Recipe queen Alison Roman’s popularity, explained by Alison Roman 

The hottest food trend in the US right now is whatever Alison Roman recipe you’re making at home. Chances are, it’s probably the Pasta (a.k.a. the Caramelized Shallot Pasta), the standout dish that has become synonymous with both quarantine-enforced home cooking and the internet’s favorite food writer.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing measures it enforced, there’s been a surging interest in Roman’s recipes. The former pastry chef at Momofuku Milk Bar and current New York Times columnist and Bon Appétit contributor has become beloved for her dishes that sit directly at the axis of convenient, easy, photogenic, and delicious. Her recipes are hardly new — she’s got two cookbooks, 2017’s Dining In and her 2019 follow-up Nothing Fancy — but Roman’s accessibility makes her the chef for the current moment.

Her recipes’ combination of ease and taste seamlessly fit into our current, uneasy reality of sheltering in place. Hence, their popularity.

That includes her famed pasta, or her Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric, or her Salted Chocolate Chip Shortbread Cookies. The recipes have become so popular that they’re simply referred to as “the Stew” or “the Cookies” or “the Pasta” even though there are a plethora of recipes for pastas, cookies, or stews in our gastronomic universe. And if you look for the dishes on social media, you can get lost in a loop of eternal scrolling through everyone’s attempts at making and recreating these signature Roman dishes.

I got the chance to speak with Roman, a usual Brooklynite who was sheltering in place in Hudson, New York, about how she feels about her current wave of popularity and the awful circumstances which created it. We also talked about what happens after a recipe like the Pasta becomes so unavoidable, the dynamic of hype versus backlash versus the genuine joy of teaching people how to cook, and the first restaurant Roman will go to when we are able to stop cooking at home every night.

Alex Abad-Santos

I have to come clean: I was initially a skeptic. I don’t know if you remember, but I had tweeted that I was “trying this cool white lady’s shallot pasta,” and you responded.

Alison Roman

Was that you?

Alex Abad-Santos

That was me.

Alison Roman

Oh my god.

Alex Abad-Santos

And I tried the Pasta. And I have to admit it: Everyone was right about it. It’s fantastic.

Alison Roman

I know, it’s nice when that happens!

Alex Abad-Santos

I think I realized just how popular you were when exes, old friends, and people I went to school with started DMing me out of the blue and were like, “Oh my god, try the Lasagna,” or “Oh my god, you got retweeted by Alison Roman.”

I wanted to ask you about this sudden surge in the popularity of your cooking style and your recipes. If you do a Twitter search on yourself—

Alison Roman

Oh my god, I’ve never done that.

Alex Abad-Santos

Oh, it’s terrifying.

Alison Roman

I won’t. That’s when people tweet about you without tagging you, you mean?

Alex Abad-Santos

Yes. So, I did it for you, and don’t worry. Your Twitter search results are just an endless scroll of pictures of your food and people’s attempts at making it. I scrolled forever, and it was just pictures and pictures of pasta. The Pasta, the Lemon Cake, and the Stew are really big in this moment.

Alison Roman

They are huge right now. I think a lot of that is seasonality. I’m in Hudson right now for the next few days, but, the weather has been absolutely abominable. It’s also that the things people miss the most and can’t find easily right now are fresh vegetables and green stuff.

Alex Abad-Santos

How many times a day are you cooking in this pandemic? Is it less or more than usual?

Alison Roman

Yeah, definitely more. Definitely more. It’s less purposeful cooking. I’m feeling very uninspired to make … I don’t know. My snack selection has just been absolutely wacky.

Alex Abad-Santos

Oh my gosh, please tell me what your snacks are right now.

Alison Roman

I had a small little patch of leftover rice with kimchi and some greens that we cooked down two nights ago. So leftover cooked greens, and a little bit of an egg salad that my friend who I’m staying with made. It was all in the same bowl, and it was really good.

Alex Abad-Santos

Hot rice and kimchi is so good.

Alison Roman

And then I had a piece of buttered matzah with salt, because when we bought matzah for Passover they only had this Costco-sized box. We bought it all, and we’re like, “Well, fuck it. We’ll just eat matzah forever.”

Alex Abad-Santos

We still have some, too, at my place.

Alison Roman

But I’m going back to Brooklyn on Thursday, so I’ll be alone again. I’m sure that my eating habits will change again once I’m solo. When you’re cooking for other people, there’s still some joy in it. I think that cooking for one, which is something that I do normally because I live alone, is just a different vibe.

