Cooking Outside the Lines: A Conversation with Alison Roman




WALKING UP THE STEPS to food writer Alison Roman’s apartment feels like walking into a stuffed treasure chest. Racks of clothes, shoes, and dishware cover the top-floor hallway of her one-bedroom brownstone. Her apartment is strewn with plants and adorned with a handful of bold, colorful paintings. A stack of books includes a London Review of Books collection of food writing, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and a copy of Roman’s new cookbook Nothing Fancy, which comes out on October 22. Sitting on her green velvet couch in her bright and spacious living room, she offers me slices of cantaloupe with sea salt flakes. Reader, it was delicious. 

It’s hard to say when exactly this 34-year-old cookbook author captured our hearts, but it has been happening for a few years now. After working in kitchens for six years at beloved restaurants like Sona in Los Angeles, Quince in San Francisco, and Momofuku Milk Bar in New York, she joined the staff at Bon Appétit, made a viral cookie, a viral stew, and now has a column in The New York Times food section. She published her best-selling cookbook Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes in 2017.

As a person who has never cooked anything other than Trader Joe’s cauliflower gnocchi, I bought Dining In and started making real meals for myself for the first time. Roman is a skilled and hilarious writer, and her recipes are simple and delicious. She’s the Carrie Bradshaw of food if Carrie were actually as funny as she thinks she is. In a diet culture driven by weight loss and fads (Keto, Paleo), Roman foregrounds butter, cheese, and tastiness to make easy and elegant meals. In today’s environment, it’s a pleasure to encounter a young, stylish, successful woman showing you how to make something yummy for yourself instead of how to make an ice cream substitute out of bananas. Rather than optimizing for peak attractiveness, thinness, and metabolic efficiency, Roman asks you to, shockingly, enjoy yourself.

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CALLIE HITCHCOCK: I came to your work after a long period of watching YouTube videos about healthy meals and smoothies — stuff that’s easy to make, but it was essentially a lot of people making yummy noises about a dried chicken breast, saying things like, “This is so filling!”

ALISON ROMAN: Yeah, you’re like, this food sucks.

It sucked, and I always felt betrayed. I was like, “How could you do this to me?” And I was not full. It all felt very dystopian.

You were duped.

Right. At a certain point, it’s like, damn how is a lady supposed to eat in the world?

Yeah, I feel you.

But then I got your book after I heard about you from Rachel Syme’s Twitter.

That’s so cool!

She’s a fan of yours.

I’m a fan of hers!

I feel like your book reminded me of how I actually want to make food that tastes good. It’s kind of sad, but it felt revolutionary to me, as a young woman, that you could actually make food you would want to eat. So, in that way, I feel like your work cuts against diet culture. So what’s your relationship to diet culture?

With anything in my life I am really trend-averse, and I think diets are trend-based. There’s such a difference between healthy eating for your body, eating for you, and dieting, which often means doing what’s cool and popular. For me, everytime I eat something where I feel like I’m depriving myself, I end up eating more of it or I’ll end up eating something else afterward. I’ll think, “That wasn’t fulfilling, I don’t feel good after that.” I allow myself to eat what my body wants, which is sometimes a plate of raw melon and a bowl of cottage cheese, and is other times a wheel of regular cheese and eight strips of bacon.

I don’t think of food as discipline, I think of it as pleasure. We have so few things in life that are just good, things that can bring us so much pleasure and don’t have to be so complicated. Food is one of those things. So, yeah, I’ve thought about it. If you look on Amazon at the top 50 best-selling cookbooks, 35 to 40 of them are diet books or instant-pot books or some sort of trend-based thing. It’s not that they’re not successful, and it’s not that I wouldn’t be if I went in that direction, I just don’t think you’re doing people a service. To your point about people on YouTube and blogs doing those “yummy spirulina smoothies,” you’re like, bullshit, that does not taste good and you know it.

You’re not full.

Yeah, and I also think that just comes from this attitude that anybody can be a food blogger and anyone can write a recipe, but no, not anyone can. Because to understand what makes food delicious and why people want to eat it, and to also make it accessible, that’s something you have to work at for a really long time.

Yeah, and it seems like you need to have one vision for it instead of all these other visions of macros, weight loss, Paleo, Keto.

It’s a struggle, and it’s also fucked because so many of the recipes I make are inherently gluten-free or Keto-friendly. I just don’t brand it that way because I don’t think of food that way. I think that if you leafed through the book and actually read the recipes, you’d be like, “Oh!” People approached me all the time after Dining In came out saying, “Oh, I had no idea your book was so Whole30 friendly,” and I was like, I didn’t either because I actually don’t even know what that means! But because I’m not branding it that way, maybe it’s a missed opportunity.

