From pastry chef to online food sensation, Alison Roman is all about keeping it real in the kitchen.
I want to be best friends with Alison Roman. I can't help it. We've just spoken on the phone for 37 minutes, I've stalked her on Instagram, I know she sneaks anchovies into almost everything and doesn't like avocado. I also know she eats Sichuan noodles when she's hung-over and considers snacks a food group. And now, even though she barely knows I exist, I am planning on us being friends. You see, the thing about Roman – a recipe columnist with New York Times Cooking, Bon Appetit Magazine and Good Food who's just released her second cookbook, Nothing Fancy – is that she has a knack for people, simply by being herself.
Originally from Los Angeles, Roman left college to pursue a career in restaurants, starting in the kitchen at the former Sona and eventually moving to New York to become a pastry chef at Momofuku Milk Bar. In between jobs she was cooking biscuits (as in Southern-style scones) at a friend's fried chicken restaurant when Bon Appetit asked her to trial for a recipe tester job. Her task? Cook biscuits. She nailed it and spent the next four years climbing the ladder from recipe tester to recipe developer and food editor before moving into freelancing, including for The New York Times.
Out of the blue, Roman's now-editor, Doris Cooper from publishing house Clarkson Potter, slid into her inbox. "She emailed me and was like, 'All of my favourite recipes have your name on them,' so she offered me a cookbook deal ... I started writing books, and that's become my life," she says. Her first cookbook, Dining In, was published in 2017 and Nothing Fancy is now on the shelves.
While Roman's message in Nothing Fancy is, "This is not a book about entertaining", those who read it will be endlessly entertained. Peppering recipes with names like "Grilled Trout with Green Goddess Butter (A Whole Fish! Yes, You Can!)" and a section titled "Crunchy Salty Things", Roman's wit comes through as she writes a love letter to steamed broccoli, professes the many merits of a cheese platter and exalts that the very essence of her soul is pizza (see recipes).
She gives people permission to be imperfect and flexible. "I feel like by calling it a dinner party or entertaining, there are expectations associated with it. 'Entertaining' has a real presence to it. It makes people nervous and it makes people feel stressed out immediately," says Roman. She prefers to think of it as having people over. "Having people over can literally just mean having people in your house." Eating unfussy food, with unfussy vibes.
With more than 260,000 Instagram followers at last count, Roman's popularity extends beyond her cookbooks and columns. Her recipes have a tendency to go viral, as with her spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric (#TheStew) and salted chocolate chunk shortbread cookies (#TheCookies). But going viral isn't Roman's goal, she simply wants "at least one person to cook each recipe".
"What's going to do well on social media? I honestly have no idea," she says. "Just having the skill to develop a good recipe that is easy and works; I kind of understand what people are going to want in that regard because it's what I want."
I risk my new (perhaps one-sided) friendship by probing Roman about the eight months she spent working at pop-culture news website BuzzFeed, something she rarely talks about. There's irony here; Roman believes she wasn't a "good fit" for the company, even though her recipes take off so naturally online. "That's really funny, nobody's brought that up yet," she says. "I think the reason I didn't like it was because I felt they were constantly trying to engineer something to go viral, and I felt that if you just create good work, you should feel successful and be successful and they weren't interested in that, so I left."
Now she has her own audience that relates to her online and through her books, whether it's making batched martinis in a flower vase for guests to pour themselves ("My house, my rules!"), her advice on washing up ("Take advantage of the fact that everyone is probably a little tipsy, put on some Janet Jackson, and start! washing! dishes!") or describing one of her defining character traits as "loves anchovies".
In Nothing Fancy, her advice is limited to keeping it real, which translates to thinking on your feet and ordering pizza if you have to, being kind to yourself and remembering that having people over is "supposed to be fun".
You're not going to be everyone's cup of tea and I'm comfortable with that because I like me...
It's a vibe that comes through on the pages, where recipes are highly saturated and show a hand reaching for olives by a pool, a crinkled yellow tablecloth, candle wax spewing onto a table and almost always Roman's signature red-gel nails. It looks like the people on the pages are having fun, because they are.
It all stems from a philosophy passed on by her grandma, to whom the new cookbook is dedicated. "She wasn't even that good of a cook but she taught me the importance of having people over and making sure people felt taken care of," says Roman. "She was a very glamorous woman, so even if you're stressed out or you're feeling like you didn't do enough, or the food didn't turn out well – put some ice cubes in your white wine, paint your nails, throw on some lipstick and you're good to go."
As Roman grows up, so does her audience. She turned 34 in September and her Instagram statistics indicate that her followers remain around her age – a plus for Roman who "had a complex" about only reaching younger people. Regardless of age, they all feel like they know her, and in many ways they do. They know she got covered in jellyfish stings while eating paella in southern Spain. They know she learned to love burgers this summer. And they know she bursts into tears on the street when she sees paste-up posters advertising her new cookbook. Roman talks to them – 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 minutes in the evening – making sure she answers cooking questions and gets back to people.
"It's something that I enjoy but it is really consuming," she says. "I could spend hours a day answering Instagram questions – like, hours – but those are hours that I'm not writing or doing other work or preparing for something. It's come to a point where I have to prioritise and put limits on how much time I'm willing to spend (online). It's not because I don't want to; it's just because there aren't enough hours in the day."
If Instagram disappeared tomorrow, would Roman still be as successful? "Honestly I would hope that I would be," she says. "I've been working at this for so long that my recipes work whether or not you're reading them on Instagram or in a book. I would say that it maybe would have taken a lot longer – I think it's harder to become successful in a shorter period of time without the internet."
On the odd occasion Roman has been criticised online, including articles questioning the legitimacy of #TheStew and #TheCookies (Are they really shortbread? If so many people switch out ingredients, why bother?), but most are excited about her approachable recipes – some have even taken to cooking Dining In cover-to-cover, a la hit film Julie & Julia.
"It's pretty rare that people are mean or rude to me. When they are it sucks and I hate it, but you have to just ignore it because what kind of person spends that amount of time on the internet?" she says. "You're not going to be everyone's cup of tea and I'm comfortable with that because I like me, and I'm proud of my work … and knowing that people that really like it, that's enough."
When I ask Roman what's next she's modest, giving me a throwaway line about finishing 2019 and focusing on the new cookbook. I tell her I wouldn't be surprised if she's on Netflix within six months and she laughs a little too revealingly. "I'm hoping to be somewhere in that space for sure, but we'll see. Time will tell. I would love to be able to keep doing what I'm doing, so that sounds good to me," she says.
I'll ask her again when she's in Australia for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March – I've got a feeling she'll share just about anything over tinned seafood and a couple of glasses of cava – hold the ice cubes.