In Conversation

What Alison Roman wants

The cookbook author and writer on balancing business with brand, how she creates recipes, and what she’s doing next.

Alison Roman
Photos: Nikole Herriott & Michael Graydon, Courtesy Alison Roman

Last Tuesday evening, as Americans pondered what to cook for dinner in the seventh week of coronavirus lockdown, Alison Roman, the cookbook author and writer, was making pasta and spritzes in her Brooklyn apartment — streaming live on Instagram with journalist Katie Couric, Couric’s daughter, and around 2,000 concurrent viewers.

Typical for Roman’s videos, it was fun, funny, free-flowing, and felt more like improv than something staged. The recipe — from her New York Times dining column last summer, featuring zucchini, capers, feta, and fried lemon — was also signature Alison Roman: Approachable but a little daring, and probably stupidly good.

Alison Roman and Katie Couric

Roman, 34, has emerged as one of the most interesting and visible people in the food media world, at a time when cooking at home has unexpectedly taken over our lives.

She has built a bit of a repertoire around viral recipes — perhaps you’ve heard of, or even made, The Cookies or The Stew — and pioneered using Instagram Stories to build a community around her recipes, as thousands of people cooked them and showed them off.

But this isn’t stunt food. Her recipes are opinionated, driven by flavor — vinegar chicken with crushed olive dressing, “shrimp in the shells with lots of garlic and probably too much butter” — and not by novelty or flair. Her cookbooks are genuinely good and genuinely popular. The latest, last year’s Nothing Fancy, has more than 150,000 copies in circulation, she says.

And she’s now at a crossroads: How to build a bigger business without selling out?

She has sold a television cooking show and is working on a new book, a nonfiction narrative. And as a one-woman media brand, she has smartly attached herself, for years, to two of the leading titles in food media — the New York Times and Bon Appetit — to build audience and credibility.

But what else? Roman’s point of view is potentially interesting and unique enough to drive a “Goop”-like lifestyle brand, spanning food, drinks, clothing, and travel. But does the world need one? 

Or another line of cookware? Or brand ambassador partnerships? And with what tradeoffs? As Roman and Couric were comparing spritzes, I turned to another Instagram Live, where a celebrity chef was cooking with the CEO of a publicly held food company — in front of 28 people. Not so cool.

“I’d rather stay small and always be myself,” she tells me. “But at the same time, I do need to figure out how to turn this into money.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. (Update: Please see my editor’s note at the bottom.)

Dan Frommer: To start off, what have the last couple of months been like? What have you been doing?

Alison Roman: They’ve been wild. They’ve been very, very busy. Ultimately, I feel grateful for the time to slow down a little bit, because I was moving at such an intense speed that was not sustainable. What I think is funny is that I haven’t done anything differently — I didn’t pivot to do anything specific for this quarantine or pandemic. I wasn’t reactive in the kind of stuff that I was making, but it just seemed to naturally fit.

I’ve noticed a lot of Instagram Lives — not just you, a lot of people. I stumbled onto yours last week where you were cooking and drinking with Katie Couric, which was fun, and then one with Jon Lovett from Crooked Media. Are you just saying yes to things? Or is there a bigger strategy?

I have no strategy. That’s something you should know about me. I’m like an animal. [Laughs.] I operate on instinct — yes or no. I say no a lot. And I say yes to not as much, especially these days.

When I get approached by a brand, like a candle company, or a clothing company, or a beauty company, or whatever, and they say, “It’d be so great to do an Instagram Live with you, our…”  

What do people call — it’s not customers or users, it’s our…

Community?

Yeah, fuck. Community. Yeah, whatever word they’re using.

“Oh, they are loving cooking content these days. Like, we thought it would be so fun if, like, you and our founder cooked up some pantry staple.” No, I’m not doing that.

But Katie Couric, I’m not going to say no to that. Jon, I’m not going to say no to, because he has given me a lot of entertainment and information and kept me feeling good at times when I didn’t.

For me, it’s about: Is saying yes to something going to put me in a place that I want to be? And if the answer is no, then is it going to raise money for a charity? And if the answer is no, then I’m not going to do it. 

I’m not going to do anything for you for free, for your brand, because I don’t care. And I don’t need it. And if you’re not interested in helping others as a result, then I certainly don’t care.

I’m very aware as a consumer of media, and a user of every platform, fatigue is so real — not only on me as output, but, you die of exposure, as my friend Aminatou [Sow, the podcaster and author] says. To be everywhere is not always great. I’d rather be 25% less visible and have those things be really things that I care about.

