Say Hi to Allison Robicelli: Baker, Writer, Unashamed Lover of Imitation Crab

There isn’t much that gets us more fired up than a reinvention story (after all, Say Hi and Hi&Low are all about evolution). And that’s why we were so excited to talk to Allison Robicelli. After founding a hugely successful bakery in Brooklyn and establishing herself as a food personality, who you may recognize from Food Network and her writing for places like Food52 and Food & Wine, she picked up and moved to Baltimore to reset her life. On top of that, she’s a survivor of stage 4 cancer, and her recovery process inspired her interest in cannabis. She’s currently in the midst of writing her newest cookbook, a collection of recipes that are made to satisfy high cravings with brilliant, delicious foods that reject the idea of typical “munchies.”

Allison and her husband Matt Robicelli

You had a successful bakery, Robicelli’s, in Brooklyn, and you are a James Beard nominated food writer. Writing and baking don’t often go together in one brain or one person’s career. Tell us about how and why they make sense together in your life.

Writing happened very accidentally for me. I really don’t have any training in it save for a single experimental fiction class I took in college. The bakery was somewhat famous in NYC, and I often got requests to write guest pieces for places like Eater and First We Feast, where I started to get a lot of positive feedback. From there, Medium hired me to do a bi-weekly column when they launched, which was a total shock. My writing was never stylized or artistic but really just a printed version of the way I talk. I will admit that I am very good at that.

I ended up writing a cookbook for Penguin back in 2013 which got all sorts of critical praise, and continued writing whenever I had the time. Back in 2016 right before we were planning to relocate our bakery to Baltimore my husband got extremely ill, forcing us to close the business and leaving us without any sort of income. I called some editors for whom I’d previously guest written for free, and they were gracious enough to help me out. The first piece I wrote for Food52, which was about my husband’s illness, got me a James Beard nomination. Since then, I’ve been published in magazines like Food & Wine and Everyday with Rachael Ray, on websites like Epicurious and Extra Crispy, and have been developing recipes and videos for Food Network and Wine Enthusiast. I broke out of food writing and wrote a travel and history book about Baltimore, which was a huge challenge that produced something I’m extremely proud of.

I’ve come to realize that, for me at least, the intersection between writing and cooking is storytelling. I grew up in Brooklyn surrounded by millions of immigrants, and food has always been a way to communicate our identities and build bridges. The recipes [my husband] Matt and I have written have always been influenced by stories we’ve been told, or stories about our lives we’re trying to tell. I could seriously find a way to talk your ear off about anything we used to make in the bakery, and very little of it will have to do with the recipe itself.

Our food has always been very playful and occasionally ridiculous, which makes sense as we’re incredibly ridiculous people. As a writer I’m primarily a humorist — and that’s because there are few things I take seriously in life. Take my path in writing, for instance: I broke out of my normal genre to write something remarkably personal and depressing, and that gets me the James Beard nomination. I write some of the best dick jokes you’ve ever heard, and I get nothing.

 

What do you love about your work? What gives you migraines?

With cooking, it’s the silence. Most people don’t believe this because I’m so talkative in person, but one of my favorite things on earth is being alone in total silence with nothing but my thoughts. I’m rarely happier than when I’m working a graveyard shift alone, writing recipes and piecing ideas together like a puzzle.

I love the creation aspect. The repetition, not so much. Having to make the same thing day after day after day bores me — I like the challenge of new things and experiences. It’s very difficult for me to work production shifts in a kitchen now (I got hit by a car a few years back), but I still love R&D.

With writing, I’m constantly stressed. My pattern is: terrible bouts of writer’s block during which I live in a constant state of terror, then hopefully an “a-HA!” moment when I can write something brilliant in less than an hour. I fucking hate that. But every so often I’ll write something so good that it will make me laugh out loud even when I go back and read it after a few months. Comedy is hard, so writing a perfect joke sort of feels like landing on the moon.

I’m back to posting holiday food things, after a nice short break to do more screaming about the patriarchy. Seriously of doing twice the amount of work as many men to achieve half the respect. I’ve been complaining about this to every friend in the media who would listen for what feels like forever, and I’m glad we finally have the chance to get these stories told. Still, there’s so much work to be done, still so much hellraising needed, and I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s hard to be optimistic. . . When you get to the tippy top of this (all) business, it comes down to money. Women, people of color, immigrants — none of us get equal access to capital, and attracting investment is practically impossible. The answer to the question “will you ever open another food concept” is, no exaggeration, “when I find men who will help me do it”. (Matt no longer can be the “man in charge” since he’s still not 100% from his illness). I can’t count the number of times Matt and I have had the same kind of meeting with different outcomes. How people view me as a loudmouth and a troublemaker, but view men who do the same things as “sages” and disruptors”. I’m a novelty that gets trotted out when something goes wrong, we get my niche hot take, and then we’re back to the status quo in a matter of weeks. I have done this before. This is how it always ends. And I am exhausted. . . I’m worry we’re creating short term vacancies at the top, and that the solution offered will be to replace the bad men with good men. By January we’ll be past this in the newscycle. The problem is so much bigger than sex. It’s a fundamentally flawed industry based on poor design, one built on exclusion. And unless some filthy-rich women step up and say they’re going to help fund the repairs we need to make, I feel we’re just talking to hear ourselves speak. . . Anyway, here’s a crapton of Italian cookies I developed for Food Network after the election last year. Eating close to 1000 cookies in three weeks was pretty good therapy. Maybe it’ll help you guys out, too. Merry freaking Christmas. #feministAF #italiancookies #fuckthepatriarchy #sprinkles

A post shared by Allison Robicelli (@allisonrobicelli) on

 

Having done so much, you’ve become a media personality as much as you are a culinary world tour de force. You’re about more than all-things-delicious. How would you describe what you try to put out there in the world?

