2019 American Music Awards

Alison Roman On Loving Carly Simon, Killer Playlists and Music as a Secret Ingredient of Her New Cookbook

Nikole Herriott and Michael Graydon
Alison Roman

The first time Alison Roman felt under the weather in ages -- that merciless, ditch-all-plans-and-hibernate kind of sick -- just happened to be the same day she was supposed to see Lizzo in Brooklyn.

The writer, chef, cookbook author and New York Times and Bon Appetit contributor spends much of her time developing recipes and encouraging her readers to try new things. When she's not, Roman has been frequenting the venues of New York City more often -- except for the night she was 100% that person who missed out on hearing “Truth Hurts” live.

“It was the one time this year that I got so deathly ill that I could not leave the house for three days,” she recalls. “I tried so hard to talk myself out of it, but I was so sick that I was canceling my Lizzo tickets. It was bad.”

She’s feeling much better these days -- which is good, especially considering how crazy this season is about to get for her. Roman is a culinary rock star: over 250,000 Instagram followers rave about her recipes to the point where dishes of hers have become household hashtags, from her chocolate chip, sugar-crusted shortbread (#thecookies) to her chickpea and coconut milk concoction (#thestew) and many plates in between.

Her first cookbook, 2017's Dining In, was critically acclaimed and as pleasing to the eye as it was approachable: the colors and smears of chili oil and sauce popped on the page, as did her prose, which extolled on the virtues of hangover breakfast salads and frying eggs in chicken fat in between recipes that never called for ingredients or tools you couldn't find at your neighborhood grocery store. None of her dishes are intended to be eaten alone unless they’re reheated for an on-the-fly dinner or refashioned into a savory breakfast of champions, so it was only a matter of time before she penned a book specifically engineered for cooking, and wowing, your loved ones.

Nothing Fancy, out Oct. 22, is the culmination of Roman’s don’t-call-it-entertaining ethos: The whole point of the cookbook is to remind the reader how joyful and fulfilling it can be to make a meal to be shared while giving them ample dishes to do just that.

It also stresses how complicated methods, intricate instructions or overnight chilling can ruin a mood, which can, in turn, ruin the reason why you’re feeding a group of friends in the first place. When Roman hosts, she doesn’t subject her guests to a silent meal, nor does she keep things quiet in the kitchen when she’s whipping up one of Nothing Fancy’s many dips: she’s constantly making playlists and blasting something over the speakers that fill every room of her house with music, an integral component to any experience in which she’s dreaming up, finessing or serving one of her signature dishes. Essentially, Nothing Fancy is the perfect blueprint for someone planning a dinner party that'll devolve into a dance party -- hopefully before dessert even makes it to the table.

Below, Roman discusses Nothing Fancy, the meal she’d make if she only had a few minutes before heading out for the night, the women writing the music she can’t stop listening to and which song she currently can’t get out of her head.

Nothing Fancy’s vibe is all about enjoying cooking and making a meal. The whole point is not to make your life more difficult when you’re preparing food for people you care about -- and that’s not a silent activity, really. Do you have a cooking soundtrack?

I always have music on in my apartment. I have a Sonos [speaker] in every room in my house, so I’m constantly listening to music. You know what’s crazy? I don’t really cook for myself necessarily. I cook for other people or I cook for work, but rarely am I like, “Oh, I’m just going to whip up a nice dinner for myself.” It doesn’t really happen, I think, because typically I’m so fatigued of cooking. If I’m cooking dinner for myself, it’s like, popcorn, or reheating something that I’ve made from a photo shoot or something.

When you’re cooking for others, what’s usually on the speakers? 

It’s for sure different than my writing soundtrack, which tends to be more ambient and mellow. I’ve been into the whole album experience lately which is not something I typically do. Before I was always listening to and making playlists. [With] Spotify, which is what I use to listen to music, I make playlists based on season -- that’s just the easiest way for me to compartmentalize a) my life and b) vibe. It’s weird, because it has to be a specific day for me to be like, “Today is the day I’ll start my fall playlist.” Right now, I’m listening to the new Kindness album a lot, Clairo, the new Lana Del Rey, but it’s a bit of a downer, so that’s more of a writing album, honestly, not so much a cooking album.

