Alison Roman

6 days ago

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Sean Santiago

6 days ago

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Sean Santiago

You can say what you like about Alison Roman’s food – just don’t call it interesting. “To have someone say, ‘Oh, that’s… interesting’ is the worst,” the ex-pastry chef and food writer says. “You’re like, ‘They hate it!’ I’d rather something be reliable and really delicious.”

Alison was studying creative writing at college when she decided to leave “a little early” after falling in love with cooking. Rather than go to culinary school, she began working in restaurants, first in her native Los Angeles, then in San Francisco and New York, before becoming a food editor at Bon Appetit. Now a contributor to that magazine as well as The New York Times, she’s been cooking professionally for 11 years and her first full length cookbook, Dining In, is published in October.

On a sticky July afternoon, we arrive at the Brooklyn home Alison shares with her boyfriend and cat, Margaux, who takes cover in the bedroom for the duration of our visit. A few minutes from Prospect Park, the large building looks exactly as you might imagine a typical New York apartment block, with metal fire escapes and brown bricks.

Inside it is cool and filled with curios. From the top of the long window that frames the light-filled galley kitchen, a wooden parrot hangs opposite a wire basket filled with lemons (“I’ve been meaning to hang that from the ceiling for about two years”); on the side of the fridge, a pink sticker proclaims “Yes Way Rosé”; plants perch on shelves and on top of cupboards, and a huge bunch of basil sits in a glass vase like a blousy bouquet. Lorde is playing from the living room next door (“Could it be catchier?”) and, as we stand by the counter podding peas for a salad with radish, anchovy and lemon, it’s only the occasional angry honk of a car horn that acts as a reminder of the hustle of the city outside.

As engaging and quick to quip as her writing suggests, Alison is a hospitable host, and over the next couple of hours I learn what a garlic scape is, that Aleppo pepper, garlic, olive oil and crunchy sea salt makes probably the best sauce-come-dressing ever (especially when spooned over basil and lemon stuffed roast branzino), and that even a successful food writer can be bested by her boyfriend when it comes to cooking eggs.

Continued below...

How long have you lived in this apartment?

I think three and a half years. Before this I was in the East Village, before that Greenpoint and before that Williamsburg. I did Brooklyn, Manhattan, then back to Brooklyn.

Have you always lived in cities?

Yeah. I grew up in LA, moved to San Francisco, moved to New York. So, when I’m done living here, I’m done living in cities. Everyone’s like, are you going to move back to LA, and I’m like, no, I wanna write books in the woods. I say that now, and then I’ll be like, “There’s no wine store anywhere!” You know, it’s just about wanting space.

Do you hang out in this neighbourhood much?

I do, yeah. There’s a bunch of fun little bars closer to Crown Heights or Bed-Stuy that are easy for me to get to. The park is right here so that’s really nice. But I have an office space in the city, near Union Square, so I still spend a fair amount of time there. I spend so much of my time at home cooking when I’m developing recipes that when I’m writing I need to get out. Or I’m never leaving the house.

You can go crazy when you don’t speak to anyone.

Oh my god, yeah. You go out to dinner and all of a sudden you’ve forgotten how to socialise. You’re like [whispers] “There’s people talking to me.”

My boyfriend actually makes better eggs than I do. He’s not much of a cook; he’ll admit that himself. But for some reason his eggs just turn out better

When you’re at home testing recipes, do you eat regular meals or do you find yourself grazing?

If I know that I’m testing a recipe I could eat for dinner, I try to do it at dinnertime. Or I have people over, or go to someone’s house and bring them food – weave it into my regular eating schedule, because otherwise it’s just… too much.

Are you a breakfast person?

I sort of got into making smoothies but that lasted for about a week. Sometimes I’ll get a smoothie on my way into work. This place Juice Press makes ones I really like that have a ton of greens and almond butter and ginger – that will get me through. On the weekends though, we’ll make breakfast. My boyfriend actually makes better eggs than I do. He’s not much of a cook; he’ll admit that himself. But for some reason his eggs just turn out better.

What else does he make?

He loves cold peanut noodles, so we’ve been making that together. He makes good salads. He likes simple things: he’s an olive oil, lemon juice, parmesan kind of salad person, which is great because so am I. I’d say coffee, eggs and popcorn are the three things he always does better than me. I mean, I make very good popcorn but he has his special little method, it’s really cute.

