Alison Roman and Chrissy Teigen’s feud is about more than selling out

Two weeks ago, I spoke with Alison Roman about how everything that people love on the internet is five seconds away from being destroyed. And today I’m writing about how that theory now applies to Roman herself.

Roman, the New York Times food columnist whose recipes have caught proverbial fire, found herself in the crosshairs of a social media backlash this weekend after an interview was published in which Roman dissed fellow famous domestic mavens Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen for selling out.

“[T]he 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,” Roman told the New Consumer on May 7, in an interview about her future plans for building her business. “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!’”

She then turned her attention to Teigen, saying that Teigen “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.”

Kondo is famous for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, a book-turned-movement-turned-Netflix-show and organizational empire based on the idea of throwing out all the stuff in your home that doesn’t “spark joy.” Teigen, a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model, co-host of Lip Sync Battle, and beloved Twitter darling, has, like Roman, written cookbooks that focus on simple, tasty dishes. Kondo and Teigen both have lines of cookware and kitchen products.

Roman is not the first person to ever call out someone else for selling out, nor will she be the last. But in the eyes of Kondo’s and Teigen’s fans — as well as in the eyes of Teigen herself — Roman crossed a line by specifically targeting these two well-liked, successful women in the “lifestyle brand” space. Some critics suggested that Roman was being blatantly racist. Others said she was being hypocritical, considering she has partnered with brands in the past and has an upcoming partnership with the kitchenware company Material.

Teigen (whose husband John Legend is a Vox Media board member) tweeted several times on May 8 about her displeasure and sadness over Roman’s comments:

Roman initially defended herself and then tried to clarify her comments. Then she apologized profusely to Teigen. But she couldn’t undo the damage of the interview. It’s also much more difficult to walk back comments or let them blow over when Teigen, who has 12.7 million Twitter followers (Roman, by comparison, has 60,000 followers), name-checks you.

Throughout the weekend, Teigen’s fans and Roman’s critics — including people who may count as both — dragged Roman for her interview and for making fun of Teigen and Kondo. They looked for other instances of Roman’s transgressions and inconsistencies, and told Roman to apologize (again), to keep her apology, and to stop playing the victim. Teigen also faced some backlash and hypocrisy-checking of her own, as some Twitter users dug up old tweets in which she said disparaging things about Courtney Stodden and Quvenzhané Wallis.

Teigen has since locked her Twitter account, saying there was too much drama.

On Monday, May 11, Roman tweeted an extensive, more thorough apology to Kondo and Teigen. “I’m not the victim here, and my insecurities don’t excuse this behavior,” she wrote. “I’m a white woman who has and will continue to benefit from white privilege and I recognize that makes what I said even more inexcusable.”

Teigen, on Monday night, tweeted an acceptance of the apology.

Vox reached out to both Roman and Teigen, neither of whom has returned requests for comment.

While the back-and-forth between Teigen and Roman (Kondo hasn’t commented and doesn’t appear to be a regular Twitter user) may have seemed like a petty feud between two queens of simple cooking, it started a far-reaching debate about race, privilege, success, and values that goes much deeper than two people unfollowing each other on Twitter.

Roman’s candidness is why she became so popular — and why her interview was immediately so unpopular

Beyond the right or wrongness of Roman’s comments, it’s important to understand that the frankness that’s getting her roasted online is one of the reasons she got so popular in the first place. Roman’s prominent rise in the last three or so years is predicated on a simple premise: a no-bullshit attitude and a call-it-like-you-see-it gastronomic honesty.

She promises not to make you go out and buy a bunch of spices that you’ll only use one time. If there’s a way to roast a chicken in one hour, she’s pledged to tell you how to do that. If a step in a recipe is superfluous, she vows to cut it out.

Her approach works reflexively, too.

If there’s one ingredient or step or technique that makes or breaks a dish, she emphasizes how important it is. If a chicken really does need to be in the oven for an hour and a half, she’ll explain why. If you don’t have anchovies and she believes they are important, she’ll tell you to just save the recipe for a different day and find something else to cook.

“I don’t want to ever be perceived as being a lazy cooker, cutting corners,” Roman told me two weeks ago. “I think the reason I am able to do all that is because I already know the outcome of doing it the hard way. I’ve done it the hard way. I’ve done it with more ingredients, I’ve done it with more time, I’ve done it with more staff. It’s not better than this way, is my rationale.”

