Alison ROMAN:

  • Words Hannah Marriott
  • Photos Katie McCurdy
  • Styling Caitlin Burke

THE INTERNET’S LITERAL TASTEMAKER.

Issue 52

, Features

,
  • Words Hannah Marriott
  • Photos Katie McCurdy
  • Styling Caitlin Burke
  • Hair Natalie Jones
  • Makeup Justine Sweetman

Roman wears a jacket and shirt by KALLMEYER, earrings by FLASH JEWELLERY and a ring by DINOSAUR DESIGNS alongside her own.

Alison Roman became a household name during the pandemic thanks to her viral recipes like #TheStew, #ThePasta and #TheCookies. Having built the beginnings of an empire, she is increasingly looking at life offline. 

Talking to Alison Roman about food feels a bit like asking a fashion designer why they are into denim this season. The best-selling cookbook author seems to have an intuitive knack for anticipating the zeitgeist. She has been described as a Nigella Lawson for the Instagram age, for the way her recipes frequently go viral, and she has developed a loyal following eager to know what she’s cooking each week. Right now, following the release of latest cookbook Sweet Enough, she’s going through what she describes as “a very monochrome food phase. I’m trying to see what I can do with the least amount of ingredients and no herbs. I’m just feeling a little bit more austere in this moment,” she says. 

Austerity aside, it’s an approach that’s typical of the aspirational but unfussy vibe Roman projects. Her recipes often remove unnecessary stages from the cooking process in order to make entertaining less of a chore: She is anti-vinaigrettes (she recommends drizzling the ingredients directly on the salad unless a dressing is creamy and needs to be emulsified) and pro-premixed carafes of martinis. Her own entertaining, she explains, tends to be pretty chill: “My biggest fear is underwhelming people but still, I’m not the kind of person who overdoes it. I’m not going to be tablescaping.”

As evidenced by her first two cookbooks, 2017’s Dining In and 2019’s Nothing Fancy, Roman’s repertoire is heavy on bright, tangy flavor: She’s big on salt, lemon, dill and shallots, and famous for putting anchovies in everything. The recipes are based on what she likes to cook, and she thinks deeply about how they come together. Beyond that, though, she says she can’t articulate why her recipes resonate. “It’s instinct and gut,” she says. Her main question is: “Do I like this? Does it feel like me?” reasoning that there will be others that like it too. She may not be everyone’s favorite “but to be a few people’s favorite? That’s exciting to me.”

Roman is in her apartment in Brooklyn when we speak on Zoom. The backdrop—all money plants and whitewashed beams and exposed brick—would be familiar to viewers of her YouTube cooking series, Home Movies, though Roman herself might look a little different, having recently grown out her natural hair color. She admits it has prompted “a bit of an identity crisis.”

It’s not the only thing that has changed recently for Roman. “I was 32, a single lady living in New York,” when her first cookbook came out, she says. She is now 38 and her lifestyle has shifted—last September she married producer Max Cantor and splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate New York. It’s a balance that might tip in the future: Her apartment, she says, is very loud—trucks are honking outside at 5 a.m. “It probably won’t be forever. It’s a young person’s apartment and I’m aging out of it!” She feels like her audience—which skews millennial and urban—has grown up with her: “Their lives have probably changed too. I think about this a lot. It’s very interesting to grow up in public.”

Roman wears a top and skirt by ROSIE ASSOULIN, shoes by THE ROW and jewelry by DINOSAUR DESIGNS.

Perhaps a bigger shift is that Roman—once perceived as the ultimate “extremely online” personality cook—is increasingly interested in doing more offline. A case in point is the grocery shop she opened in September 2023 in Bloomville, a hamlet three hours’ drive from Manhattan in upstate New York. When planning the store, she wondered if it needed to have its own Instagram account, before conceding that it probably did. Generally, though, she finds she is on social media a lot less, in part, she thinks, because she is incapable of being inauthentic. “If I’m in a bad mood, or if I’m having a bad day, or if I’m feeling sad, or I’m feeling anxious, I can’t get it up for social media. So I just don’t say anything—I’m not going to fake it; you’re just not going to hear from me.”

Launching a tiny brick-and-mortar store might feel counterintuitive for someone with a considerable online profile but Roman says it felt like the “inevitable next step.” She had been looking for a house upstate when she instead found a multiuse building that had once been a well-loved local restaurant. She had never wanted to run a restaurant—she knows firsthand from jobs in the kitchen how tough the business is—but opening a store felt right. Until then, “everything just felt very ephemeral. A physical retail location serves a real purpose. It’s functional. It’s like a living, breathing part of a place,” she says.

“I think I had reached my ceiling a bit in terms of what I could do alone,” she adds, “putting myself out there, talking about myself a lot. It felt really exciting to have something that wasn’t about me. This isn’t ‘Alison Roman’s Country Store.’ This is First Bloom and it’s a grocery store; I just happen to be the proprietor.”

Roman wears a sweater by ALTUZARRA.

First Bloom carries a carefully curated selection of goods, some of which are sourced locally, such as fruits and vegetables and two excellent types of local yogurt. She stocks items at prices that she hopes will appeal to those seeking good, basic groceries, as well as to those wanting to try something artisanal and new: There is $18 bronze-cut Italian pasta but also “the $4 box of De Cecco, because that’s what I cook with at home”; there are posh snacking anchovies and cheaper alternatives for cooking. Already, Roman says, the store has developed a personality distinct from hers: “It’s more earnest than I am. It exists to serve people—it is more about needs than wants.” She takes pleasure in the idea of being useful in the most basic way: “You’re selling groceries to people, and they’re going home and cooking with them.” 

