When walking into Alison Roman’s kitchen you won’t find stacks of white plates, matching Cuisinart appliances, or color-coordinated pots and pans. Instead, as the chef and writer is draining mint leaves from a bubbling pot of tea on the stove, she is surrounded by souvenirs from her travels. An eclectic collection of cooking tools from around the world gives the space an “artfully effortless” feel - a phrase used to describe her work that also feels relevant in talking about her space.
We spoke with Alison in her apartment a few blocks from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to talk about leaving the creative nest of an established team, owning your ideas, and what she’s reading when she’s not writing about the importance of lemons. Alison’s new cookbook, Dining In, boasts “125 recipes for simple, of-the-moment dishes that are full of quickie techniques (think slathering roast chicken in anchovy butter, roasting citrus to bring out new flavors, and keeping boiled potatoes in your fridge for instant crispy smashed potatoes).” Dining In will be released October 24th, and is available for preorder now.
As we sat with Alison in her living room, her book shelves full of mostly cook books, the conversation starts with a look at how hers will stack up.
Farsighted: In terms of food imagery, it seems hard to cut through the noise nowadays with Instagram foodies, Facebook food videos, blogs, etc. The imagery in Dining In feels refreshingly imperfect - what was the thought process behind the styling and what did you consider in choosing your book cover.
Alison: I wanted to have something that reflected me, but choosing just one dish to represent the book felt really challenging. It couldn't be a pasta, because then people assume is a book about pasta. It couldn't be vegetables, because then it’s a vegetarian book. Steak is hard for people and fish almost never sells. So that’s how we ended up with chicken, and there's only a handful of chicken dishes in the book. At first loved it, and then I hated it, but now I absolutely love it. We photographed it more conceptually so that people can see an aesthetic but I was worried, “Is it too out there, is it not enough?”
I have a lot of anxiety about this book because I styled all of the food myself. A lot of it was just cooked and then plated by me - it wasn't deliberately styled. I started second guessing myself, “Should I have hired a food stylist, is it not professional looking enough?” I then realized that it's mine and I'd rather it be mine than it be perfect. A lot of people hire someone to make the food, and then they change their outfits and then they get someone to photograph them holding a spatula, looking all great. Most of the pictures, I look like garbage, but I’m doing the work. I’m in the middle of cooking and that’s what feels most natural.
“What are my ideas without the input of others? Who am I as a writer, and a recipe developer, and a cook, and just a person who wants to help other people? What's does that look like?”
That anxiety about putting your work (especially when your work is very much your self) in front of the world is relatable. How did you overcome that feeling?
A: If you waste time looking at what other people are doing, or have done, or what you should do, you start doubting everything. So you almost have to work in a vacuum for a minute and push it out the door, and then step back and be ok with it
I was a mess actually. And I think a lot of people don't talk about that process enough. But it was probably the hardest time in my life in recent memory because it’s just you and your editor, that's kind of it. No one else is really weighing in on this book. You have a copy editor but they're not there to tell you what they think. They're there to make sure that you don't forget something. I did feel really scared and it's a really vulnerable process where you constantly question yourself. Especially when you come from working in a magazine where there are 18 people weighing in on everything you do. Every decision anyone makes, there are people to say “yes. no. what if you did it this way?” It goes through endless phases and tweaks and changes, and ultimately you end up with a product that everyone is pretty happy with. But, when it's just your and your editor you really have to trust your editor. And my editor is great.
Will you tell us about writing your own introduction?
A: That was probably the hardest thing I had to write, because how am I supposed to tell everyone who I am in 700 words. It was hardest trying to sum up what the book was and also who I am and why you should care that I'm writing one. There are so many cookbooks out there so you don't want to make it sound like you're pitching yourself or writing a resume.
So it was a balance. I didn't want to come across as earnest because that was my other pet peeve in cookbooks, they're all so serious. I really wanted to make it something that was fun and more relaxed and genuine.
Your shelves are full of cookbooks. Which ones resonate with you most now?
A: For whatever reason all of my favorite cookbooks are British, and not intentionally. I just gravitate toward their design and the way the authors write, and their style of cooking. I find them to be a touch more sophisticated and restrained than American cookbook authors. Diana Henry's cookbooks resonate with my kind of cooking and lifestyle. Also “The River Cafe Cookbook” by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray focuses on simple ingredients so that it's really about the fish, and you can learn a lot. I love “The Flavor Thesaurus” by Niki Segnit, which I didn’t realize was British until I was like “Yay I found one that's not British!” and someone was like… yeah, that’s British
“I then realized that it's mine and I'd rather it be mine than it be perfect”
Do you remember the first cookbook you ever bought?