Roman spent 15 years cooking in professional settings, working at high-profile restaurants like Momofuku’s Milk Bar in New York City and San Francisco’s Quince, as well as taking behind-the-scenes roles at established food media institutions like Bon Appetit. Her signature recipes — familiar enough online to have their own hashtags and nicknames like “The Pasta,” “The Stew,” and “The Cookies” — are very good. Roman wouldn’t be as popular or as trusted as she is if her recipes weren’t as easy and delicious as she tells you they are.

Roman’s frankness also shines through when you speak to her.

She doesn’t seem to have a filter. It doesn’t matter whether she’s discussing beauty products and milk chocolate, being pretentious about the luxury of wild mushrooms, or having popcorn for dinner. This was clear when she spoke to me about the backlash some of her recipes have received even though so many people seemed to be trying them during the coronavirus quarantine.

“On the one hand, I’m so happy to be ‘prom queen of the pandemic,’” Roman told me. “But on the other hand, are people going to forever associate me with the darkest time in their lives?”

It’s hard to convey the inflection in someone’s voice, or their wry tone, through text. But Roman, during our conversation, wasn’t boasting about her success. She seemed aware of and uncomfortable with her popularity, and was using “prom queen” in a sarcastic way to refer to the positive press and feedback she received.

Throughout our conversation, I could see that she thought the idea of her popularity rising as the US implemented stay-at-home orders was unfortunate timing. She explained that it’s great to be successful, but also that she feels very reluctant about accepting the heaps of praise that her fans have bestowed on her.

Roman’s comments about Kondo and Teigen in the New Consumer interview were no doubt mean-spirited. They also seemed to be part of a bigger point Roman was making about consumerism, why it disturbs her, and why she says she won’t expand into creating her own commercial brand.

“Support businesses and makers,” Roman said right after mentioning Kondo and Teigen. “[Creating a line of cookware] feels greedy. Unless something just simply didn’t exist that I wish existed, but that would make me 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.”

I can understand people agreeing with the spirit of Roman’s point. When I spoke to her a few weeks ago, we discussed how she’d received backlash for her popular dishes. (As noted above, she did not respond to a request for comment on this story.) If she were to market her own brand of, say, shallot-peelers, I don’t doubt people would be calling her a sell-out.

As Roman herself said in her apology to Teigen on Twitter, her statements about Kondo and Teigen were “flippant and careless,” and Roman could have easily made the same point by not dragging down Kondo or Teigen.

But she didn’t do that. She used an example that people know, she was scathingly sardonic, and she crossed a line that she now seems to understand was unnecessary. Her candidness, which is the reason many people enjoy her personality and her recipes, has gotten her into trouble. And backlash and praise function in the same way, in that she can’t control either one.

The race and inequality problems in the food and lifestyle world are bigger than Alison Roman

Perhaps the most unfortunate and disturbing part of Roman’s comments about Kondo and Teigen in the New Consumer interview is that she used broken English to mock Kondo. While pointing out that Kondo’s claim to fame is getting rid of things and that Kondo is simultaneously selling décor, tableware, and self-care items, Roman seemed to mock native Japanese speaker Kondo’s English:

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!”

Roman tweeted an explanation that this comment wasn’t directly related to Kondo’s English. She said that it was an inside joke that referred to Please to the Table, a Russian cookbook by Anya von Bremzen.

Dan Frommer, the editor of the New Consumer, later added an extensive note to the interview after questions about whether or not Roman was mocking Kondo’s accent arose. He first edited out the line, but then returned it to its original form. He wrote:

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.

Still, the joke and Roman’s specificity in targeting Kondo and Teigen, who are both of Asian descent, was interpreted by many people as racist. In addition to Teigen’s and Kondo’s fans defending their faves, some began digging for more proof that Roman’s attack on these women was part of a bigger, previously ignored problem.

Twitter users found out Roman had led an expensive food-centric trip to Vietnam in 2019, which some cited as a further example of her sell-out hypocrisy and casual racism, since Roman was appearing to cash in on her food expertise despite it being her first trip to the country. And some began re-exploring the preexisting criticism that Roman’s recipes are actually gentrified takes on Asian and Middle Eastern food that only got popular because a white woman had put her name on it.

“People lost their fucking minds over this shit [the stew]!” Roxana Hadadi wrote for Pajiba on May 9. “Unless you were a brown person. And then you looked at the word ‘stew’ and scoffed. Roman made herself a curry and refused to acknowledge that she had made a curry, and this is colonialism as cuisine. This is exactly what people have been grumbling about — the people who often aren’t included in the highest influencer echelons, as Roman now is.”

