Alison Roman Won't Sugarcoat It
She cooked her way through a controversy. Now she’s ready to talk about it. Credit - Justin J Wee for TIME
Alison Roman is cooking rice, a grain she dismissed as “filler” in her 2017 cookbook Dining In. But she’s preparing a Passover dessert, and leavening agents are verboten. Roman is not a chocolate person, so flourless chocolate cake is out. But in 2015, rabbis declared rice kosher for Passover after an 800-year ban. So rice pudding it is.
It’s February, over a month before the Jewish holiday, but Roman needs to complete the all-day shoot for her “Home Movies” YouTube series before she goes on a seven-city tour for her latest cookbook, Sweet Enough, out March 28. Her loft-like Brooklyn apartment with whitewashed brick walls and exposed pipes looks more like a studio than a living space when stuffed with lights and cameras. Pots boil over and dishes pile up, but Roman approaches the chaos with enviable levity, squeezing lemon here and sprinkling red pepper flakes there while declaring to the camera that the word “unctuous” has been banished from her vocabulary for onomatopoetic reasons. Being invited into Roman’s kitchen is like snagging a seat at your foodie friend’s boozy dinner party, a vibe that helped her 2021 “Thanksgiving Special” rack up over 1 million views.
Roman declares that she will diverge from the recipe as written and chill the rice pudding without plastic wrap so it can form a film. She hates food without texture—she’s anti-avocado and fills her tuna salad with an obscene amount of celery—so she must add crunch to this mushy dessert. Her crew members exchange skeptical looks, but Roman is probably right. She usually is, about food anyway. Her stances—anchovies make everything better; one-use kitchen tools are a waste; crispy potatoes are superior to mashed—might turn off potential fans if her recipes didn’t work so well.
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But her opinions have also gotten her in trouble. In 2020, Roman was semi-canceled and the New York Times suspended her column after she intimated in an interview that Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, women of color in a traditionally white milieu, had sold out by launching lines of home goods—even though Roman herself was working on a line of spoons.
Roman apologized, but she didn’t disappear. She never returned to the Times, but just a month after her suspension, she launched her snarkily named “A Newsletter.” Unlike some public figures felled by scandal in the early days of the pandemic, she couldn’t retreat to a compound. “I didn’t have a choice. Not financially, not emotionally, not intellectually. I have to pay rent. I had no fallback,” she says.
Steadily, her popularity grew again. Perhaps Roman has endured because while she apologized, she didn’t go on an apology tour. She read the comments and engaged in conversations about her privilege, but she doesn’t present herself as a new person. “I had two choices: I could let it ruin my life or not,” she says. “I’m an authentic person, and what is authentic to me is to cook. So I did. There were a lot of people before who didn’t like me. There are a lot of people now who don’t like me. If you try to trace a trajectory from pre-that to post-that, it’s the same person with a wonderful dose of evolution.”
Her life has changed in the last three years. On top of the pandemic and publicity woes, she went through a break-up, met someone new, moved, and got a new therapist. “There are certain things that can only come from failing in a really epic way in a very public forum,” she says. “You become more nervous and afraid and ashamed. But you also become a little bit more brave.”
Roman, 37, dropped out of college to work as a pastry chef. Her parents weren’t particularly thrilled and didn’t offer her any financial assistance. She baked for six years in her home state, California, and her adopted home, New York, including at Pies & Thighs and Momofuku Milk Bar. After Dining In, her editor urged her to write a book of desserts. Instead she wrote Nothing Fancy, a best-selling cookbook that instructs readers how to stage low-maintenance dinner parties like the ones occasionally featured in Roman’s videos: think guests arranging cheese plates while sipping three-ingredient spritzes. She just prefers savory food. Even in her new book on sweets, she’s included a savory section—and yes, anchovies make an appearance.