Alex Abad-Santos

Totally. You don’t have to worry about someone else liking it. There’s no pressure, right?

Alison Roman

I feel like my housemates [right now] and I, we feel very on the same page. Last night we were like, “Let’s make schnitzel!”

We were all really excited about it. Then we’re like, “Let’s make a kale Caesar.” We’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so funny.” We’ve been doing a lot of, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we made kale Caesars?”

Alex Abad-Santos

Just go for the entire Sweetgreen menu.

Alison Roman

Yeah, basically.

For me anyway, I live alone normally. When I’m cooking for myself, I almost never cook with meat ever. It’s not because I don’t love it — I’m definitely an omnivore — but it just feels like I am never going to, like, cook four chicken thighs for myself. I’m just never going to do that. I may roast a whole chicken for myself and then use that over the next few days. I think that for a lot of these people who are living alone, or also just generally cooking for the first time, they feel a lot more comfortable cooking vegetarian or just the pantry staples in general. Like the shallot pasta, it’s [basically] three ingredients.

Alex Abad-Santos

And the wildest one is anchovies.

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Alison Roman

Yeah [laughs]. I have to stop using them [anchovies] because people are going to think that’s all I do, which is fine because I really, genuinely care about them as an ingredient, and I’m happy to be associated with getting the white people to enjoy the anchovies. That’s fine. I’m happy to be that girl.

Alex Abad-Santos

Do you think it’s weird that this rise in popularity of your recipes is happening during the nationwide quarantine? On the one hand, being popular is great. On the other hand, do you ever feel like, “I wish it were under different circumstances”?

Alison Roman

Yeah. On the one hand, I’m so happy to be the “prom queen of the pandemic.” On the other hand, I’m like, “Are people going to just forever associate me with the darkest time in their lives?” I hope not.

But again, I think that the moral of the story is that more people are cooking [at home], and I can’t complain about that, even under the circumstances. I think that it’s great, and hopefully, I’m guessing that it will carry through. I can’t imagine that when this is all over, people won’t be at least a little bit more willing to cook for themselves. That’s my hope, anyway. That’s in a perfect world.

Alex Abad-Santos

I’ve been reading a few of your older interviews, and one thing that keeps resurfacing is how you enjoy teaching people how to cook. It’s really fulfilling for you. Who taught you how to cook, and is there some of that [spirit] in you wanting to teach other people how to cook?

Alison Roman

I worked in a professional restaurant’s kitchen, so the way that I was taught to cook was so different, and I was taught by many people. Basically every boss I had, every line cook that worked at that restaurant, every book that I read [taught me how to cook]. I’ve been cooking since I was 19, so 15 years or so. I feel like I’m still learning. I still learn stuff all the time.

I think for me, my style is just very instinctual, and it’s very, “What is the most delicious thing possible that I can make with like the least amount of work?”

I don’t want to ever be perceived as being a lazy cooker or cutting corners. I think the reason I am able to [make simple recipes] 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.

Alex Abad-Santos

Yeah. Lazy shouldn’t be synonymous with efficient or easy, right?

Alison Roman

Exactly, yeah. It’s still funny too, though, because it’s in the New York Times’s comments section for recipes. Occasionally someone will send me a tweet where somebody doesn’t “at me,” but they say my name, where it’s like, “I tried this recipe but I made these changes and found it much better.” I’m like, “Okay. That’s fine.” I’m not trying to win a competition.

I guess the weird thing about things like the shallot pasta, I was literally just like, “Here’s a delicious recipe.” Fucking end of story. And then everyone’s like, “It’s amazing!” and I was like, “Oh, it is really good actually.” I took for granted how good it actually is, and then it’s a backlash of, “Is it even that good?” Then you’re just like, for fuck’s sake.

I’ve never come out and been like, “This recipe will change your life,” or, “This deserves all the praise.” I’m not gunning for any of that. I literally hope that anything that I publish, people make and say, “Wow, that’s so good. I’m so glad I made that for dinner.” That’s all I’m looking for.

When [a recipe] becomes really popular and the backlash happens, I’m just like, “Oh my god, I’m just trying to do a nice thing for people.” I don’t know. It’s just funny the way people will glom onto that. They poke holes in anything that’s successful.

Alex Abad-Santos

Yeah. Basically, anything you love in the age of the internet is five seconds away from being —

Alison Roman

Absolutely destroyed.

Alex Abad-Santos

In an older interview with Vox, you mentioned that this backlash also happened with the Cookies. The Cookies became popular, and then suddenly everyone wanted to try them.

