Time stands still at Keens. Not even the TikTokers flocking to New York landmarks like Bemelmans have infiltrated this wood-paneled, pipe-adorned, old-school den of a steakhouse. On a recent Friday afternoon, the dining room, which has been there since 1885, was brimming with a traditional midtown mix of tourists, native New Yorkers, and one regular: Alison Roman. “In 2014, I would go with my friends Julia and Lily at least once a month. We were like, ‘Oh, we’re ladies who Keens,’” Roman tells me. Nearly a decade later, she says, the habit has become a less frequent, more special tradition. “This year Julia flew out from LA for two nights just to come to Keens for our annual holiday dinner.”
Roman orders for both of us: a wedge salad (“blue cheese dressing on the side”), shrimp cocktail, T-bone steak (“pre-sliced, please”), string beans, mashed potatoes, and a round of vesper martinis. “I like to wrap the whole lemon around the shrimp and eat it, which is very me,” she says, prompting me to do the same. Strong preferences are Roman’s signature, whether she’s praising sardines or lambasting sandwiches. The premise of her new cookbook is another provocation: Sweet Enough, out March 28, offers desserts for anyone who is, with all due respect to Claire Saffitz, not a dessert person. “Desserts, baking, whatever we want to call it here ... should be for anyone, at any time, requiring little more than two hands and a modicum of patience,” Roman writes in the introduction.
According to Roman’s friends, hot takes are not just her brand; they’re her essence. “You’re like, ‘What do you mean you don’t like sandwiches? Sandwiches as a category?’” says her friend and food stylist Lauren Stanek. “Sometimes people think Alison’s controversial for the sake of being controversial when that’s just not the case at all. She’s passionate about what she’s passionate about, and I find it delightful.”
Tucked away by a fireplace in the Keens pub room, conspiratorially salting the butter for our dinner rolls, Roman tells me, “I think [having convictions] is what I always pride myself on. [It’s] been positioned as a pejorative, but I’m unabashedly myself and honest.”
Much in Roman’s life has changed since she first became a Keens devotee. She was there last fall, filming a promotional video for her CNN series, (More Than) A Cooking Show, when she got the call that her show was one of many canceled, along with fan favorites like Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. “I just started crying. I’m like, ‘There are all these people! What’s happening?’ But I start laughing, because I’m like, ‘This is the third time I’ve had a show that’s [been killed].’”
Our waiter politely interrupts to say that he was the one who booked Roman’s shoot at Keens. “I got paid even though they didn’t use it,” he says, “so thanks.”
“Oh my god,” Roman says. “I got paid even though they didn’t use it either!”
I just hope that I’m around long enough where some people that hated me now like me again.
A younger, greener Roman — the one crowned millennial domestic goddess for her Instagrammable, wine-soaked, and apartment-friendly entertaining style — might not have been able to laugh-cry about it. But these days the bestselling cookbook author is more seasoned. She knows about cancellations. In 2020, her New York Times cooking column was suspended after her comments in the New Consumer about being “horrified” by Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo’s product empires made her the enemy of Twitter.
The Roman that’s emerging now, nearly three years to the date of the controversy, is a woman at a crossroads. She’s more self-assured and professionally successful than ever (her newsletter and video operation, Home Movies, earn her more money than she ever made at Bon Appétit or the Times), but she’s in a life chapter that’s not well defined. She’s a partnered but child-free 37-year-old, who is navigating a personal life where friends are too busy caring for babies to have bottomless dinner parties, and a public life where the opportunity to make a first impression is largely gone.
“You’re [either] a MILF, to use a really outdated phrase, or you’re a hot young person. But what are you in between?” Roman wonders. “It’s very difficult for people to assume anything in between. But I feel, even since giving that [New Consumer] interview, more confident toward my older self and excited to be that. A lot of that comes with just the acceptance of my body, my personality.”
“I spent so much of my early career trying to paint a picture of who I was and getting people to ‘see me,’” she continues. “When I was so wildly misunderstood on such a broad scale, I realized that people make up their mind about a person. They put them in a box and rarely revisit that box. So now I’m like, ‘I just hope that I’m around long enough where some people that hated me now like me again.’”
For a few months, nobody was having a better pandemic than Alison Roman. Her shallot pasta recipe was so popular that it may or may not have led to a bucatini shortage. Suddenly she was everywhere: explaining how to care for sourdough starters on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, teaching Zoom cooking classes for The Wing, being dubbed the “prom queen of the pandemic.”
“I was feeling so good about the work I was doing. I was donating all this money to charity and helping people get fed,” Roman recalls. “I was saying yes to everything because I was feeling this generosity of spirit. I was like, ‘I have a service that I’m providing and that people are liking.’”
Then came what will likely go down as one of the most overzealous social media pile-ons of the pandemic era. After Twitter correctly pointed out that both women Roman criticized were of Asian descent, Roman found herself caught up in the much greater, vital racial reckoning happening across the country, as well as its microcosm in the food media world. Though Roman publicly apologized, she became a stand-in for overlapping crises.