A: The first cookbook I ever bought was probably “The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern” by Claudia Fleming. I think it was because I was a pastry chef at the time - it’s actually really hard to find now on the internet. Claudia Fleming was the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern and moved to the North Fork on Long Island and started the restaurant North Fork Table + Inn. “The Last Course” is just a really good collection of her recipes. And you look at it now and it is so hilariously outdated, the design, the photography and the food styling—But I was obsessed with it and still kind of am. Good dessert recipes are pretty timeless, and there's a recipe for a panna cotta and a chocolate tart that are infallible.
Another book I spent a lot of time with is by Michel Bras, called “Essential Cuisine”. He's sort of the guy that's responsible for what I think of as contemporary plating. You know when you see something and it's looks like something that fell off a tree onto the plate. That's sort of his thing and I feel like most chefs would agree. I would read it in bed every night.
So outside of cookbooks tell us about your reading habits. What's your guilty pleasure, what do you never read, what do you gravitate towards?
A: I never read any sort of political or historical nonfiction. It's just not for me. My boyfriend reads a ton of it, I just won't do it. In terms of guilty pleasure stuff I love quick reads, essay stuff. I'm reading this one right now “We Are Never Meeting In Real Life” by Samantha Irby and I love it, she's killing me. She's so funny. I had never heard of her before, but everyone I knew was reading it, so I was like okay I'll check it out. It's emotional, but very funny and honest. She started out as a blogger so sort of had a following by the time she launched her book.
How do you think the internet, specifically social media, has birthed writers or affected the writing industry?
A: I think that nowadays you can get a book deal from having a great Twitter or Instagram account.
Do you think it's helped you?
A: Yeah for sure. I think Instagram is a great tool. If people like my Instagram account they're going to like my book because its very similar. But even if you don’t have Instagram, or hate it, I still think you’ll like my book.
“I think that nowadays you can get a book deal from having a great Twitter or Instagram account.”
How do you carve out your piece of the internet pie when there is just so much saturation?
A: You have to stay true to yourself. You have to protect your ideas, and you have to protect yourself. Especially in this gig economy that people are doing 25 different things. If you don't save something for yourself you're going to be always working for somebody else, and you're always going to be giving your best work to somebody else
You’ve mentioned that as the reason you left Bon Appétit - can you tell us about that?
A: I loved my job there. I loved the people I worked with, I loved the process, I loved the magazine, I love writing for it. But at the end of the day I felt that I could stay there forever or I can take a chance and see what I can do on my own. At BA, you have a full team of support. You have people taking care of all the photos, you have a person taking care of making sure your words sound good. They're sort of polishing this version of you, and it's great. I looked great all the time. But, to say “Okay what am I like without that team? Or what are my ideas without the input of others? Who am I as a writer, and a recipe developer, and a cook, and just a person who wants to help other people? What's does that look like?” So that was important to me to try and figure out. I knew that if I didn't leave at some point I would never leave. And I didn't want to be Alison from Bon Appétit forever. I wanted to be just Alison. And even if that means having less attention, I still wanted to see what that would be like. And now I can do my own work. I write for The New York Times, and I negotiate my own terms with an ad campaign if that's something I'm interested in, instead of having somebody else make those decisions for me. On your own, you learn what you're worth and become your own person, manager, editor; all that stuff has been really hard to figure out on my own.
What gives you more joy: cooking or eating?
A: Cooking. Ah no, wrong. I don't know! I love cooking for people but I also love eating. I love eating things that I cannot cook. So there are a few things around the city that I just, I would never cook for myself, and those are the things that I really take pleasure in. But if I go to a restaurant and I'm like I could make this, and this cost me 13 dollars, I’m pretty annoyed.
What are those for you, that you cannot make yourself?
A: What I think is the best dish in all of New York— crispy dry fried tofu from Han Dynasty. It's like they take tofu and they deep fry it and then wok fry it with lots of peppers and scallions and chilies and bean paste. And the tofu is so crispy on the outside, and so soft and custardy on the inside. And it's really spicy and there's cilantro in there.
Dining In comes out October 24th and is available for preorder here. Alison has also written a a Short Stack on her favorite ingredient, lemons, available here. If you don’t follow Alison already on Instagram and need an injection of unpretentious, beautiful, food into your feed you can do that here. Thank you, Alison, for your time and the mint tea.
The River Cafe Cookbook by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray
The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern by Claudia Fleming
Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras