Alison Roman

The small kitchen cook became a hit with millennials hungry for her indulgent but economical recipes. She talks to Chris Wallace about having a Christmas best seller, her enduring love for Mexico and why she’s the world’s worst traveler.

In a recent Instagram story, a 2012-vintage Bon Appetit video of her making latkes with Editor-In-Chief Adam Rapoport, Alison Roman wrote a caption, full of her signature bemused self-deprecation, teasing her former self for looking and feeling so out of sorts. “I didn’t really know how to be,” she says now, watering her plants at home in Boerum Hill, laughing and spilling and quipping with a fully-realized self-possession of someone who certainly seems to have figured it all out. And maybe it is this ability to join in with the audience of her wildly popular Instagram account (319k), and with the readers of her beloved cookbooks, Dining In and the recent Nothing Fancy, and of her columns in the New York Times and at BonApp, to bond so effortlessly with us, whether in raising an eyebrow at her awkward early videos, or at her utter incompetence when it comes to traveling.

Photograph by Nikole Herriott and Michael Graydon

“Oh my God. I’m the worst traveler,” she laughs admitting to missing three flights in the past eight weeks. “I overpacked, I under packed, I didn’t pack the right things. It was like I’d never left the house before and decided to go on a trip, when in fact I had an entire calendar year to plan for a major book tour. But now I know I wouldn’t travel without a collapsible bag, an additional bag, from Uniqlo or Muji — and no fewer than three phone chargers as well as my passport, because even if I don’t think I’m leaving the country, I might.”

Roman has been on the road in the months since Nothing Fancy came out in October, touring the country, signing books, hosting parties, events, and searching for inspiration. Not that she isn’t always doing that. “I don’t really turn it on or off,” she says. “I think it’s the same for anybody — if you’re a perceptive, sensitive individual that’s interested in life and things that no matter where you go or where you are, you’re going to feel inspired by something.”

Photograph by Nikole Herriott and Michael Graydon

In the new year she will return to Mexico, to the capital and to Puerto Morelos to decompress. “I travel because it makes you a more interesting, better person. It centers me emotionally and intellectually. Makes me feel like I’m not just like spinning my wheels in New York.” What’s wild is that, in the three or four years since Dining In went straight to the top of the bestseller list, and Roman’s recipes for a chickpea stew, and then for chocolate chunk cookies went massively viral, her fame has begun even to eclipse her being. It has been suggested that her particular brand of meme-y millennial wit and embrace of newly (again) en vogue fats and meat, mesh so perfectly with the tastes and tenor of the kids these days living in a shrinking economy and its smaller kitchens but still on that ‘treat yo’self’ program. But so vivid is that connection and her brand that “Alison Roman” has become a kind of signifier — for the living-the-good-life ethos while just-getting-by realities of the Instagram generation.

But for the real person under there, the story reads a little differently, a little more, well, Roman-y. “When I was younger everyone told me that I talked too much,” she says. “I still talk too much, but now I’ve used it to my advantage.” Roman grew up in Los Angeles. “In the Valley, the most boring part of LA,” she says. After a “stupid private school and stupid private high school,” she went to college in Santa Cruz. “I had a complicated relationship with my parents,” she said. And still, when she dropped out of school, she returned to LA to work in restaurants, in a particular restaurant: David Myers’s Sona. After a four-year hop to San Francisco, Roman moved to New York where she got a job with Christina Tosi at Milk Bar and began plotting an exit strategy from restaurants. “I realized that working at a restaurant was not for me because I didn’t want to own my own and I also didn’t want to work for anybody else.” She’d studied creative writing in school, but even when she did land the gig at BonApp — first as a freelance recipe-tester, and then as a contributor— she says, she wasn’t all the way there yet, full-formed as the writer we know and love today.

Photograph by Daria Andraczko

“I was writing like a person who thought that they should be writing in a magazine, and not writing like a person that was a writer or a person,” she says. “It didn’t occur to me that I could just like, write how I spoke, because nobody had ever told me that I could. I was dating this guy at the time that worked at GQ and like I thought that I should write like that — not correct. I felt like I wasn’t empowered. And then I kind of saw this vacancy. Like, everyone that was writing, especially about food, was writing it in the same way. And I was like, well that’s not how I feel about it and that’s not how I want to write about it. So I started just started doing my own thing.”

Where was your last vacation? Oh my God. Don’t even ask me that, I’m going to cry. Formentera in August. I’m being a baby.

Where is your next vacation? I’m going to Mexico City and Puerto Morelos. I’m dying to do nothing. I’m dying to turn my phone off and take naps and read a book start to finish.

Who would you most like to be sat next to on a flight? Nobody. I don’t want to talk to anybody I don’t know.

Which language do you wish you spoke? Any of them. At one point I did know Spanish but I’m really bad at remembering things. I also wish I spoke French. All these things are possible, but…

When were you happiest while travelling? I’m pretty happy every time I’m traveling. Formentera is the obvious answer because that was a real vacation and I felt really far away in the best way possible.

If you could live in any hotel which would it be? The nicest hotel I ever stayed in, which I was devastated to leave was the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. It was unbelievable. I was traveling alone and I got this room on credit card points and they upgraded me for no reason — probably because I was the only person there on a Tuesday. I would absolutely live there.

What is your room service indulgence? I actually don’t like room service because I don’t like eating in bed. I want to separate that action.

What’s the strangest place you’ve spent the night? I slept in a tree house in Sayulita two years ago. That was pretty cool. It was on Airbnb and I wasn’t completely sure what I signed up for and then I got there and was like, “Oh, there’s like literally no walls.”

What is your favourite market? Toss up between the markets in Sicily and markets in Mexico city.

If you could travel to any place in any epoch which would it be? The Amalfi coast from the 40’s to the 60’s. That’s a bygone era that we’ll never see again and now you couldn’t pay me to go to the Amalfi coast.

What are the show off spots in your hometown? LA’s a really annoying place to be from because everybody has this idea of in their head of what being in LA is going to be like. And being from LA is so boring. I always ask, “What kind of food do you want?” to people who visit. I tried to understand what LA has to offer that is better than any other city, and when I go to LA, I want Thai food, I want tacos, and Korean food.

In which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, a year? I mean, not far because there’s like nothing worse to me than being on an airplane even for four hours. I’m Hudson over Hamptons. I’m pretty much everything over the Hamptons. I love Maine, but that’s a little bar for a weekend. For a week, I’d go off to Jamaica right now. For a month, Mexico. For a year, London. Because from London I can go anywhere.

What is your biggest extravagance on the road? It depends on what I’m doing, but probably either a massage or renting a car, which is so much better than relying on Ubers.

What is your favorite hotel bar and what would you order there? I want to say like the Old Imperial bar at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It is so cool. It’s stuck in time, full of Japanese businessmen smoking and, I don’t know, I just like anything that makes me feel like it’s 50 years ago.

What would you do on a six-month sabbatical? I would use a month of it as a stay-cation, and then I would figure out a way to live somewhere for three months and then I would use the rest to travel around wherever that place was.

What is on your inflight playlist? I like podcasts because they help me fall asleep. I always forget to like download them, but like any sort of true crime podcast.

What do you wear when you’re on a plane? I wear these stretchy Issey Miyaki pleated pants, because they’re like not stretch pants but they do have an elastic waist, and then a white tee shirt and a sweatshirt or a tank top if it’s a warmer month and I’m going somewhere hot.

Where do you most want to go? Everywhere. There’s a lot of Mexico that I haven’t seen. I want to go to Greece. I really want to go to Croatia, but like not the Fleet Week or whatever it’s called, Yacht Week.

What was your most memorable meal? I don’t think anybody has a real answer to that question. I could pick a million. I think that, when you’re traveling, food tastes better.

What is your idea of travel hell? Where to start? I’ve had too many to count. I’m not kidding. One time I had to go to LA from Newark — which is just hell in general. But I was so hung-over that I threw up in my office before I left, and I took the train to Newark and barely made it onto the plane and then they kicked me off because apparently they’d given my seat away. They overbooked the flight. And I had to wait another eight hours for the next flight. I was so broke, had no money on my debit card, so I couldn’t buy any food. It was dark fucking day. Look how far we’ve come.

What skill would you like to learn and where would you love to learn it? I would love to learn to dye fabrics. To work with things that come from the earth. I would love to just spend some time with old Italian women while they’re making pasta. I feel like so much of cooking gets translated and by the time it’s in a book is so soulless. My favorite way to learn to cook has always been by watching people, in every country, doing what they do in their own home.

Why do you travel? Because it makes you a more interesting, better person. It also centers me emotionally and intellectually. Makes me feel like I’m not just like spinning my wheels in New York.

Chris Wallace
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