Alison Roman: The world’s coolest chef on cookies, celebrity and coming back from being cancelled

Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management.
Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management.
Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management | Styling by Stacey Jones at Holly Corbett Represents | Make-up: Justine Sweetman | Hair: Chika Yokoyama
Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management | Styling by Stacey Jones at Holly Corbett Represents | Make-up: Justine Sweetman | Hair: Chika Yokoyama

Alison Roman would like you to bake your pie for much longer than you would probably dare to. She wants the crust to be deeply browned and she’d prefer it if you gave the edges more of a rough scrunch than a neat crimp. She has no interest in coaching you in how to decorate perfect cakes; she likes them ‘lopsided and wonky’, ‘unevenly frosted’, ‘consistently imperfect’. She would never ask you to bake a sponge that required multiple bowls, never give you a recipe in 12 steps if it could be done in three. She wants you to add as much salt to your shortbread as you would your pasta water, she’d like your butter to brown, your caramel to burn, your galettes to ooze and putter with hot strawberry syrup. And she’d really rather you went out and bought a tub of Häagen-Dazs than wasted time slaving over homemade ice cream.

If you think this sounds counter-intuitive for the author of a baking book, you may not have encountered Alison Roman yet. Perfection has never been her thing; out-of-reach recipes are not her goal. She wants you to pick up one of her books or flick through her popular Instagram feed, spot something enticing, something that treads the line between aspirational and achievable – a bowl of ‘personal’ pasta, a broth packed with fresh herbs, a chocolate pudding in a vintage glass bowl. She wants you to fall in love with the picture, then read the recipe and think: ‘I could make that.’

It’s how in her new cookbook – her third after the books that made her name (Dining In and New York Times bestseller Nothing Fancy) – she ended up including a picture of a burnt pie. ‘There’s a part of me that’s like, “Do you want to put a burnt pie in your book?”’ Roman ponders. ‘The other part of me is like…’ she shrugs, ‘you burnt the pie.’

Roman is sitting at a corner table in Lucy’s, a small Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn, adding Thai basil to a bowl of steaming pho. She squeezes over a wedge of lime, scrunches a paper napkin between her fingers, her trademark red nails (so renowned her 687k followers know exactly what colour gel she gets) present and correct. We have walked nine blocks from our shoot before settling on a lunch spot, past trendy coffee shops where she would certainly have been recognised by the 30-something Brooklynites co-working on their laptops, past an empty dive bar she used to go to, past a chain café in a new build that isn’t speaking to her. Roman, 37, lives in an apartment in Boerum Hill, a neighbourhood just west of here. Conscious that I’m only in town for 24 hours, she wants me to eat well. ‘My friends are always like: “Would you just pick a place already?”’

She decides on Lucy’s, gets us a table, scans the menu. ‘What can I order for you?’

It is two weeks until her latest book, Sweet Enough, is published, and Roman is in a reflective mood. She is in the thick of publicity commitments, and gearing up for a book tour that will take her around the US and to the UK. She has been here before, but not under quite the same circumstances. In many ways, this is her comeback book.

If the first half of Roman’s career featured a traditional trajectory – from professional cook slogging it out in the pastry sections of LA kitchens to New York food writer – the second half is a thoroughly modern tale. Her star rose at US food magazine Bon Appétit, which was having huge success in the 2010s with its online recipe videos (the magazine has since been accused of having a toxic culture), but it was on Instagram that Roman really built a following.

She got a publishing deal right at the moment when social media was becoming the great star-maker in food. Viral recipes were the name of the game, and Roman seemed to have a knack for them. At one point the whole world seemed to be making ‘The Cookies’, her recipe for salty chocolate-chip shortbread from her first book. More viral recipes followed; every time someone posted a picture of the finished dish she would share it, making people feel they were part of her club. They didn’t just want to make her shallot pasta, they wanted to be part of the gang making it.

‘I don’t think what happened for, say, the cookies could happen again,’ she says. ‘It was kind of the first time that happened where people were like wow this is crazy – a recipe from a cookbook?’

At this point she was being billed as the millennial Nigella, known for bringing a kind of effortless glamour to an ordinary weeknight dinner. She didn’t relish being the viral cookie girl. ‘I had a chip on my shoulder when people were like, “You’re the viral recipe queen,”’ she says. ‘I’m like no, the word makes it feel less serious… And then I was like eh, whatever, call it whatever you want… I think viral is shorthand for I’m seeing it in a lot of places, and that’s cool, but viral does have a tinge of internet speak that I’m a little cringed by.’

By 2018 she’d joined The New York Times as a columnist to much fanfare; a piece announcing the signing was headlined simply: ‘Alison Roman! Alison Roman!’ Once the pandemic hit, she was a huge name. But she’d also begun to polarise people.

Roman’s tone was quick-fire, speckled with hot takes and strong opinions. The New Yorker described her as ‘home cooking’s most relentless polemicist, pairing a preference for high-acid, crunchy, creamy, herby, briny, chili-flaky food with salty takes’.