I’ve had calls with companies that are not in the food world that are reaching out to me: “We’d love for you to just, like, create content for us.” No. I’m not a “content creator.” I don’t know where people get in their head that I’m up for hire to whip up a pantry dish for you. That’s not what I do, that’s not who I am, and that’s not how I want to be perceived.

What I’m learning more and more with each passing day, I feel like I’m less in control of my own narrative. And that’s been a real challenge.

In what sense?

The thing I’m noticing is that every time a recipe is successful — and this this is three years running now — every time it happens, people are like, “Wow, millennials, really loving food these days!” “Millennial favorite, blah, blah, blah.”

And I’m like, guys, how many things will I make that are popular until people stop labeling me “the millennial food maven” or “the viral recipe…”? 

I’m just a person writing recipes that people like. That’s it. I’m not trying to corner a market. I’m not trying to appeal to millennials, which by the way, could be a 40-year-old at this point. So what the fuck does that even mean? 

There’s other people in my industry that would never get that label that, quite frankly, have never achieved the level of popularity, and I’m wondering why. It’s just interesting to me.

When you approach an Instagram Live with Katie Couric or something like that, are you thinking, “I’m going to get 5,000 new followers out of this”? Is that part of the strategy?

If I had maxed out [Instagram followers] today, that would be fine. If I maxed out last year, that would have been fine, too. That’s never been my objective. It’s never been my goal. I have never done anything to try to amass followers. It’s happening organically.

I’m sure if I were smarter I would have, at this point, hired a business person to develop a strategy so that I could take all that I have and translate it into money, because I’ve never made less money in my entire life than during this pandemic. And I’ve never been more popular. So what does that tell you?

Let’s come back to that. I want to talk about the work for a bit first… how you work and how you build recipes. How do you do that?

It depends. Sometimes it’s an idea that I have for the [New York Times] column. If it’s for the column or if it’s for the book, they’re two very different things.

In the before [the Covid-19 pandemic], my team and I shoot six recipes at a time. And so I come up with those six recipes: “These are going to run mid-March to May, so every other week, so that’s 12 weeks. What do I want to eat during that time?” This is for the column, so it’s going to be dinner tonight, essentially.

Now I’m reimagining the column in a different way, because, to me, it’s not enough to be, like, “here’s a great chicken recipe.” I want a how and why. Not 4,000 words on something dramatic. But I’m less of a utility cook and more of a “I want you to cook this for this reason, and I’m going to tell you why and how.”

Right now the way that people are eating and cooking, people are feeling really uninspired and bored and exhausted of the idea of cooking. And I think that you have to make it seem so fun that you couldn’t possibly miss out on it. And that’s what I’m trying to do. 

In the coming weeks, a lot of the dishes that I’m doing are: “I miss restaurants. Here’s my favorite dish from my favorite restaurant that I’ve botched but approximated so you can make it at home. Don’t forget to make a martini and sit at your table alone, light a candle and just pretend you’re at a restaurant.”

I want to do more of that than another skillet chicken thigh dish, because, who cares? I’m trying to figure out my role in this and how to actually keep people excited. When this is all over, I probably will generally go back to just being, like, “Damn, this is just a really good soup.”

I let my own appetite and my own hunger dictate when I make — what sounds really good to me. I just wrote a recipe for tuna salad. Not that I ever thought, “Oh, I’m going to publish a recipe for tuna salad in the New York Times.” But hopefully I will be able to sell you on it enough to where you’re like, “Damn, I do want tuna salad and that one does look really good. I am gonna make that.”

I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel every time. I just want to make people happy, honestly, and give them a reason to feel good about making food.

I try to give variety, so I try not to repeat myself. If I just did a recipe for bone-in pork chops, I probably won’t do pork chops for another six months at least. There’s things that I know are more popular — chicken. Vegetarian food, people love. It’s also how I eat. I’m not a vegetarian — I eat everything — but because I live alone, I cook for myself, I don’t really cook meat for myself often. I’m not going to cook a ribeye for one. 

I’m trying to be more accessible and more everyday for that, and then, for things like my books, I can really expand what that means. Accessible across the board, because that’s just what I believe in, but also, like, lamb shoulder, which is a cheap cut of meat but takes a bit more time or is a bit more of an investment.

I think it’s nice to be able to, in the same book, publish a recipe for lamb shoulder and also for a sheet pan chicken. And both belong in the same book because I want the book to have a range. Whereas I probably wouldn’t ever publish a recipe for a slow roasted lamb shoulder in the New York Times because my niche there is more instant gratification, weeknight meal, simple, etc.