Desserts can be intimidating. It’s harder to make real-time adjustments. You don’t know if a cake tastes terrible until you serve it. But Roman insists many of her dessert recipes are “casual.” The one on the book’s cover, “Raspberries and Sour Cream,” isn’t even really a recipe. It’s a suggestion that sprinkling sugar on raspberries and layering them with spoonfuls of sour cream will taste delicious. (It does.)
Roman’s recipes are simple: Thanksgiving turkeys are cooked on sheet pans and beans don’t need to be pre-soaked. Simplicity may seem like an obvious way to achieve popularity, but it’s not every cookbook author’s goal. Take London restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, whose uber-popular cookbooks notoriously contain recipes with dozens of steps. “He did so much for cookbook writers because he pushed people to the f-cking limits,” says Roman. “So anything easier than that people were like, ‘Oh, thank god.’”
When Roman left the restaurant world to work at Bon Appétit, she tried to impress her bosses with complicated dishes. But readers weren’t making them. She asked herself: “Do I want people to know what a badass cook I am and what skills I possess? Or do I want people to feed themselves?”
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Roman also learned at Bon Appétit that she was telegenic. She is the rare influencer who projects the same energy in person as she does on camera. Her wit and candor buoy the cooking video genre from informative to outright entertaining. Some of her fans comment that they tune in every week with no intention of making the recipes, just to watch Roman try to dislodge ingredients from her overstuffed refrigerator. During the Passover shoot, Roman’s assistant sits curled up on an orange couch, fact-checking the cook’s quips. Nothing is pre-rehearsed. “It can only appear casual, natural, authentic, and relaxed if it really is,” Roman says.
That sometimes includes delving into the messy contradictions of her own cooking edicts. She’s moved on from rice pudding to a potato dish shared with her by a friend who used to work under Alice Waters at the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Roman didn’t want to use a mandolin for the recipe (see: her policy on single-use kitchen tools), but she cooked the dish by cutting the potatoes with a knife and then again using the more precise mandolin. The mandolin potatoes were crispier. “You win this time, Alice Waters,” Roman says. She assures viewers that they can get the mint green tool she’s using online for about $18. Her assistant Googles the particular brand and corrects her: it’s more like $80, though Amazon has a sale for about half-off at the moment. They don’t reshoot the segment; Roman transforms the mistake into an opportunity for banter. “When I was a kid, this only cost $18,” she gripes.
Roman keeps her flaws on-camera. In a recent video she filmed with a friend who never bakes, she repeatedly insists she “loves teaching” while simultaneously micromanaging the process of making a fruit tart, down to adjusting the cherry her friend had placed on top. Based on the comments, viewers found Roman’s need for control endearing—she knows her stubborn attitude is her appeal. Roman is a whizz at branding: her signature orangey-red nail and lip color and affinity for vintage speckled bowls scream Brooklyn ramshackle chic. Her life is aspirational yet accessible to the Millennials who follow her: the newsletter reaches tens of thousands of subscribers across all 50 states, and her fans are mostly women ages 24 to 44, according to Roman’s Instagram data.
Yet she takes umbrage at the idea that she’s a “cool girl,” a phrase often lobbed at her, and not always kindly. She thinks people are confusing insecurity for snobbery. “When I hear ‘cool girl,’ I think aloof, cold. But I’m pretty warm and friendly, I think?” she says. In fact, she started hosting dinner parties to manage her social anxiety. “I can recuse myself from the social activity while being social because I’m in the kitchen. I have a job to do.”
But she is undeniably popular. Her recipes often go viral. Her Shallot Pasta, Labneh Dip, and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread Cookies were inescapable at Millennials’ dinner parties (including my own) for years. Back in 2019, I was in Park City, Utah and stopped by the local Whole Foods to try to buy labneh—a Middle Eastern cheese with the consistency of yogurt—to make her famous dip. Not only was the grocery store sold out, but the cashier informed me multiple customers had specifically asked about Roman’s recipe.