She is still those things, but she’s softer now. The woman I meet on a cold March morning in Brooklyn has had her edges rounded out. Why? Because with every internet success story comes the inevitable fall, and Roman’s was as big – and as painful – as they come.

Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management | Styling by Stacey Jones at Holly Corbett Represents | Make-up: Justine Sweetman | Hair: Chika Yokoyama
Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management | Styling by Stacey Jones at Holly Corbett Represents | Make-up: Justine Sweetman | Hair: Chika Yokoyama

In May 2020, an interview with Roman came out. In it, she criticised Marie Kondo (of decluttering fame) and Chrissy Teigen (the model, cookbook author and wife of John Legend), essentially for being sellouts, peddling their lines of branded products. ‘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…’

Twitter soon exploded with accusations of racism. Teigen told her millions of followers how let down she felt, having previously been a fan of the cookery writer. Roman apologised, locked her social media, went quiet. But the interview brought into sharp relief a feeling that had been thrown around already among some in the food world, that she was too casual with how she credited the cultures that influenced her, whose ingredients she used in much of her work. A viral recipe for ‘The Stew’, it was pointed out, was really something akin to an Indian chana masala or a Jamaican curry, just by another name.

It seemed for a while as if she’d set a match to her own career. People who have been ‘cancelled’ often talk about the experience as traumatising. Is that a word she would ascribe to what happened to her? ‘Yeah I would, absolutely. And I think coming out the other side I’m not like, “I’m so glad, I feel great.” I don’t feel great, it was awful. But I think that there’s a lot of good that came out of it and a sort of feeling of OK, well, I did experience the worst version of something, I’m no longer afraid of that happening, I’m no longer afraid of a lot of things… I no longer feel like I can fail so tragically.’

Roman had always been opinionated. She’d tell you in her writing, her videos, her Instagram posts what she loved, what she hated – ‘Milk chocolate is my favourite, which is a really trashy answer and no professional would ever say that’ – all served with attitude. After what happened, she ‘gave a lot of thought’ to how she comes across.

‘Someone asked me in an interview, do you feel like you can never say anything ever again? No, I think there was a lot to learn from that experience that made me consider how I come across, and I never want to be misinterpreted.’

There was a time, she says, when she feared she’d never go back to doing what she does. The New York Times paused her column, then in December 2020 Roman announced it wouldn’t be returning. ‘I was like, well, if things really go to s—t and they might and they are, I can support myself by working at a restaurant. I have a thing that I can do and people can pay me money for.

‘I was like, if I’m not a public figure then what am I? If everyone hates me and I never get a thing again then I’ll go and work in wherever.’

She had to find a way to work, not just to pay the bills, but because ‘it’s really the only thing I care about. I care about my friends and family too, and my cat. But it really just means a lot to me.’ Roman has always been a grafter – after growing up in Los Angeles she left college before graduation and started working in restaurants.

Her friends helped give her perspective when she was spiralling. ‘When something happens to you like that you think it’s as important to everybody else as it is to me. You really centre yourself – the main character or whatever – but to have people be like, “Babe, who cares? And if they do, f—k ’em.”

‘I’m looking at my friends and my family and my community and I’m like, “Oh, you guys are the best people I know. You have a strong moral compass, you’re funny, you’re smart, you care about people, you do right, you’re an upstanding citizen. If you think I’m good and you like and love me then I’m OK.”’

Dating, post-cancellation, was hard – she was single when it happened, living alone in lockdown. ‘I felt like I was a sideshow for people. Guys wanted to go out with me because… I don’t know, it was like rubber-necking. It was terrible. It was tough to date, it was tough to feel sexy or confident in romance as well as [in] my work. It affected everything.’

Returning to work was, she says, ‘not unlike a breakup’. ‘You’re going through it and you’re like f—k, I’m going to start dating. The first few you’re like this feels scary.’

She’d already decided to launch a newsletter – called, naturally, A Newsletter. It would be a new home for her work, a place she would have the creative control she’d always wanted. Initially, though, she’d panic ‘every time I hit publish. I was second-guessing myself constantly. Can I say this? Can I say that? And stumbled a few times where I said a word and people were like… people were really looking for me to f—k up. It gave me a lot of anxiety.

‘But I also knew I was effectively walking through fire and the only way was through it. Just keep going. It’s not going to be good right away. People are not going to let you in right away. But keep being yourself, keep doing the work, and the chips will fall.’

Eventually, writing felt good again.

‘I wasn’t spoon-feeding myself down anyone’s throat. I wasn’t in people’s spaces that didn’t want me there. You don’t watch a YouTube channel if you hate the person, you don’t subscribe to a newsletter if you hate the person.’

She started shooting videos for YouTube. ‘I was doing it for the [New York] Times and then I wasn’t, so I was like, well, I’m not going to let that stop me from doing it. Somebody takes away your ability to do something, you can either decide not to do it again or you can do it yourself.’