Is there a recipe for the recipes? Like, do you think: Okay, we need a dominant flavor and a zingy thing that makes this totally different than what you made last week? Or am I overthinking it?

You’re overthinking it. I think people would be fucking shocked at how little — There’s no formula. There’s no strategy. There’s no, like, “gotta have this, gotta have that.”

As much as I just said I like to be well-rounded — “I haven’t done a salmon recipe in three months, that feels good to me.” But I’m not, “well, it’s gotta have this, and gotta have crunch, gotta have an herb.” No. 

What sounds good to me, and how do I stay fresh and not fall back on flavor profiles that I’m really accustomed to? 

Alison Roman anchovies

I feel like I can’t ever write about anchovies again, because people just think that’s all I care about. Which is funny, because of all the thousands of recipes that I’ve published, a very small percentage of them use anchovies. And like, shallots, I’ve used shallots, like, three times — what? 

But if you become popular for something, they’re like, “Oh, you’re anchovy girl,” and I’m like, fine, I’ll be the anchovy girl. I don’t care. I’m happy to wear that crown.

It’s a good crown.

I made a dish the other day that is so not me. I ate it and I was like, “oh my god, this reminds me of paella. And that’s why I like it, because I want to be on vacation.” I thought of it after the fact. 

White wine-y rice with shrimp juices in it, and like, sausage. I feel like that’s really not me, right? And I made it and I was just, like, fuck, this is so delicious — oh, because I am craving an experience that I can’t have. And that’s how I channel it.

Same thing with the tuna salad. I was thinking about how much I miss eating at Eisenberg’s [the old-school Manhattan diner]. Sitting at that counter, having a cup of matzo ball soup and the scoop of tuna salad, with iceberg lettuce that I would eat like lettuce wraps, and how happy that made me. So I’m going to hope that you want to also experience that.

And sometimes it’s not that thought out. One of my most popular recipes was a dish that I made up at the photo shoot. Which never happens, and I’m never that ill-prepared. But I was like, “Oh, I can squeeze in one more dish. And I have the ingredients for it. I’ve never made it before. But it’ll be fine.” 

And we made it and was amazing. I was so happy with the way it turned out. And it was just instinctually based on how I want to eat. I can’t explain that. It’s weird.

So you come up with this idea, then do you cook it and tweak it? Or what happens next?

Sometimes I cook it once and it’s done. It’s great. And then sometimes, eh, I need to rework it. 

Yesterday, I was shooting — I’m shooting my own stuff now on my iPhone, in my apartment — I made like the tuna, which was exactly to my specifications. I ate the entire plate, which was meant for two people, and I was so happy with it. And then I go into my Google Doc, and I document everything.

And then I was shooting this thing on snacks and I was unhappy with the way they were looking visually. So I scrapped that and I’ll work on it again today. 

And same thing with the almost paella dish — that was good, but it’s not publishable good. So I’m going to do it again, refine it, make sure that it’s locked in. Sometimes I scrap it. Sometimes I do it again. Sometimes I move on after the first try.

What’s different now? Are people more willing to do certain things, or order ingredients online than before? Have you seen a change in how people will cook stuff that you present them over the years?

Generally speaking, people’s awareness of me makes them more trusting.

That’s the thing with the popularity of these recipes that I try to explain to people. I’m not thinking these recipes are “so fucking good, of course they’re popular.”

No. I think that I’m becoming more popular, so people are then cooking more recipes. There are dozens of recipes that I think are as good or better than the things that have become popular, except they were published five years ago, so nobody cares. And any of the things that I’ve done that have become popular, if they had been published five years ago, they wouldn’t have received the same fanfare.

But I think what it is, is that if you cook something, and it works, and you like it, you’re gonna be, “Oh, okay. She writes recipes that work, that taste good. I’ll give it another try.” You do it a second time. “Oh, cool. Another one that’s great.” If you do it a third time, you’re like, “Okay, that’s it. I trust her. I’ll do whatever she says.”

Trust is very hard to come by, especially when there’s so many people who do what I do.

What do you want to make? It seems like you’ve built a fan base and repertoire that lends itself to whatever you want to do with it. Whether that’s, you know, your Goop or a TV series or however you want to extend your empire. Is there anything that you really want to do or really don’t want to do?

I sold a TV show, but I was supposed to be filming it right now, and I’m not. So when this is over, we will start production on it. 