Hadadi’s scrutiny of “The Stew” isn’t unique. Critics had previously said that Roman was culturally appropriating curry. And the note accompanying the recipe was adjusted to cite “stews found in South India and parts of the Caribbean,” as Jezebel reported in 2019. Meanwhile, Roman’s other recipes sometimes acknowledge global regions and cuisines as influences. In her “Pork Noodle Soup,” she specifically mentions Vietnamese phở as her inspiration.

And that’s why the narrative surrounding this interview ranges from “Alison Roman saying some really unsavory things about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen” to “Alison Roman making a slip-up that reveals her entire history of being a conniving racist.”

I’ve only ever interacted with Roman in one interview, and I’m not going to pretend to know her personal views on race and ethnicity. I think there are myriad intricacies and aggressions between casually rolling your eyes at Marie Kondo selling out; thoughtlessly using a broken English inside joke, as Roman stated she did, to emphasize a point about consumerism; and blatant xenophobic anti-Asian racism. (Look no further than the rise of racist attacks on Asian Americans during the pandemic.) And there’s a spectrum of prejudice below being racist writ large that sometimes gets overlooked because it isn’t as “bad” as the worst stuff.

But I think the particular nerve that Roman and the reaction to her words have struck is as important, if not more important, than what she said.

There are deep-rooted issues in food that intersect with race, ethnicity, and cultural appropriation that food writers, critics, restaurateurs, and consumers have only begun to reckon with. As Roman’s critics have pointed out, there’s a trend of white chefs and cooks getting very successful making food traditionally cooked by brown and black people. In the same vein, there’s a trend of food that was traditionally seen as gross or weird because it wasn’t made by white people that’s now being exalted. For me personally, it’s been a trip to see white people my age fawn over Filipino food these days when the kids I grew up with shamed me out of bringing adobo leftovers for lunch.

On top of that, America has a thorny history of white women being seen as paragons of domesticity, and people of color, particularly women of color, being left out of the conversation. So when Roman singles out Teigen and Kondo as she did in the interview, the question arises of why she chose to mention them as opposed to white women like Martha Stewart or the Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond or Rachael Ray. Or why not mention white men like Bobby Flay or Wolfgang Puck or Rick Bayless?

Alison Roman isn’t the cause of all these problems. However, because of her popularity and status as the millennial celebrity chef du jour, I think she currently functions as an avatar of all these genuinely frustrating and maddening injustices and is someone who exponentially benefits from the food industry’s easy-mode settings. Roman is privileged.

Her missteps and the resulting backlash feel like a fleeting and rare readjustment of the public mindset. That can feel great, especially when karma and justice feel like they’ve been asleep at the wheel.

What’s harder to reconcile is whether you genuinely believe Roman is truly as dangerous or awful as the worst critiques of her suggest, and whether you think that canceling her will actually solve any of the bigger problems that the food and restaurant industry are shackled with.

I don’t think, for certain people, that there is anything Roman could do to change their minds. Even Roman’s thoughtful apology on Monday and Teigen’s acceptance of it may not convince them that she’s taken the criticism to heart. But I also don’t think canceling Roman will send the great evils of food colonialism back to where they began.

Author Roxane Gay tweeted an incisive opinion on this matter, suggesting that Roman is not completely innocent, but rather her blunder may have exposed a cultural mentality about ourselves and how we process someone we simply do not like:

As Gay mused, perhaps the people who didn’t like Alison Roman to begin with seized on this opportunity to stand up and say so. Her words were thoughtless and mean, there’s no argument there. And to Roman’s biggest critics, what she said is confirmation that everything they’ve thought about her was valid.

But that type of thinking flattens Roman and everyone else we don’t like into something convenient for all of us. And I wonder if that says something more about our own values, goals, frustrations, and hang-ups than it does about Alison Roman.

Going a little deeper, what exactly is it about Roman that people dislike? I keep going back to her stated disdain over being the pandemic’s self-appointed “prom queen.” From what I remember of high school, everyone liked the prom queen until she was actually crowned. I remember everyone saying someone else should have won.

Winning a popularity contest doesn’t mean people actually like you. It can even work against you. And Roman can probably tell you herself that success and popularity are very, very different from being liked. And with that, Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen might even agree.


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