Honestly, though, my setup is: This is delicious food, and you can cook it! And you will really enjoy it when you do. You will think, “I can’t believe I made this.” You will feel proud of yourself. You will feel full, satiated physically and, you know, hopefully intellectually and spiritually, but also just proud of yourself for doing a nice thing for yourself or for other people.

Right, and especially since you eat every day, it’s a good hobby to pick up. With the pressures on women to always be optimizing their appearance, did you ever feel like you had to confront that issue with your cooking?

As a result of how I live my life and what I do for a living, I look a certain way. There is a lot of pressure from women who purport to do the same thing that I do, who don’t look like me. That’s frustrating in terms of me feeling pressure to look a certain way, to present a certain way, but also to enjoy food the way I do, and enjoy drinking wine the way I do, and enjoy cooking the way I do. I use olive oil way more than I use butter, but when I use butter I really mean it, and I love it, and I want you to use it too, and really mean it too.

I feel like, for any person who starts to build a presence in the world, there’s pressure to look a certain way, and I realize that my lifestyle is just not compatible with that certain way. It’s also just my body type. I look how I look, I exercise, I eat exactly what I want, when I want, I feel really good. There are times when I look at people and see women that are like, “I love pizza!” And I’m like, no you don’t! You don’t love pizza like I love pizza, because that’s not how you look when you love pizza. And not to say that it’s just about weight and physical appearance, but it kind of is. The myth that you can look a certain way and also really be involved in food, I just don’t think they’re compatible. And maybe that’s just me being salty that I don’t weigh 30 pounds less or something, but I don’t know.

It reminds me of this joke of Amy Schumer’s about how a guy will tell her that a supermodel is really funny and she’s like, “Oh really? Is she really funny?” and meanwhile she’s a professional comedian. And I’m sure there’s funny models, of course, but …

Well, you do have to compete with famous people who are models and who write cookbooks, and you’re like, well fuck.

Like Gwyneth Paltrow?

Yeah, I’m like, okay Gwen, I do love you but I know you’re not living that lifestyle. I am eating, breathing, living what I do, and it shows for better or for worse.

What do you think your place is in the cooking world right now?

I don’t know. I feel like I struggle with my own identity in that there seems to always be somebody else doing what I do. What I’ve learned in the last year especially is that I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, and I have to tune other people out more, and focus on myself more, pay attention to other people less. If what I do is honest and genuine and meaningful, then the work will be good, and I think people will recognize that. At least that’s what I feel is starting to happen.

Also, I’m learning to be patient with myself because I realize that things don’t just happen overnight in the way that I thought they would. I’ve been cooking for almost 15 years, and I only started writing professionally eight years ago, but it feels like it has been a really long road and I still have a long way to go. And so I feel like my place is muddied among brands with a ton of money or celebrities that are already famous. Where do I belong? I don’t work at Bon Appétit anymore, and I’m not a celebrity, and I’m not married to a rich person. Who am I, where am I, how do I make myself seen and heard? But I will say that, for the first time in a long time, I feel actually pretty secure and positive about what it is that I’m doing. People are starting to recognize it.

Just letting you know — you’re actually at the top of the game right now.

I hope I’m not peaking yet! I feel like I have a ways to go, but I think my success so far comes from just being really caring and really giving a shit. I practice what I preach constantly. The things that I say I do, I do. I’m not trying to capitalize on trends or do anything that feels gross or disingenuous.

I remember you said once that you had to make Thanksgiving nachos for Bon Appétit, which you didn’t like doing.

Yeah, there’s always a room full of people constantly asking, “What are we going to do, what’s going to be the thing, how are we going to X?” I prefer to move through life doing things that feel natural, and when things hit, great! And when they don’t, that’s fine too. People are like, what makes a viral recipe? And I’m like, I don’t know, man, a good recipe that people like to cook? I have no secrets. And I think that if I make 1,000 recipes and four of them become viral, those aren’t great odds, but the perception is that that’s a thing that I do. But it’s just because I’m producing so many recipes, and there’s so much content, inevitably something’s going to be successful, I imagine. But that’s my technique for success, just work all the time forever.

Law of averages!

I also think it’s about where people are at. I’m single and I don’t have kids. I’m very driven and focused on my career right now. Sometimes people want to take a step back, to spend time with their family, or they want to travel, or focus on something else. And that day may come for me, but right now I’m like, I’ve worked my whole fucking life for this, I’m going for it and I’m going to see how far I can take it.

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Callie Hitchcock is a writer living in Brooklyn and a master’s graduate in Journalism at NYU for the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.


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