Do you remember the first thing you cooked for him?

It was chicken covered in olive oil with garlic, shallots and potatoes and then roasted. It’s actually in the book, I think. Everything gets roasted together and the chicken gets really melty and tender, and you crisp up the skin. It’s pretty foolproof… But I think he really liked it [laughs].

You’re not much of breakfaster then – what about lunch and dinner?

I’ve recently gotten more into taking myself out for lunch if I’m in the city. Just because it’s a nice thing to do. Otherwise I will work until I get so hungry that I’m cranky and not able to function properly. When I’m working from home I make lunch for myself: in the winter, soups, and in the summer, cold noodles or salads with lots of tahini and things like that – heartier salads, fridge-clean-out stuff. I always have so many groceries lying around that I try to use everything up; I eat a lot of leftovers. If I’ve spent all day cooking, I’m not excited any more, I’m over it. But if it’s more like a regular day then I’ll definitely go out with friends. Most of the time, dinner is a social thing so I’m going out because it’s someone’s birthday. I love Chinese food – I eat a lot of Sichuan food.

I’ll have somebody bring limes, someone else bring salsa, another person bring tortillas, and then all of a sudden you have dinner

So your fridge is always full – sounds good! Can I have a look?

I tried to clean it yesterday and I still couldn’t figure it out [laughs]. There’s a lot of bags of herbs making it look fuller than it is.

You’ve got lots of jars of pickle-y things.

Yeah, I just did a story for the New York Times on preserving, so I have a lot of jams that I’ve been giving away as gifts, because I don’t go through that much jam. I used to own a jam company. I mean, “jam company” – I made the jam at my house and sold it at farmers’ markets and to Bedford Cheese Shop.

Is there a night of the week you regularly stay in and cook?

We try to cook every Sunday. It’s easier in the winter, because we do it with our friends; the winters can be very dark if you don’t do stuff. Normally I plan by working backwards and saying okay, where are we cooking, how many people? In winter, I’m happy to do it here because my apartment stays warm and it’s a pleasant place to be, but in summer I don’t really have people over because it’s too hot.

What kind of thing do you cook?

I often plan very last minute: what can I cook that will take three hours, that I can pick up in the neighbourhood, and that won’t be super fussy? If it’s more than eight people I’ll do something like tacos because, honestly, I’m not trying to make four dishes. I’m gonna make one thing, roasted pork shoulder or chicken pastor or something like that. I’ll have somebody bring limes, someone else bring salsa, another person bring tortillas, and then all of a sudden you have dinner. There are exceptions to that rule, especially when six people turns into 12 – which it often does.

A really good Japanese restaurant: they do nice homemade tofus and udon soup. And it’s under 20 bucks – cheaper than it should be, for sure
Alison on her favourite New York restaurants »

Sounds like a party!

I mean, it can be a party with six people, if you have the right people. Luckily my friends are pretty rowdy.

It’s definitely good to be realistic about what you can achieve. I always try to do too much.

Completely – and then you’re a pill to be around. I threw one dinner party after I got back from Mexico City and I was frying flautas and making quesadillas and pozole and I didn’t see anyone the whole time. And I was like, this sucks. I learned that as I got older and entertained more. I always try to blow people’s tits off every time I cook and it’s really not about that; having people over and cooking for them is enough. You don’t have to do the craziest, most expensive, most interesting thing you’ve ever heard of. Do one special thing. You’re not eating at a restaurant you’re… Dining In! Sorry. But it’s true, you have to be a little easier on yourself. I think it was Julia Child who said, “Never apologise for your food.” I’m paraphrasing but basically, just bring out a pizza. Mrs Doubtfire that shit.

So, you wrote your first book about lemons?

I did. Short Stack is a small imprint, and they make cute little cookbooks, no photos, just 20 to 25 recipes. That was really fun but it was a very different process to doing this book. I use lemons in pretty much everything I cook. When I’m developing recipes, I really have to rein it in. Both of the things I’m making [today] are heavily lemoned. I feel like everything I cook is green and yellow.

Tell me about the new book.