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Alison Roman

Yeah. It’s like every recipe that’s ever become popular, people are like, “I’m finally checking out what the hype is. I can report that the Lemon Turmeric Cake does live up to the hype.” I still see it on Instagram. And I’m like, “If something were bad, why would everyone be talking about it?”

That goes for everything: beauty products, a band, or a movie, or whatever. Nothing is ever going to be for everybody. Even if everybody’s talking about the same movie, not everybody’s going to like it.

But I feel like, [with backlash], “Okay, maybe you don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.”

Alex Abad-Santos

What is it about helping people learn to cook and appreciate cooking that gives you that spark of joy or satisfaction?

Alison Roman

I think it’s a little lame to admit, but I think it really is my love language. It’s acts of servitude — I really like doing things for people. There’s so much that I can’t do right now. I think that just being able to help people as a thing that I can do is making me feel useful. It makes me feel like I still have something to provide.

I was getting really into my own cadence of publishing recipes every other week. That was the thing I did, and I had all these other projects going on, and I was able to just continue to do work. Right now feeling like I’m not quite able, I feel like helping people is the thing that is making me feel good about being productive.

Alex Abad-Santos

One of the things I want to ask you is, what is your first meal going to be post-apocalypse, in the after times, and at which restaurant?

Alison Roman

Oh my god, I’ve been fantasizing about restaurants. I’m just like, “Give me a fucking restaurant.”

Honestly, I’ll probably just have a martini somewhere. I would happily go anywhere. Every time a friend suggested a restaurant and I was always like, “Ew, no, we’re not going there,” now, I’ll fucking go. I don’t care. Now I will go anywhere.

If I had a choice and it was really up to me — places where I know my friends are needing people to be back in their restaurants. I feel really bad about restaurants. A friend of mine just asked, “Where should we eat? Should we get so and so a gift certificate for their birthday from a restaurant?”

I was like, “Honestly, I don’t know which ones are going to make it.”

I think in the first few weeks, we were all like, “Of course they’ll all come back.” Now I’m just like, “I don’t know if they all will.” That’s just really devastating. It’s going to be all fucking Chase banks.

Alex Abad-Santos

And Duane Reades.

When you’re making your recipes, how important is the appearance of the food to you? I feel like, because of Instagram and Twitter and everyone just posting stuff, it seems like a folly if someone posts their food without thinking about how good the food looks.

Alison Roman

Yeah. I think [being pre-occupied with looks] is how we get bad recipes. I think that a lot of people reverse-engineer a recipe to look good or look interesting, and that’s when you get a lot of bullshit. I never ever, ever make something in the interest of it looking good. I’ve also published recipes where I’ll straight up be like, “This is ugly. This is an ugly dish, but it’s too good not to make.”

Alex Abad-Santos

Which one’s the ugly dish?

Alison Roman

The Cauliflower Pasta. I almost didn’t publish that because I was like, “This is hideous.” It’s a bowl of creamy beige bullshit. It’s like, “What the fuck is this?” It’s still one of my more popular recipes of last year. People love it because it tastes so good.

I am huge into self-awareness in general, but also with food. It’s like, “Listen, this is going to look like a bowl of creamy beige weird stuff. I almost didn’t publish this recipe because this is a personal food that I make for only myself, but it’s too good. You’re going to love it.” Having the confidence to say that and get out in front of it is key.

Alex Abad-Santos

That’s good advice in general!

Alison Roman

But I think food inherently is really beautiful. I think that ingredients are gorgeous. I think that cooking, when done properly, is going to give you a beautiful result. If you take a chicken thigh and you don’t brown it enough, it doesn’t matter how beautiful my picture looks. If you didn’t brown the chicken thigh enough, it’s probably not going to look that great. A well-browned chicken thigh, no matter what else you do to it, it’s going to be gorgeous.

Alex Abad-Santos

Absolutely. A little flimsy, pale chicken thigh is not attractive.

Alison Roman

But I think that food inherently is nice to look at. I think that’s why I love it so much.

Sometimes I have an idea for something — I did these carrots for the Passover menu, and I was like, “I just want a bowl of little cute orange coins.” And that was pretty much a visual choice. I was just like, “That’ll be cute.”

So I did work backwards from there, but if it didn’t taste good, I would be like, “Well that’s not going to work.” I think that even if I do lead with something visual, it has to check out taste-wise.

Alex Abad-Santos

Thank you so much for talking with me during the pandemic and these weird circumstances.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking about making the shallot pasta again tonight.

[Note: The Pasta was even better the second time around.]


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