It took a while to go in front of the camera again: ‘To present myself with confidence and authority.’ Home Movies, filmed in her apartment, is the result. They are hugely successful – her most watched recipe has had more than a million views. She feels ‘refreshed’ no longer being beholden to the world of legacy media. ‘I always wanted to do my own thing, that was always my plan, I just did it sooner than I thought I would.’

The question of who she wants to be now is an interesting one. In both the newsletter and the new book, it strikes me her voice has mellowed. ‘I hope it’s not for the worse. There was part of me that was self-conscious, feeling like maybe I’ve lost my punchiness because I’m afraid to be punchy or something, and I really would hate for that to happen.

‘But I feel confident again in the way that I speak and the way that I write in a way that, for a while, I didn’t.’

The fire hasn’t gone, not by a long shot. Sweet Enough is still full of opinions, as is its author in person. She’s just more careful about how she expresses them now. She hates avocado, for example, telling Good Food ‘unless it’s assaulted with an ungodly amount of lemon or lime, it tastes like nothing. If I never ate another avocado for the rest of my life, it would still be too soon.’

‘I still do,’ she says now ‘and that’s OK. That’s an unimpeachable opinion. But there are other things I’ve said that I’m like, “Oh that’s not helpful to anyone, I don’t need to say it that way.” I don’t need to say it at all.’

The best thing about puddings is that they are in no way essential. There is nothing useful about a tiramisu, nothing practical about a lemon tart; they are entirely about pleasure. Roman couldn’t locate her sense of excitement or inspiration for writing about food for a long time, but eventually, having a new topic – a gloriously frivolous one like desserts – to get to grips with ‘allowed me to kind of come back’.

‘The only reason [desserts] exist is to make people happy,’ says Roman. ‘They don’t keep us alive… There’s an absurdity to them. Writing this book was an exercise in “this can just be fun”. That was a conclusion I had to come to to fully feel like I could write [it] with authority.’

She is proud of the result, particularly the photographs, which look like ‘eternal summer’, shot on beaches, next to pools, in her own apartment. ‘I wanted it all to feel as real as could be and it does because it is. Why is there cake at the beach? Why the f—k not?’

She has learnt that she can’t please everybody. ‘I used to think you could. I used to think you could be beloved entirely and wholeheartedly and without any sort of… whatever.’ She now knows that isn’t possible, the alternative is to ‘just be myself’.

‘I’m the same person that I’ve been since day one, before all this, before the books, before everything. Anyone who’s known me will vouch for that.’

A new relationship has helped her to feel grounded too. She met her boyfriend of six months after he ‘slid into the DMs [contacted her privately on social media]’.

‘I think part of my energy stems from me being like oh, I’ve found the person that I’m going to do my life with.’

Her new-found peace is hard-won. ‘I had a lot of sharper edges and then to be absolutely destroyed, you lose most of that.’

Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management | Styling by Stacey Jones at Holly Corbett Represents | Make-up: Justine Sweetman | Hair: Chika Yokoyama
Alison Roman - Celeste Sloman/Copious Management | Styling by Stacey Jones at Holly Corbett Represents | Make-up: Justine Sweetman | Hair: Chika Yokoyama

For now, she is rebuilding herself, working out who she wants to be. ‘I’m going to keep some edges, and the rest I can soften, I don’t need them, because I’ve already been desensitised. I’m not protecting myself against something any more, because it already happened.’

Recently, someone replied to her newsletter thinking they were sending a message to a friend but they actually emailed her. ‘This happens a lot, it’s funny. It said: “I really can’t stand her but I gotta say her recipes are the best.”

‘I was like great, I will take that, that doesn’t offend me at all. What would be worse would be, “I really love her but her recipes suck.”’

These days, she is focusing on work and trying not to be distracted by what people think of her. ‘I swapped needing to be liked with needing my work to be liked.’

She has no interest in joining the millions on TikTok. Her own heroes have always been British cookery writers. ‘Diana Henry I’ve been a fan of for so long, Anna Jones I’ve been a fan of for so long, Georgina Hayden.’ It’s long-lasting, consistent careers like these women’s she is striving for, not spikes of mega fame. And it’s a mutual fan club. The Telegraph’s Diana Henry, who met Roman in her Bon Appétit days, says, ‘Alison could just have gone down the “I’m gorgeous and I can cook a bit” route. It would have been easy for someone as beautiful as her to do that, to shine on social media, to get book deals, but she really understands and loves food and cooking and genuinely wants to empower people. She hasn’t sought fame just for the sake of it. Food is her career, it is the driver.’

Roman’s next project is about the least digital thing you could imagine. She is opening a shop on the ground floor of a house she has bought in upstate New York. ‘A pantry store. A very pragmatic, very basic, here’s all the things you need to cook dinner, small grocery store.’ She wanted to create a hub for the people that live there, and liked the idea of having ‘a physical manifestation’ of her work.

‘Everything else lives on the internet and it’s ephemeral. I thought: what would it be like if you had a real, physical space that has an energy and a feeling?’

The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating.

Sweet Enough, by Alison Roman, is published on Thursday, April 5 (Hardie Grant Books, £28). Pre-order at