I wanted the book to be for people who like food and eating but aren’t super confident. Because there’s so many times, I think, where you make something and it’s like, well, I’ll never roast brussels sprouts again because I didn’t succeed at it, and that’s a really shitty thing. You’re like, oh, I’m not good at this, and no one likes to do things they’re not good at.

Experiment. It’s not always about making a perfect plate of food; it’s about learning to cook, teaching yourself what you like and empowering yourself to riff

I like that you’re freestyling with the pea and radish salad, even though it’s in the book.

I’m riffing on it. I kind of just went to the market yesterday and went, what’s around? And there were a lot of peas. I have never followed a recipe in my life. I just can’t do it. It’s really do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do when it comes to writing recipes, because the way that I cook is not going to be the same every time. If I’m telling you to do something and I’m trying to be very accurate I feel like I need to figure out what that is. Sometimes I’ll make a video and someone will comment, ‘It says whole leaf parsley but you chopped it’ and I’m like, “Yeah, I chopped it – I was feeling like I should chop it and the time before I wasn’t.” As long as you have the general principle, which is parsley is good, whether it’s whole or chopped is semantics at that point.

Any other kitchen wisdom or tips?

Probably… read the recipe. Because a lot of people don’t and then they get home and they’re like, “Fuck, I need eggs for this?” and they’re mad and have a bad time and end up ordering takeout. Or they put something in the oven and they’re like, “Dammit, I was supposed to put that in before I put it in the oven?” I’ve been guilty of that, when testing things, I get too confident… But also, feel free to ignore the recipe! If you’re like, I hate coriander, feel free to omit coriander, or replace it with something else. If you love cumin, add cumin. Experiment. It’s not always about making a perfect plate of food; it’s about learning to cook, teaching yourself what you like and empowering yourself to riff and do your own thing. I think it’s really cool when people say, “These brownies are an old Martha Stewart recipe but instead of this I used that and I added this.” That’s entirely your recipe.

On The Menu

Lunch with Alison Roman
Brooklyn, New York, July 2017

To eat:

Spring peas with anchovy, lemon and all of the radishes »
Roast branzino with basil and Aleppo pepper »
Tristar strawberries

To drink:

Celler Del Roure Cullerot 2013
Sparkling water

Did you grow up cooking at home?

I knew how to do like, two things [laughs]. One was make pasta sauce and I remember I became really obsessed with learning how to make scones. Which is weird because I never had a scone, it just became a thing I wanted to learn how to make. Which gave way to me making biscuits and then I became kind of obsessed.

Are your parents into cooking?

Yeah, they’re both great cooks. Since I started cooking professionally, my dad has started cooking a lot more – I don’t think it’s necessarily related.

Do you prefer cooking for other people to cooking for yourself?

I do, actually. I never really thought about it but I do, a hundred percent. Cooking for yourself is great but you’re not sharing it with anybody.

Being yourself is all you have, otherwise you’re one of 28 women who write about food, another white chick with a cookbook…

Yeah – there’s an added enjoyment to be had in other people’s enjoyment.

Absolutely. You just spent all that time working on something and you want other people to share that as well. You know, I love being cooked for – it doesn’t happen as much, which is fine. I would probably micro-manage the situation anyway, popping into the kitchen and being like, “What you doin’?”

What about inspirational figures in food?

I like Alice Waters [of Chez Panisse] as a person. I think she’s a real bad bitch, naughty and a little divisive. I feel the same way about Gabrielle Hamilton [of Prune]. Both of those women are important to me because they are sort of uncompromising; they’re like, this is who I am, this is the food I cook, this is what I believe in. They seem like little wild ponies still. I think that once you get to a certain stage in your career you can choose to hold on to that or you can clean yourself up entirely and be what people want you to be, which happens all the time. I’ve experienced that to a very small degree when people say, oh, would you do this for a photoshoot or a video and I’m like, I would never do that. And then I’m like, I’m being difficult – but being yourself is all you have, otherwise you’re one of 28 women who write about food, another white chick with a cookbook. I think those two women do a really good job of standing out by being themselves – which is increasingly rare. I think that’s really cool.

For more about Alison Roman, go to www.alisoneroman.com
Follow Alison: Instagram | Twitter

Posted 6 days ago

In Interviews

 

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Sean Santiago

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