Beyond that, I just make various playlists: the cooking ones are always different than the ones I have when people come over, which tend to be way more upbeat. I’m into disco and soul right now. There’s a Carly Simon song called “Why” and I feel like any song that sounds like that is what I’m listening to when people come over. For me cooking, honestly, it just kind of depends on the mood and the weather. If I were cooking at home today, it would definitely be more of the Joni Mitchell vibe. It’s so much mood based rather than activity based… There was a point where I was exclusively listening to the Robyn album. It really does change with what’s coming out and what I’m feeling. Having the experience of me appreciating an entire album is really nice, because I don’t want to have to be DJing when I’m cooking. To just commit to the album and be like “I’m going to experience the album!” is really nice.

The whole point of Nothing Fancy is to keep things chill. The intro says that this is not a book about entertaining, and this line about being kind to yourself when you’re planning a dinner party particularly resonates: “It’s not about having an aspirational life, but an attainable one.” Does this attitude show up in other areas of your life?

Oh yeah, for sure. I feel like there’s not really separation or distinction between fashion and music and food or whatever. I approach it all in the same way. I very much just feel that the effort you’re willing to put into something, the return has to be so great. I would rather focus on my mental health. When people ask me about tips for having people over or creating a playlist, or doing this that and the other, my advice is always, “Be nice to yourself, and feel okay doing less.” When I’m having people over and I’m cooking, I’m cooking, and I’m going to have my friend, who has good taste in music, do the music. I can’t be bothered. I think they know me well enough to get the vibe, and I wouldn’t ask anybody I didn’t trust. I feel okay delegating in that sense. They’re all connected, for sure.

You came up working and cooking in restaurants. Did that experience introduce you to anything, musically?

No, but every boss I ever had when I first started cooking, they were very, very into having music be a part of our prep and cooking experience. The idea of prepping or cooking without music is devastating to me. To me, you have to be able to listen to music while you cook. I would never consider cooking without listening to music, ever. It is such an important part.

You live in Brooklyn. Do you get to concerts a lot?

Weirdly enough, I’ve been to more concerts this year than in maybe my entire life. I have a really tough time getting to shows and movies even though I enjoy both. But! I’ve been trying to make a bigger effort to do so. This year, I went and saw Robyn; I’m going to see Kacey Musgraves; I saw Maggie Rogers last week. I did all my big ticket, large venue, poppy shows which I’ve never spent money on before in my life, and was like, “Damn, I really wanna go see these women.” It’s generally really fun… I’ve been going to Public Records a lot to hear DJs in the sound room. I feel like I want to go dance, and to me, that’s a really important aspect of me going to a show. I don’t love the experience of seeing a band that sounds like the album, or just standing in a room, swaying. I either want to be dancing or I want to be moved emotionally. 

Is that a task you pass off to someone else? “I gotta take this roast chicken out of the oven, you DJ for a while.”

Exactly.

A lot of the people you just mentioned specialize in exactly that.

Exactly! I went to go see Maluma at Madison Square Garden with some friends who had tickets. It was such a wild experience. I had never really heard his music. It was one of the bigger shows I’d ever been to, and people were losing their damn minds for this guy. It was very interesting but very fun. I’m trying to see more shows where I haven’t listened to a ton of their music but it should be a fun experience, and it was.

If you were in a situation where Lady Gaga or Lizzo were coming over for dinner, what would you serve them? What’s something that you’d make for a special occasion, to really pull out the stops?

Honestly, it would be a roast chicken. I would do something that I feel confident in my ability to make the best version of. That’s definitely a beautiful, beautiful roast chicken.

Something I love about Nothing Fancy is a lot of these dishes come together in little time. If you come home from work and you can’t afford to go out or you just want to whip up something at home, you could feasibly make one of these dishes before heading out for the night. If you were turning to the pages of Nothing Fancy before heading to a gig, what would you recommend?

Probably pasta or rice noodles -- something that’s quick-cooking that I can either make a quick sauce with pantry ingredients or a mix of vegetables in my fridge, something that’ll sustain me through the evening. I’m not a salad-for-dinner person. Unless it’s a snack-based meal, it’s gotta be, yeah, a quick pasta. I’m not gonna roast a chicken before I walk out the door or take the time to build a stew. It’s going to be something that comes together -- probably vegetarian, because I don’t have meat just lying around.

And hey, if you’re going out dancing, you’re carbo-loading as runners would do -- it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Exactly.

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