Alison Roman Is in Charge of Her Dishes and Her Career

“I knew that I wanted to do it on my own.”

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Alison Roman is the author of the best-selling cookbook Dining In, as well as a recipe columnist for the New York Times and Bon Appétit (where she made a name for herself as a senior food editor). Recently, at her home in Brooklyn, she demonstrated how to make her wildly popular stew recipe (#TheStew), while opening up about her career path toward becoming one of the most idolized home cooks today.

My earliest memories revolve around cooking rather than eating. My mom and dad both definitely cooked, and I remember really liking it. I wasn't picky, and I loved helping. But I didn’t grow up thinking food was super romantic.

Ultimately, I had been cooking just for fun when I moved away to college. Then I realized that I didn't want to be in college anymore, and I wanted to do something that really felt like it inspired me — that made me feel like I was actually stimulating myself mentally and emotionally. I decided to pursue cooking, which was not something that I necessarily thought I would do for the rest of my life.

When I decided to drop out of college for a career in restaurants, my mom wasn’t unsupportive, but she was afraid. I don't blame her, because, especially at the time, it was a pretty ballsy choice. It was not a guaranteed success. It was a very weird time for restaurants, and it wasn't the kind of job that you dreamed about in the same way that people do now.

I worked in restaurants for six years before I moved to New York and joined Milk Bar. I was only supposed to be in New York for three months when I took the job, and I ended up staying, obviously, forever. We were building a business, and it was about the people and the teamwork. It was a really interesting time for me.

To get hired at Bon Appétit, it was really insane. I started there as a freelancer. It wasn't a full-time job or anything, but I made it a full-time job since it was a total dream to be there. I was like, I'm going to keep coming back forever, and I refuse for you to not let me come back. It was brand-new at the time, essentially, because it was right after Adam [Rapoport] had taken over. We were constantly reinventing the brand, and that felt really good and powerful.

Leaving was bittersweet, obviously, but I had been there for four years. I was like, I could stay forever, but then you becomeAlison from Bon Appétit.” A lot of people there were able to make decisions for my career on my behalf, and I just knew that that's not what I wanted, even if it meant having fewer resources and not as much fame, support, or popularity. I knew that I wanted to do it on my own.

Leaving felt super scary and vulnerable, but also liberating and exciting. I was very nervous and very scared; it was a pretty terrifying time for me. I wasn't really sure what I was capable of doing. I wasn't sure if people were going to think that I did a good or bad job. I wasn't sure if people were going to like me if I didn't work at Bon Appétit.

Leaving felt super scary and vulnerable, but also liberating and exciting.

The fact that I even wrote a book, to me, felt like a success. I honestly had no idea how it was going to sell. Nobody knew about my book until people started knowing about it. The preorders went well, but it was kind of just fine for a while. I was a first-time author, and nobody knew who I was.

And that’s not to say everyone knows who I am now, but more people do. I think, honestly, the more people started cooking from the book, the more people were like, Oh, this book is really good. It wasn't hyped up, which happens a lot. It was more the opposite — where no one knew about it, and then people started cooking from it, and then they were like, Oh, holy shit, I like this. 

People didn’t know that I've been doing this for a long time. They had no reason to trust me. I know some people, they won't buy a book until their mom recommends it or their best friend says it's good or they read it on this one website. But now enough people have purchased it, cooked from it, and been pleasantly surprised that the recipes taste really good — and that they're easy to shop for, and they look nice — that it’s resonated.

Now, with my column in the Times, I'm writing even more recipes. I feel very lucky because my different styles of recipes all have their own homes, and I feel like there's truly something for everyone. A recipe you'll find in my book is not necessarily the type of thing you'll find in my column, and vice versa.

Travel is huge for me; experiencing the way that other people even cut a vegetable is wildly inspiring. But I find that some of the most inspiring times come from me just cooking at home, when I realize it's 8:30 p.m. and I'm not leaving the house and I need to eat something. Then I'll look in my pantry and make something that pleasantly surprises me. My kitchen is hugely influential in the recipes that I make, especially for my cookbooks. When you have somebody to chop and cut stuff for you and clean up after you and prepare for you, your perception of what's easy is way different than when you're doing all that shit yourself. The fact that I am my own dishwasher and my own grocery shopper and my own prepper means that I am cooking like a regular person at home. It's extremely important to me that I be in touch with how people actually cook.

When you have somebody to chop and cut stuff for you and clean up after you and prepare for you, your perception of what's easy is way different than when you're doing all that shit yourself.

I honestly have no idea how The Stew took off. It's definitely not something that I expected to happen. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's made of pantry staples, it's very cheap, it's vegetarian, and it requires no skills to make — you can't really fuck it up. There's nothing to be afraid of. It's very accessible, and it looks the same no matter who makes it. Even if it looks a little different, they all look beautiful. That was kind of like what happened with the cookies; they all kind of look different but the same.

Some tips: Use coconut milk with stabilizers because it'll help thicken it. People are obsessed with the crispy chickpeas, but it's more just to add texture. They don’t necessarily need to be super crispy, so don't kill yourself trying to get them there. The oval shape of The Dutchess lends itself to a double batch of The Stew, which you can definitely freeze. Make a double batch up until you add the greens, and freeze whatever you're not eating that night without the greens. That way, when you defrost it, you just add the greens on top.

It's a really lovely thing for a recipe to become so wildly popular. I try not to think of any one thing as being life-changing. I more like to think of everything as cumulative — the recipes are all working together to slowly give me an upward trajectory. It's funny because a viral recipe doesn't translate to money, I'll tell you that. It translates to people definitely being more aware of you, and I think that that's great. I think that's my goal. Obviously, the more people who know about me, the more people who will buy my next book, the more people who want to cook my recipes — I love that. Maybe in, like, five years I will have a different answer, and I'll say, "Yeah, that recipe did actually change my life." But right now I feel, like, too close to it.

I have aspirations to teach people how to cook on a grander scale, and that involves television work. I would love to answer everybody's questions about my favorite restaurants in New York and bars and travel tips. I get a lot of questions, and it'd be nice to have a place where all that information lives.

Photos by Liz Clayman

Cooking is still a joy for me and it's still my favorite way to spend time with other people. It's also something I enjoy when it's literally just me alone in my kitchen — like tonight, I'm really hungry and I don't want to order delivery, but I'm leaving for a trip tomorrow and I just cleaned out my fridge. It's pretty bleak in there, but then I discover some frozen chicken broth I made a few weeks back, and a jar of extremely ripe kimchi, and I realize I can make a poor version of kimchi stew. Brings me a lot of joy. It's the little things.