing. I draw from life, and Samin taught me how to cook basically — I drew everything that she would cook and I would ask a million questions. “
On what foods are good — and not good — to draw
“[Food] is a great model — it doesn’t move very much.
There are some things that are absolutely gorgeous and beautiful and I can’t help but want to draw them and to paint them, good examples being beets — the splatter lends itself perfectly to watercolor, which is what the book is done in, micron pen and watercolor. Citruses and colorful chicories — those lend themselves to watercolor.
But it turns out that there are some things — browned meat, for example — that water color is... not as good for. The most beautifully browned steak does not look good in water color — at least it’s a challenge for me.”
On photographed vs illustrated cookbooks
“Samin and I are huge fans of food photography, I should say, and some of the best food photographers are right here in the Bay Area — and they shoot immaculately prepared, perfect dishes. But when we home cooks look at an immaculate photo like that, it can feel inaccessible, even daunting.
Also, in my opinion, they can be a bit sterile. They might be beautiful, but they lack some of the sensuality that really is inherent to cooking. It’s a sensual process — you’re making a mess all the time, and that can be a joyous experience. But sometimes when we see these perfectly composed photographs, they don’t carry across that aspect of cooking. A drawing is about an idea, but a photograph is just, literally, what something is.”
On drawing food charts
For a lot of things, like the wheels, the spice wheel for example, we went through a lot of edits. Samin wanted to have 36 spices in Northern Italy alone, and I was like, “we’re going to have to pare this down a little, because there are parameters for visual communication.”
On drawing chefs and their tattoos for the book Knives & Ink
I felt like [for Knives & Ink] I got a peek into the culinary world, which was interesting while also working on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The most fun part of the work that I do is that I get to spend time who are different than me, experts in their own lives.... I love people’s stories, and I love artwork that communicates the depth of a story. Every single tattoo has a story — even if it’s a sentence long, that’s just ‘I was hammered when I got this.’”
On editing a new book with Sarah Rich, Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles
“Cipe Pineles was this incredible designer and creative director and illustrator who lived in the heyday of illustration in the ’40s and ’50s. She was the creative director and founder of Seventeen magazine, and one of the first directors to hire Andy Warhol. She was the first woman to join the Art Directors Club or the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.
At an antiquarian fair [writer Sarah Rich and I] found this unpublished manuscript of [Pineles’] hand-painted, hand-lettered family recipes. They’re so beautiful — the care and love she put into every page. So we’re publishing this book with contributed essays — I wrote an essay on the history of cookbooks... and why illustrated cookbooks are effective and meaningful — and we’re just trying to reintroduce her, to put her back out there, because she isn’t taught in art school, at least not often. Her contribution is there — her name just hasn’t been.”
Wendy Macnaughton is the author of books like Meanwhile in San Francisco (Chronicle), Knives & Ink (Bloomsbury), The Gutsy Girl (Bloomsbury), Lost Cat (Bloomsbury), and The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Samin Nosrat is the author of Salt, Fat, Acid Heat, her first book. She has been cooking professionally since 2000, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Bon Appétit, and the San Francisco Chronicle.