MOB Meets... Nik Sharma
What is flavour? Is it something that actually exists in a dish – a happy combination of chemical components that, when consumed in unison, always result in a specific taste? Or is it something harder to define – an abstract and intensely personal reaction that we all experience internally when we eat something delicious? Is my sweet the same as yours? Is your sour milder than mine? Do you also eat pickles straight from the jar?
Nik Sharma is a writer, scientist, recipe developer, food photographer, author, and all-around food content machine who has made it his mission to help you corral that ephemeral concept of flavour into the dishes that come out of your kitchen. He can’t tell you why I eat pickles from the jar, but he can sure as hell help you understand the science of what goes into great cooking.
Having first amassed a swarm of followers through his successful food blog, A Brown Table, Nik was able to turn that online buzz into literary honey when he published his best-selling cookbook, Season, in 2018. A recipe column at The San Francisco Chronicle and various guest appearances on prestigious publications like The Guardian and The New York Times have helped Nik spread his recipes (and his molecular wisdom) all over the globe.
Nik's latest cookbook, The Flavor Equation, is a deep-dive into what makes things taste great and explains, in the thrifty and nutritious prose he's become famous for, why cooks and chefs could see to learn a lot from science. If that sounds fascinating, that's because it is. And so is he.
What’s your first food memory?
It’s probably learning how to fry an egg on the stove – that was one of the first things I was able to make at home for myself. My parents had a non-stick frying pan at the time, and I vividly remember trying to work out how much heat to apply to the egg to get it crispy and learning that instinct of when to flip it. It's a simple skill, for sure, but one that requires a lot of technique. You sort of get closer to perfection with each failed attempt and I think that sense of growth is true for all forms of cooking. It's fascinating how much one act can teach you so much over time. Like, even now whenever I fry eggs, I always compare it back to that first time.
What is your perfect fried egg technique? Are you an olive oil or butter person?
I usually go with a dairy fat, like butter or ghee, because when I'm using a stainless steel or cast iron that actually prevents the egg from sticking more than anything. I find that olive oil doesn't always give the most reproducible results and you have to use a lot of oil to get away with the egg sliding off easily.
You didn’t attend any kind of specialist culinary school, how do you think that’s impacted the way you cook?
I think one of the main challenges, when you're trying to teach yourself how to cook, is you often have to go out and find the answers for yourself. That's exactly what I had to do when I worked as a cook in a patisserie because I wasn’t taking any special classes and I didn’t get to benefit from the experience of professional instructors. And so, a lot of the knowledge and skill I’ve learned has come to me through reading books and trying out recipes again and again in my kitchen. Even stuff like watching TV shows or cooking programmes can be quite helpful for a beginner.
What’s the first step you make when it comes to recipe development?
One of the largest things that drives recipe development for me is a craving. If I'm craving something, I know I'm going to be more emotionally driven towards making it really, really good and making it stand out. If I'm already excited by the ingredient, it's easy for me to pursue. If I'm not, then I have to really think about it. Ideation is an important part of recipe development and, for me, it's a lot of my personal excitement that helps push the recipe in the direction that I want it to go. If there's a theme, like Christmas, I'll obviously make sure that the recipe meets that brief but I also have to make sure that it’s still ‘me’, you know? I try to look for cues in my personal experience, within my culture and the culture that I'm in now, to try and find that perfect balance.
How did you first learn about food styling and food photography?
I started to learn about food photography and styling because of my food blog, A Brown Table. One of the challenges with a food blog is that it's such a visual medium and people are always eating with their eyes online. I still do that now, like, I'll just scroll through food websites and blogs just looking at the recipes, getting enticed, with no actual intention of cooking the food. But I realised, in order to appeal in that way, I would have to learn photography. I started with a Nikon Coolpix – one of those old point-and-shoot cameras – and I just kept experimenting from there. Initially, people told me to shoot with natural light, because that's what you do with food. But I’ve actually ended up never shooting with natural light. I always shoot with artificial. I know a lot of people say natural makes food look ‘better’ but I don't believe all that. I think it's all about how you play with light because, at the end of the day, that's what photography is; you're playing with light and playing with composition to get a desired outcome.
Do you ever get surprised at the success of your own recipes? Do some of the dishes that you least expect to get traction end up being the superstars?
Yeah, I can never predict that! With my first cookbook, Season, I did a spicy chocolate chip cookie recipe and even when I was making it I thought, "there are a million chocolate chip cookie recipes out there, I don't know why people would flock to this one," but it turned out to be one of the biggest viral recipes from that cookbook. Which was very bizarre because I'm pretty sure every cookbook on the planet has a chocolate chip cookie recipe! With the second cookbook, the roasted sweet potatoes with maple crème fraîche has become a big hit and everyone's been making that. Which, again, is a very strange thing for me because it was such a simple dish. To me, the flavour combinations just seem obvious but people really seem to love it, which makes me happy. In terms of predicting what will go viral, I have actually failed at that completely – I never know what the internet is going to like!
Have you ever made a recipe purely because you think it'll go viral or bang on Instagram?
I've actually never done that. One of the things that I try to avoid is trends. Going viral is just so momentary. Sure, you get the hits and the likes in that small second, but I just feel there's so much more to recipe writing than that. If all you do is follow a trend, I don't think you’ll ever stand out creatively. It’s important, for me, for my work to be recognised, so I always just try to stay true to what I want to do and what I hope people will like. The goal with recipe writing – and I think this rings true for anyone who works in the food world – is to drive people to try new ingredients and try new things. You're putting them on a path so there’s a responsibility at your end. I always try to work with that in mind. My goal is to introduce people to new ingredients and make them comfortable using them in the kitchen, especially if they're not already familiar with them. I want people to be able to use that ingredient in a hundred different ways – not only in my recipes but in their own, too.
What’s the most essential bit of cooking equipment for someone to have in their kitchen?
Get a really good high-speed blender. I love shortcuts when it comes to cooking and my blender is probably the workhorse of my kitchen.
You write a lot in The Flavour Equation about the impact that emotion can have upon taste and how we perceive it. Just how important is that emotional aspect when it comes to flavour?
I think it's so important. When I moved from the science world to food writing, a lot of my editors emphasised the importance of emotion in food writing: to connect the story to something you've experienced so that it comes from a deeper place. There's been research done on the emotion of flavour, and how people respond to flavour and how flavour influences emotion, so I felt it would be remiss for me to not include it in the book as a separate chapter. Like I said earlier about cravings, a lot of my cravings are driven by emotions – whether that's some experience I had as a kid or even now as an adult.
Do you think it’s possible to reverse or alter someone’s emotional reaction to a food?
Definitely. Nothing is set in stone. Some of us, for example, love the dishes we grew up with from our own cultures but find that learning how to experience something new from another country is difficult. So, I think that keeping an open mind about that is important. There’s a fluidity to everything and you can always learn to appreciate flavours and foods from other cultures. You just have to keep an open mind.
What’s the one dish that you think everyone should be able to make?
Everyone should learn how to make a cake. Just a simple sponge cake. The reason for that is that it teaches you patience and, I know this sounds cliché, but patience is a virtue. As a society, we're always looking for quick meals all of the time but I think building patience is integral. Making something time-consuming like a génoise sponge cake with chocolate, where you're folding everything so carefully and tenderly, forces you to pay attention and be gentle with your actions. Especially right now, with all that’s going on in the world, I've found that taking the time to step back a little bit and be patient has really helped me.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
Anything by Dua Lipa. I think 'Levitating' is probably my favourite at the moment.