That’s no accident. In her pastry chef days, the description of a dessert on a menu could make the difference between a slow night and a profitable one. “You want them to be like, wow, we sold a lot of desserts tonight,” she says. “So how do I write this so that people are like, ‘F-ck I have to order this’?” Now sometimes the name for a recipe comes to her before the recipe itself: “Dilly Bean” sounded whimsical, so she reverse-engineered a recipe for stew with dill and beans. Her viral “Shallot Pasta” was, at one point, going to be called “Anchovy Tomato Pasta,” and Roman is convinced the same dish wouldn’t have taken off with that moniker. Some recipe names even betray a level of intimacy that’s enticing to her fans: in one video, she explains that “Goodbye Meatballs” were so named after a breakup over dinner.
It works. Even Ryan Murphy once reached out to say he is a fan. They went to dinner, and two years later he dropped her name in his hit Netflix series The Watcher. Her YouTube channel saw a flood of new followers unfamiliar with Roman—or her baggage.
Sweet Enough includes a recipe for bread pudding from Nora Ephron’s beloved novel Heartburn. The book chronicles, with thinly disguised pseudonyms, Ephron’s divorce from Carl Bernstein after he cheated on her while she was pregnant. It’s sprinkled with recipes that often recall a particular memory in the narrator’s life. Roman admits that the bread pudding wasn’t to her taste, but she wanted the excuse to write about one of her idols. Ephron, herself a famous dinner-party host, writes in Heartburn that “after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! … It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure.”
Like Ephron, Roman cooked through chaos—even if it was of her own making. When her comments on Teigen and Kondo went viral, Roman’s food came under scrutiny. People pointed out that her chickpea stew recipe bore similarities to Indian chana masala. “I have tried to cook things that feel authentic to me and do a better job of hearing why people were upset and adjusting,” she says. “But ultimately it wasn’t like, ‘I can never use this ingredient again.’ It was, ‘Here’s a better way to handle it.’”
Discussing the criticism over coffee at Brooklyn’s Ace Hotel, I expect Roman to be evasive, defensive, or even rehearsed. But she is open. She removes her beanie as she sits at a corner table of the hotel’s ultra-modern restaurant, rain pouring outside the window behind her. In her videos, Roman leans heavily on a self-deprecating joke. But she eschews that crutch in person: she never hesitates in her answers. She speaks in thoughtful paragraphs, leaving her drink untouched for long stretches. “I’m not ashamed of who I am. I f-cked up,” she says, a note of defiance in her voice. “But I never wanted to have ‘a comeback.’ It’s like eating sh-t on the sidewalk. If you lay there, people are going to notice. But if you get right back up, you can rebound and keep moving.”
Keep moving she did, though not without fits and starts. She was set to host a show on CNN+ until the streamer abruptly shut down in 2022. She was in a meeting when it happened. “I had a million texts and calls, ‘Are you OK?’” she says. “The last time this happened, my world fell apart. I was so scared. So when I found out, I was like, ‘That’s fine. I’ll get through it.’” CNN picked up the show for its network, and Roman shot two seasons. Each episode focused on a different ingredient, where it came from, and how to cook with it. She was at a promotional shoot when she got a call: CNN was making big cuts to its original programming. Her show was on the chopping block along with another food series, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. At least she was in good company. Roman is shopping it to other distributors.
For now, she’s filming more “Home Movies” focused on baking the recipes from Sweet Enough, beginning with a video on the equipment you’ll need (not much besides a cake pan and a whisk) and ingredients you should have (flour and sugar of any brand, but she insists on Diamond Kosher salt). She has set a policy not to comment on other public figures’ lives and is happier for it—though it’s been hard. At one point she mimes her impulse to word vomit. But she’s trying to maintain perspective. “I’m a fallible person who will probably make a mistake again. The goal isn’t to be perfect. It’s to be a human that can evolve and learn.”
She pauses. “Not to make it an allegory for baking, but every time I f-cked up a recipe, I learned something. It wasn’t a waste of time. If you only ever succeed, you’re probably pretty boring. You’re probably not that resilient.”