Alison Roman is not a plane snacks person, and she’s cool with that.
You’ve probably heard rumblings — if not something louder — about the young chef and writer. After the 2017 release of her first cookbook, Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes, her now-legendary recipe for #TheCookies took social media by storm. Then a stirring Sunday Times article titled “How to Eat in 2019” that encourages less time in the kitchen and more time at the table with friends brought even more followers.
The woman works wonders with both food and words. And we sat down with her to learn how and what she likes to cook and eat while traveling the world.
Travel + Leisure: There is so much opportunity for gaining a sense of place through food when exploring a new destination. Do you have anything you love to do or try right away when you get somewhere new?
Alison Roman: It depends if I’m checking into a hotel or an Airbnb. It doesn’t matter where I am, though, I’ll be like, “Is there a kitchen?” and if there is a kitchen, then I will check out the kitchen and be like, “is it a kitchen that I can cook in?” [If not], then it’s not going to be a cooking trip, it’s going to be more of an eating trip. Sometimes you happen upon an Airbnb or a bed and breakfast that has a kitchen and you’re like, "oh, actually I can cook here," so this will be a cooking and eating vacation. Which are my favorite.
The number two thing is seeing any market. I’m a very equal opportunist when it comes to where people get food. I find just as much interest in going to a bodega as I do a farmers market, to a speciality food store, or just a real place where people buy their food. I just want to go to where you — locals — shop. I want to go where you buy your food.
Your approach to at-home cooking is that dinner doesn't need to be fussy to be delicious. Do you have any advice about applying this approach to cooking and eating in terms of travel?
When I’m traveling, I cook the same as I do when I’m at home, which is to say, when I’m on vacation and know that I’m going to be cooking, I go to the market and I make sure that I have olive oil, salt and pepper. If I’m traveling internationally, I always try to cook with and buy, especially produce-wise, ingredients that I’m not as familiar with, or that I know I can only get there. I don’t want to just play it safe with stuff I know I can find at home.
So the markets are a really big draw?
A majority of people in other countries do their everyday shopping at these large, open-air markets, which is not something that we really do here, much to my chagrin, because it’s my favorite way to shop and then cook. The ingredients vary, the cultures vary, but the idea that you’re buying fresh produce and fresh meat and fresh fish at one place is pretty understood and practiced, in that way.
How does cooking in an unfamiliar country inform your cooking?
My favorite thing to do is ask the people who are selling me the [item] what they do with it. If I’m buying artichokes, I know how I would cook artichokes, how my mom cooks them, what I’ve done with them. But if I’m in Sicily, I want to ask the person who’s selling me the artichokes what they do. And nine times out of 10 they’re going to tell you something that you’ve never heard of or tried, and that to me is really interesting.
You often draw a correlation between food and conversation. What's the correlation?
People, I believe, inherently want to feed you, and they want to teach you, and they want to talk about food. How you cook an artichoke is a deeply personal and cultural experience. Them telling you how to cook an artichoke is sharing their culture with you, and that’s really interesting to me.
Do you consider cooking and eating while traveling a form of self care?
I know sometimes when I have been traveling, especially when I’m in a place for a longer period of time, I want my own comfort sometimes. And I think cooking for yourself is a really great way to do that.
Do you have rules you follow in terms of how to feel good and healthy while you're traveling?
The best thing that I’ve learned to do is hydrate, and buy a reasonable water bottle so that you can fill your water constantly when you’re on a plane, before the plane.
Is there a type of cuisine that inspires you to travel, or a certain cuisine that you always crave?
Honestly the food I crave most is the food I’ve always had in Mexico. I love the way they cook there, I love the ingredients that are there, I love the techniques they use. I’m just obsessed with Mexican food in general.
Do you have a favorite Mexican restaurant?
Yes, but it’s not really a restaurant, it’s three women that cook in Oaxaca. We call them The Three Sisters. It’s these three women that cook quesadillas and tacos, but they’re more like taquitos, or longer tortillas that are rolled, rather than folded. There’s this one quesadilla in particular that has yellow mole with squash blossoms. It’s so good. If I were to go to Oaxaca tomorrow, that would be the first place I would go. I think about them all the time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.