And I do sort of have ambitions to figure out how to channel everything into a site. But I’m really sensitive to oversaturation, again. And does the world need another Goop? It also requires so much money that I would have to take from people that I don’t know. 

I would also have to let go of so much control. I run my own social media, my own Instagram. I run my own Twitter. The idea that I would ever not do that — and that I would somehow lend my brand to someone else who’s going to approximate me — horrifies me. I’d rather stay small and always be myself. 

But at the same time, I do need to figure out how to turn this into money. Straight up.

I have everything that I need. I have a wonderful apartment that I love so much. I don’t have any student debt — I don’t have any debt. I am just myself. I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t have kids. I’m very free.

And that said, I would love to buy a house upstate. I would love to have a garden in that house. I would love to not have to work out of my home. I would love to have a second space for that. And then I’m like, “oh, does that ruin the charm?” Does that ruin the brand if I have a studio that’s somehow nicer than where I live? But I don’t have a dishwasher and it’s a third floor walk-up and these floors are old and I can’t take it anymore.

So, I’m at a crossroads and I’m not really sure how to grow. But it is something that I’m thinking about a lot. And I have a manager — she does my entertainment stuff — and that’s something that I’ve been talking about with her. But I have to take the time to map out what it is that I want and what that looks like financially for me, from other people, etc.

Do you think about products? Or putting your name on a restaurant?

I have a collaboration coming out with [the cookware startup] Material, a capsule collection. It’s limited edition, a few tools that I designed that are based on tools that I use that aren’t in production anywhere — vintage spoons and very specific things that are one-offs that I found at antique markets that they have made for me.

That would have to be done in such a specific way under very intense standards. And I would not ever want to put anything out into the world that I wouldn’t be so excited to use myself.

Also, I love my Le Creuset Dutch oven — I don’t need to make a Dutch oven. I love my restaurant supply sheet pans. I don’t need to make a sheet pan. I love my fish spatula that comes from the baking company. I don’t need to make my own.

There’s a fine line between consumption and pollution, right?

I think that’s why I really enjoy what I do. Because you’re making something, but it goes away.

Like the idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately! Someone’s like “you should make stuff,” and she’s like, “okay, slap my name on it, I don’t give a shit!” 

That’s the thing — you don’t need a ton of equipment in your kitchen to make great food. “For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!” Like, no. Find the stuff that you love and buy it. Support businesses and makers. It feels greedy. Unless something just simply didn’t exist that I wish existed, but that would make an inventor, which I’m not. 

There’s just too much stuff in the world. I want so much less stuff in my life, and I don’t want to contribute to that. And maybe that’s a poor business decision, because I’m sure one day I could make money off it. But I’m more interested in finding a cool glassblower or ceramicist that I love and doing a collaboration.

Like, what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money.

I’m more interested in expanding myself as a writer. My next book is going to be narrative nonfiction — essays and short stories and stuff. 

To me, the only way that I can continue to differentiate myself from the pod of people that write recipes, or cookbooks or whatever, is by doing a different thing. And so I have to figure out what that is. And I think that I haven’t ultimately nailed that. And I’m in the process of figuring it out right now.

***

Editor’s note, May 9: After publication, Alison asked me to remove one word from this interview — “to” — that she thought might be misinterpreted. Late in our conversation, she used a comedic voice to conjure what sounds like a tacky infomercial pitch: “For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!” I put the line in quotes to highlight the emphasis.

I agreed to remove the word, as I did not want it to be misinterpreted, considering readers lacked the spoken context of what she said or how she said it. Further, the piece is not a verbatim transcript of our conversation — it has been edited for clarity and length, which I noted in the introduction. I did not know at the time that the specific quote was becoming a topic of conversation.

After my edit, Alison explained the reference on Twitter — she says it’s a reference to an Eastern European cookbook called Please To The Table, and an inside joke with friends.

I want to set the record unequivocally straight: Alison was not mocking an Asian accent when she said that to me, and any claim that she was is incorrect.

In the interest of transparency, I have returned the line to its original published wording, and will point you to Alison’s tweet for context. It was never my intent to hide anything or magnify controversy by editing the line, and I am grateful for the thoughtful replies from many readers. It’s a good reminder that things don’t actually disappear on the internet.

Update, May 12: Alison has published an apology for some of the things she said in this interview. You can view it on Twitter or Instagram.

Dan Frommer

Hi, I’m Dan Frommer and this is The New Consumer, a publication about how and why people spend their time and money.

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