ALISON ROMAN, THE QUEEN OF TARTS
Posted on December 06 2023
Alison Roman is a cook’s cook.
Her food is unfussy, unpretentious and always delicious. As well as being extremely popular - her previous books Nothing Fancy and Dining In are both monster best sellers; and her recipes garner millions of views online. Her 2020 recipe for shallot pasta, for example, may or may not have caused a global shortage of bucatini.
We sat down with the former New York Times columnist and Senior Editor of Bon Appetite to discuss her new book, Sweet Enough.
This is your first dessert-focussed book. Where did the idea come from?
My publisher was definitely keen for a book on sweet recipes. But I was also grateful to do it because I was feeling a little like I had done ‘my thing’. And I was seeing other people do it, too. And it felt like I was just in a bit of a creative rut. I wasn't feeling like I was contributing. I don't know. I was just feeling a little stuck, and so it was helpful to have a slightly different, new focus.
Lots of people worry that dessert recipes must be followed exactly. Do you share that anxiety?
Oh, absolutely. And I make mistakes with desserts all the time. Even people who do it professionally get hung up on an oven not being correct, or the ingredients not being what they're used to, or the cake pan being the wrong size or whatever.
But I think the biggest disservice you can do is just assume that everybody else is doing it better than you. Plus I do think that my desserts tend to be a bit more forgiving, a bit more casual by design.
How do you achieve that informality when writing recipes? Is it the structure of the recipe, or the simplicity of the ingredients themselves?
I think it's both. I think the things I like to cook - the ingredients - are naturally more casual. But I’m also really mindful of who’s reading the book, and who it’s for. This isn’t a book for professional pastry chefs; it’s a book for people who are like “I really want to make a cake for someone”.
What are the recipes in the book you return to most often?
I love sweet galettes. They’re so forgiving and you can fill them with whatever you want - apple, strawberries, blueberries. It’s like the ultimate sort of ‘choose your own adventure’. And when they come out looking a little wonky or rustic then that’s the intention. At least it is for me. Why is it that we love our salads to look really wild, but expect desserts to look really pristine?
Have you always had a sweet tooth?
Not at all. I don’t think I’ve ever had one. I only like dessert if it is well balanced - not too sweet, a little bitter, lots of texture, lots of fruit, a good bit of salt. I’m pretty particular. The idea for the book was that if I can like these desserts, then anyone can like these desserts.
People nowadays are so diet and calorie conscious, was this ever a consideration in writing the book?
That whole approach is just not something I subscribe to. And anyways, the perception that something like a fruit galette is healthier than a piece of cake is just wrong. They’re both full of butter, flour and sugar. You've got to just commit to eating dessert. And accept that that's what it is.
Your informal, relatable approach to food has won you legions of loyal fans. Are you ever self-conscious about your style or tone of voice?
On camera it’s actually weirdly easier because I’m just being myself. But in writing, yes, I really am conscious of it. I think a lot about how things will age. Am I going to read this in five years and think, oh wow, I sound so young? Or so 2023?
The newsletter is a bit different because it's more ephemeral - it’s meant to be consumed on that day or that week or whatever. And so you can be a little bit more playful. But with a book, I feel like I want people to read these books forever and I don't want them to feel too timely.
How do you approach writing a book? Are you very disciplined?
I wish I was more disciplined. Definitely I’m not one of those people who starts their day with a thousand words. Mine starts with coffee, looking on the internet, watering my plants, doing a thousand other things which are not writing. Then I’ll go make lunch, send some emails, maybe write a little bit. But I do my best writing at night.
I also do most of the writing after the recipes are shot. I try to write the recipes themselves before the shoot; but we’ll make adjustments on set and then I spend the time afterwards writing the more narrative bits. Because you learn a lot during the photo shoots about the desserts and the story behind them.
Several of your recipes have blown-up online. Do you find those moments of viral success addictive?
For sure it’s addictive. But you also have to remember that it’s not real life. And every time it’s happened I genuinely think “wow, that will never happen again”.
I prefer to focus all my energy and time on my cooking and writing and all these other projects I have going on. Because if that stuff is really good then the audience grows naturally as a slow and steady thing, rather than aiming for some meteoric social media bump. I'm not ever going to be a person that's there for the numbers. That's just never what I've been about. I don't think I'd be very good at it. I'm really happy to have the people that pay attention.
As well as all the wonderful food, your career has been defined by a series of bold work choices. How do you approach career decisions like leaving Bon Appetit?
For me being bored is the absolute worst thing that can happen. And security is not worth being bored.
For a long time I waited for somebody to tell me that I could do the things I wanted. I waited for someone to be like, “Do you wanna do a podcast? Do you wanna do a YouTube channel? Do you wanna do a newsletter?”. And of course no one ever did.
So I just decided to do it.
I've always maintained that I'd rather have a smaller audience and make less money and have more control. That's just my preference. It's something that I wouldn't trade for anything.
For example, the newsletter is always fucked-up - the links are broken, or the photo’s missing. Which I’m sure lots of people find annoying and unsubscribe. But lots of others think, “Oh this is a person just doing something, and that's funny, or fine, or who cares?”.
Either way, I’d rather have those moments than have to answer to anybody, or have a creative conversion that I don’t agree with. The links are broken. So what? I’m working on it.
The famously no nonsense cook on life’s most important questions. As told to Jake Nevins for Interview Magazine.
SKIPPING BREAKFAST - “Guilty as charged. The idea of eating food first thing in the morning is not that interesting to me.”
BOOZY LUNCHES - “I did a super boozy lunch…over the holidays in 2019 and went to the dentist afterwards while wasted. Honestly, I had a great time.”
AIR FRYERS - “Think about anything throughout the arc of history in our kitchens that has been a tool that people are excited about. They never stand the test of time. You know what does? A fucking oven.”
MARTINIS - “50/50 with a twist and an olive.”