Alison Roman: The Chef Who Broke The Internet

New York food writer Alison Roman has conquered instagram – and the food world – with her easy-breezy approach to cooking. As her second book is published, she talks to Hattie Crisell.

Alison Roman

by Hattie Crisell |
Updated on

Not since a young Jamie Oliver chucked a leg of lamb in the oven and declared it ‘pukka’ has any cook tapped into the appetite of a generation quite as successfully as Alison Roman.

With 250,000 Instagram followersand a second book, Nothing Fancy, publishing later this month (her first was out here just six months ago), her star has ascended so quickly in the two years since she became a New York Times columnist that it’s now no surprise when her recipes go viral.

A salted butter and chocolate chunk shortbread was her first big online hit; next, a chickpea, coconut and turmeric stew. The latter was discussed so widely that it became known only as #thestew; search for the hashtag on Instagram today and you’ll find more than 5,000 photos of that creamy, spicy dish, with its generous dollop of yogurt and sprinkle of mint.

In fact, with her unfussy, treat-yourself embrace of salt, fat and all things pleasurable, 34-year-old Alison is more of a millennial Nigella than a Jamie. (The instruction ‘Season with salt and pepper’ appears not once, but four times in #thestew recipe.) The comparison, she says warmly, ‘is a total compliment’.

Her new book is geared specifically towards having people over, with each recipe feeding four to six (and they can all be easily doubled, she points out). If that immediately makes you nervous, be assured that the whole point of the book is to make it as easy as possible. ‘A lot of it is about, “How much is this going to stress you out?”’ she says. ‘[It’s about whether] you can make it ahead and reheat it – maybe you put in a little more effort beforehand, but when people come over, the finishing of it is super easy to execute.’

Every recipe, then, comes with advice on what you can do ahead of time and what needs to be done last minute (usually very little). Most of the dishes will also work together, and there are recommended combinations. It all conspires to help you put together a menu that won’t end in being sweaty, tearful and mad-haired in the kitchen while your friends are enjoying wine in the other room.

It’s tempting too, from Creamy Cauliflower and Onion Gratin to Yogurt- Marinated Leg of Lamb with Spicy Fennel and Sumac. ‘There’s a one-pot chicken with dates and caramelised lemon that I am obsessed with,’ says Alison. ‘I love roasted chicken – I think it’s the best thing to make either for yourself or for other people.’ After speaking to her, I make that one-pot chicken and its two recommended sides for dinner with a friend, and find myself unexpectedly twiddling my thumbs for 15 minutes before she arrives. It’s strange not to be in panic mode.

On Instagram, Alison sometimes posts videos of her own dinner parties, complete with mismatched crockery and stylish friends talking over each other. She writes in the book, ‘This is not about living an aspirational life, it’s about living an attainable one’ – but of course, it’s both. She’s also funny; the day I interview her, she’s posted a selfie with the new book, followed by a dozen of her failed attempts to get a photo she liked. ‘I think people like to feel that they know who they’re talking to – I think it comes back to trust,’ she says. ‘The people that I’m interested in reaching can really detect bullshit, and they’re probably sick of the people who make it seem like they’re living a life that they’re not.’

As for having tapped into the zeitgeist, she can’t explain how she did it. ‘It’s honestly just always been how I’ve cooked,’ she says. ‘It’s trendy now, but that’s not on purpose! I think that for such a long time, cooking has been really isolating for people, because it’s been something that “only experts can do”. I’m an expert but I also make it easy – it’s not one or the other.’

Her success, I suggest, might be a sign that a backlash against the wellness movement is finally happening. ‘If it isn’t, I hope that it is soon,’ she says. ‘I think cooking for yourself is a really nice way to take care of yourself, and it doesn’t have to be gluten-free or whole plant or whatever. I cook mostly vegetarian but that doesn’t make me a wellness cook – it just means I really like vegetables. And same thing with cooking with olive oil – it’s not because it’s healthy, it’s because I think it tastes good.’

What she’s trying to serve, whether in bite-size Instagram portions or her more satisfying books, is joy. ‘For me, eating and cooking are both very pleasure-based activities. If you can’t have a good time either while you’re cooking or enjoy something while you’re eating, why do it?’ 

Try Alison Roman's Buttered Salmon With Red Onion And Dill:

Buttered Salmon With Red Onion And Dill

Alison recommends: 'Since there’s a lot going on here flavour-wise, I recommend letting this dish be the loudest thing on the table and simply serving it with a perfect, herby salad, steamed broccoli, and maybe some excellent garlic bread.'

Serves 4-6


One lemon

One kilogram salmon fillet, skin on or skinless

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Ninety grams unsalted butter

Sixty millimetres olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

Half a small red onion, sliced into very thin rings

Two tablespoons brined capers, drained

One large handful dill

Two tablespoons toasted sesame seeds (optional)


Preheat the oven to 160ºC (Fan 140ºC/Gas mark 3). Thinly slice half the lemon and remove any seeds; save the other half for juicing.

Place the salmon on a baking tray in a large baking dish and season with salt and pepper.

Heat the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the butter has started to brown, 2-3 minutes. Add the olive oil, sliced lemon and half the onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook. tossing occasionally, until the lemon and onion have started to brown and frizzle, 2-3 minutes; you're looking for a kind of crisped rather than softened and caramelised. Add the capers.

Pour the brown butter-lemon mixture of the salmon. Place it in the oven and roast until just cooked through but still medium rare inside, 12-15 minutes; the flesh will more translucent, less opaque. Remove from the oven and transfer to a serving dish.

Meanwhile, toss together the dill and sesame seeds, if using, in a medium bowl. Give a squeeze from the halved lemon and season with salt and pepper. Scatter on top of the salmon, along with the raining sliced onion.

You can purchase Alison's book, Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food For Having People Over, here.

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