“Everyone was like, ‘You’re a f*cking dumb, ugly c*nt. You’re a colonizer. You’re a white supremacist. You hate Asian women,’” Roman says of the social media fallout. “I was just like, ‘Did you not learn anything from my f*cking saga? Don’t be rude to people. Don’t talk about people you don’t know. Don’t be needlessly bitter about something you don’t have, and projecting onto somebody else.’”
What didn’t get much space in coverage of the controversy — including a big interview with the New Yorker in 2021 — was Roman’s experience of her takedown. She says she spent days on end, alone in her Brooklyn apartment, stunned, staring into the distance, and experiencing what sounds like a psychedelically heightened version of Sunday Scaries.
“Imagine any time you think someone’s mad at you because they don’t text you back, or you see them at a party and they’re weird to you and you’re like, ‘What the f*ck?’ Imagine that happening on the absolute largest f*cking scale,” she says. “I tried to volunteer at these organizations for COVID relief and they’d be like, ‘I heard about you and we don’t think that you’re a good fit for our organization.’”
She lost some friends in the process, and many others kept their support private. “I was getting constant text messages like, ‘Are you OK? Sending you love.’ But very few people would publicly say, ‘I believe in this person,’” she says. She came away with a newfound appreciation for the friends who showed up to drink wine with her on her couch. “I’m so proud of the people I know that love me,” she says. “They’re so blissfully free of bullshit and are unabashedly themselves that I feel in very good company.”
I’m so proud of the people I know that love me.
As much as Sweet Enough is a low-key dessert manual, it’s also a celebration of those people. Nearly everyone involved in the project is a personal friend of Roman, whether it’s photographer Chris Bernabeo, recipe testers like Stanek, or the non-model models, such as designer Susan “Alexandra” Korn.
According to Bernabeo, who shot the entire book, Roman’s skill for hospitality is what makes the images work. “You’re creating this environment that allows this looseness and this freedom to not feel posed [in the photos],” he says. “[There’s a] sundae party spread [we shot at] 12:30, maybe 1 in the morning. It was like people are on the couch and there’s a salted chocolate pudding or something, [now] we’re going to throw out sundae stuff — go for it!” says Bernabeo. Roman hired a stylist to dress her friends, but the evening otherwise functioned like a genuine party — even for those who weren’t quite able to rage, like her friend Alexandra Thom, whose pregnant belly is paired with a slice of chocolate cake on page 113.
Roman’s friends-as-family storytelling offers a natural evolution of millennial domesticity as millennials enter middle age. If her fans don’t have kids, their friends do. They’re freezing their eggs, as Roman has, or caring for sick parents. They got high-needs rescue dogs during the pandemic. Hospitality, in this life phase, involves making things easier for your friends so they can have fun.
“No one has checked in on me more than Alison has during this pregnancy,” says Stanek, who was nine months pregnant when we spoke. “I was like, ‘I need more peppercorns.’ Literally the next day peppercorns were delivered. I had some dried mango she ate the last of, then three more bags arrived a week later.” Stanek saw the gesture as an effort to take something off her plate. “She and I really bond over the idea of chosen family and committing to each other.”
Roman’s business partner, David Cho, sees a connection between Roman’s hosting instinct — she puts pastries out for the crew when they shoot Home Movies at her apartment — and the high standards she sets for herself in her work. “Those two things work together where it’s like everything is intense caring,” he says.
In her late 20s and early 30s, that intensity translated to Roman inviting friends for dinner in Brooklyn, often serving a recipe-in-development, countless bottles of wine, snapping some photos on her phone, asking for feedback. Now, splitting time between Brooklyn and a rural house upstate, she finds herself feeding loved ones for whom partying, self-promotion, and adventurous eating have taken a backseat.
When yet another pregnant friend visited from Vermont, Roman says, “I was like, ‘I could do pozole, a Mediterranean chicken, and mezze-style thing, or a crunchy hard shell taco night.” The friend chose the unphotogenic tacos. “I was like, ‘Do I hate this? Am I missing an opportunity to recipe develop?’ But I was just like, ‘No, I’m taking care of somebody right now,’” she says. “It wasn’t for content.”
The meal didn’t show up on Roman’s Instagram, which, these days, has a lived-in feel, thanks to her many imitators. The tacos didn’t show up on TikTok, either, because Roman’s not on it. Fifteen years into her career, she says, she doesn’t feel the need to be on the cutting edge of things. Because, as her biggest fans put it, she’s now “mother.”
Top Image Credits: Monse dress, Fernando Jorge earrings, Talent’s own necklaces
Photographs by Peden + Munk
Styling by Stephanie Sanchez
Set Designer: Sophia Pappas
Hair: Clay Nielsen
Makeup: Megan Kelly
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert