Recipe for success

Chef and writer Alison Roman cooks up food
(and content) millennials can’t stop sharing.

By Yasmin Gagne


Alison Roman’s
salted butter and chocolate chunk cookies are so famous, they’re known merely as #thecookies on social media. Search Instagram, and you’ll find thousands of posts of the flat-topped shortbreads – and they’re not her only recipe the internet has minted as the be-all and end-all. The chef’s New York Times column, which publishes every other week, has inspired #thestew and #thepasta, and several other viral recipes. Roman’s second cookbook, Nothing Fancy, was a New York Times best-seller after its release last October. With a conversational tone and a deep appreciation for her millennial following’s small budgets (and kitchens), Roman has built a dedicated audience for her unfussy take on cooking and entertaining. Here, she shares her recipe for making food, stories, and content people love to share.

LEARN BY DOING

Los Angeles native Roman left college at age 19 for a job at LA’s Michelin-starred restaurant Sona. “I didn’t go to culinary school,” she says. “I just walked in and asked for a job.” In the kitchen, where she trained as a pastry chef (the only position available), she learned to cook by observing others. “It was a small kitchen, and I’d ask them, ‘What are you using? How are you cooking that lamb?’ ” Later, she moved to New York and worked under chef Christina Tosi at bakery chain Milk Bar, which is known for combining familiar flavours – such as pretzels and marshmallows – in unorthodox ways. “(Tosi) had an incredible work ethic and hated asking for help. Anytime we needed to figure something out, we just figured it out,” she says. She carries that attitude into her current gig. While many chefs have dish ideas, but rely on assistants to build out a full recipe, Roman develops her own and makes them multiple times before deciding they’re right. She only hires recipe testers afterward, to ensure that her directions are accurate and the dishes can be re-created.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

After leaving Milk Bar, Roman worked for Bon Appétit as a recipe tester, where she translated complicated recipes from chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi to readers who were not kitchen professionals. That’s where she developed her philosophy that her own recipes should be accessible to anyone. “No matter where you live, or what kind of grocery store you have access to, or what size kitchen you have, you can make really great food,” she says. Roman tries to put herself in a novice cook’s shoes. “I ask myself, ‘Is somebody actually going to do this at home, or are we just telling them that’s what they should be doing?’ ” In a Times column from last Thanksgiving about cooking in her small kitchen, Roman kept her advice realistic: she admitted to buying her turkey at the last minute and storing drinks in a bathtub full of ice. She also gave readers an extremely useful rundown on how to prep (including going shopping) in only three days. Roman says she won’t publish recipes if they end up being complicated. “There was a recipe in my head for baked pasta that I thought was awesome, but by the time I nailed it, I realised it had so many steps and required a really high degree of professional skill,” so it didn’t go in her column.

YOU ARE YOUR READER

When Roman was hired by The New York Times as a food columnist, she had to reconcile her conversational writing style with the newspaper’s formal reputation. “A woman on Twitter recently called my voice ‘millennial patois,’ ” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I have to write a certain way for the Times, and then I remember that I’m writing this for myself as well as them.” She follows the same principle when she builds her recipes. While creating her famous stew, which includes chickpeas, coconut milk, and leafy greens, Roman was inspired to add ginger because she was feeling sick at the time. When the warm, spicy recipe was published in November 2018, it became an instant hit, lauded as both a cold remedy and perfect late-fall recipe. Roman doesn’t follow other chefs on social media, to avoid comparing herself to them, but she regularly uses it to interact with her readers, sharing their photos and answering their questions if they are having trouble. (She still fields many about the thickness of #thestew.) “I want to teach them how to cook,” she says.

01

Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Turmeric

“I wanted to include chickpeas, but I didn’t intend for it to be vegan. It’s kind of a weird recipe to go viral. I don’t think #thestew would have happened without #thecookies. I think they set the hashtag trend.”

02

Vinegar Chicken With Crushed Olive Dressing

“I can tell when a recipe isn’t going to go viral: if I use ingredients that are hard to find or that people are scared of cooking, like fish. This one only required one pan, and people seem less scared of chicken.”

03

Caramelized Shallot Pasta

“I wanted to keep the ingredients cheap, and I knew I wanted to make something tomatoey. I posted a photo of a dish I made for a party on Instagram and I got a lot of requests for the recipe—usually I don’t take requests, but I made an exception for this one.”

04

Salted Chocolate Chunk Short-bread Cookies

“The cookies were just something I like that is simple. All of a sudden it felt like there was this secret club of people who knew about #thecookies, and then publications like The Cut wrote about it and it took off.”

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