I’m just being myself: a ridiculous, silly person who would rather makes jokes than “art”. Food got to a point where people were taking it way too seriously, and the joy was kinda getting stripped away from it. We shouldn’t really take anything in the world too seriously, except maybe cancer. But then again I had cancer and made a shitton of jokes about it back then, too. So I suppose there’s nothing sacred.

I think people relate to my sense of honesty as well as my humor. I’ll put my opinions out there on shit like feminism or the imminent collapse of the American capitalist experiment. They’re honest but not meant to be attacks. I also engage in civil, respectful debate with people on social media, which I think is a rarity people appreciate. Remarkably, I allow myself to be really vulnerable to my audience, and I say “remarkably” because I am not like this in my personal life. My therapist can’t get jack shit out of me. I can pour myself onto a page, and I guess that’s why it works.

I’ve also worked very hard at being honest about personal issues that carry a huge stigma. I’ve struggled with Bipolar 2, aka manic depression, for over 20 years. For a long time, I carried it around like a dirty little secret and then realized that if I kept treating it as shameful, the world would continue treating it as such. I’m open about my illness, I’m open about my history of alcoholism, and I’m open about my cannabis usage. We don’t break stigmas unless we’re brave, and God knows I’ve developed enough bravery with all the shit I’ve lived through. I get a lot of private messages from people, thanking me for making them feel less alone. That makes me really happy, and makes it easy to shrug off a lot of the assholes out there.

‪He won’t let me get rid of the pizza. #RoryCatHoun ‬

A post shared by Allison Robicelli (@allisonrobicelli) on

 

You’ve spoken about being pro-cannabis. Can you tell us more about that?

I smoked pot a bit recreationally in high school and college, but it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer right before my 21st birthday that I really understood why it should be at the very least medicinally legal. Chemo doesn’t just destroy cancer cells, it destroys all your cells, and you pretty much experience the feeling of dying slowly and painfully over and over again, with suffering getting more extreme as you get further into your treatment. I asked my doctors about using medical marijuana, and while some harbored very old school views about it, many encouraged me to start incorporating it into my treatment. It was a goddamn miracle drug. It didn’t even get me that high, it just made all the feelings of dying go away. I have yet to get over the irony that I was being freely prescribed Oxycodone, yet the only way I could get my hands on cannabis was the old fashioned way on a dimly lit street, leaning into the passenger side window of a Nissan Maxima. After the disease went into remission, I didn’t touch the stuff for over ten years, since the scent of it made me think of cancer.

My husband Matt has bad PTSD from being a first responder on 9/11, and even with years of psychotherapy, (attempted) meditation and lots of different medications, we still couldn’t get it under control. He’s also suffered from myriad health issues that have progressively gotten worse — joint pain, metabolic disorders, organ infections — and he’s continually been given prescription drugs we found to be dangerous or addictive. A few years back a doctor suggested (“off the record”) that he start using cannabis. It completely changed his life. We recently learned he has a rare autoimmune condition called Still’s Disease, and turns out medical cannabis is an excellent way to treat it.

Medically, cannabis has changed both our lives. Recreationally we love it too, especially as neither of us drinks alcohol. He uses low doses all day long. I like curling up in bed at 9pm, taking out my vape pen, throwing on the television and vegging the fuck out.

Are you exploring ways to combine your experience in food with your interest in cannabis? 

We actually designed a high end, microdose edibles line a few years back that we, on the DL, would sell to cancer patients and people with chronic pain. The medical marijuana system in New York is ass-backwards, cost prohibitive, and barely accessible to the people who need it the most. We’ve had a lot of investors approach us about launching it into the cannabis market in legal states, but we’re still looking for business partners. We’re only two people, and can only do so much. I’m really hoping we find a way to make it take off because I know what a big change it can make in people’s lives, especially older people who have medical issues who may still be apprehensive about “doing drugs”.

When you think of the future (say 5 years from now) and the evolution of cannabis, what do you envision?

It’s going to be totally legal, but I’m still going to get the stink eye from other parents on the PTA. I’m working on a non-edibles cookbook right now that I hope will help a bit in tearing down all the stigma around cannabis. It’s going to take a lot to deprogram a country that was brainwashed with War on Drugs propaganda.

What’s at the top of your Netflix queue right now?

Every European noir series that exists. I don’t know how I don’t have more nightmares.

What’s the one item in your fridge or pantry you can’t do without?

Lemons. They have a way of making everything taste better.

Do you have a recipe (ideally cannabis-infused) that you can share?

I honestly don’t believe people should be cooking with cannabis at home unless they REALLY know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of science you should learn about, a good amount of math. I spent months researching before I made my first edible, then a few more months perfecting them, which is why they have a precise dosage and taste incredible. No one needs another brownie that tastes like dirt and gets them so fucked up they can’t walk for 3 hours, or a cannabis-infused salad. Seriously, cannot get over the fact that people want cannabis infused salads. The world makes no sense.

We’re grateful to have Allison as a friend of Say Hi, keeping things ridiculous, delicious, and in perspective.

Hi&Low