Roman hopes the store will foster community. She says she has been welcomed warmly by the locals and the burgeoning culinary scene upstate seems to suit her. “If you have an idea and you want to do something, you can do it, and people will support it and be excited about it,” she says.

She found the property in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. It would be a particularly bruising period for Roman. Her recipes found new audiences at a time when home cooking became the only cooking anyone had access to, catapulting her to a new level of fame. But she found herself at the center of a storm about structural racism in the food industry after she criticized Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen in an interview, accusing them of cashing in on their fame by launching product lines.Roman later apologized, and Teigen called for Roman, who had been placed on temporary leave from her column at the New York Times, to be reinstated. (After several months on leave, she announced that she would not be returning to the Times.) It was a time, she says, when the future of work already felt up in the air for everyone. The store seemed to offer stability: “A store will always be there; that’s something I can control—this could be the future,” she says.

“I’m not going to fake it; you’re just not going to hear from me.”

Roman wears a dress by ROSIE ASSOULIN, boots by FLATTERED and earrings by DINOSAUR DESIGNS.

She wears a coat by STELLA MCCARTNEY, a top by BY MALENE BIRGER, a skirt by TOVE, boots by FLATTERED, earrings by FLASH JEWELLERY and rings by JENNY BIRD.

( 1 ) Momofuku Milk Bar (now just called “Milk Bar”) was an auspicious place for Roman to work early in her career. The bakery was successful at creating viral moments. Its signature dish, Crack Pie—which cost $44 in 2010—was described by The Los Angeles Times as having “taken New York City by storm.” Crack Pie was later renamed “Milk Bar Pie” in 2019 after it was criticized for making light of addiction.

Roman has since developed what she describes as “a tiny little media company.” Her newsletter has over 284,000 subscribers (they adore her so much that merch—like a “dad hat” emblazoned with the words “Nora Ephron’s Bread Pudding” after one of the recipes in her third cookbook, Sweet Enough—frequently sells out). There’s also her podcast, Solicited Advice, and the Home Movies videos. She describes what she has built as a “peaceful corner” of the internet. “I feel in a really good place right now. I love having a newsletter. It feels like the best way of communicating with people who are interested in what I do, without feeling like you’re screaming into the void, as you do on most of the internet,” she says.

Roman grew up in California in the San Fernando Valley. Some of her earliest food memories are of her father, who is Jewish, cooking matzo brei—fried matzo and eggs—and eating together in Jewish delis; and of her mother’s very California repertoire of dishes, such as butterfly trout and steamed asparagus. Roman has said that in childhood, she learned that gathering together to eat food meant happiness. 

When she was 19, she dropped out of college and started working in the well-regarded Los Angeles restaurant Sona as a pastry chef. Almost immediately she thought that she had found her path in life. “I was like, I can be really good at this. I wasn’t at the time. But I thought, I will be good at this. It was a belief that I had because I found something that I really connected with.”

Later, Roman moved to New York and worked at Momofuku Milk Bar when the bakery was at its cultural peak, and got her break as a media star—and internet personality—at Bon Appétit magazine.1 Then, in 2018, she became a columnist for The New York Times, where her recipes became so ubiquitous that they had their own hashtag (#TheCookies, #ThePasta, #TheStew). But even then, when her recipes went viral, the success felt impermanent. “Every time it happened, I figured it was gonna be the last time—it can’t sustain itself.” Now, “instead of having one thing that goes crazy, I would like to have just a really long, steady and glorious career! I want someone to think: Oh, it’s an Alison Roman recipe and I know it’ll be good. Rather than strive to have one hit that takes over the world.”

To that end Roman has a lot of irons in the fire: She is in the earliest stages of working on a new cookbook and says the ultimate plan is to have an empire of sorts. She hopes the upstate grocery store will be part of that: “It was always the hope that it could exist beyond that physical footprint. I don’t know what that means yet, but I have some ideas.”

        She says she does have self-doubt (“It’s a big part of my personality, actually”) but she also believes in her intuition and is determined to keep cooking what she loves and trusting that her audience will appreciate it. She is mindful of cost when writing recipes—she says she will only recommend an expensive ingredient if she truly feels the results are worth it—but does not otherwise feel a huge sense of responsibility: “There are so many people out there that you can follow. And if you like me, great, and if you don’t, then I don’t feel responsible for you not having a good time. If you’re like: I don’t like these recipes, then my response is: Well, don’t cook them.”

Through all that she does, Roman is intent on being herself: “The greatest compliment I receive,” she says, smiling, “is when people meet me on a book tour or in any walk of life and they say: You’re just like I thought you would be.”

( 1 ) Momofuku Milk Bar (now just called “Milk Bar”) was an auspicious place for Roman to work early in her career. The bakery was successful at creating viral moments. Its signature dish, Crack Pie—which cost $44 in 2010—was described by The Los Angeles Times as having “taken New York City by storm.” Crack Pie was later renamed “Milk Bar Pie” in 2019 after it was criticized for making light of addiction.

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