Ali Rosen, host of Potluck with Ali on NYC Life and author of the cookbook, Bring It!, grew up in South Carolina with a passion for food. After going to college for International Studies and working in News Production, Ali desired to return to food and landed, what Thrillist referred to as “One of the Coolest Jobs in Food”! We met with Ali to hear how she found her way back to her passion and what advice she’d have for women.
What has been your journey where you are now? According to your bio, you grew up cooking with your grandmother, started in TV production and now you host your own show!
It’s certainly been a strange path to my life.
My journey into food was kind of a funny one because I started in food and then I left. I always wanted to be in food. My grandmother was an amazing cook and my mom is a great lawyer (but not necessarily focused on being a great cook) so I cooked a lot growing up. We had a nanny named Louise who was very Southern and an amazing cook. She taught me how to cook Southern food, while my grandmother, who was from New England, taught me how to make things like pie crust and meatloaf.
So, I had these two very strong cooking influences in my life, but I also was just a lover of cookbooks. I devoured them and so I always thought that I would do something in the cooking space.
Did you ever work in Foodservice?
When I was in eighth grade, I interned at this restaurant in Charleston called S.N.O.B. I shadowed everyone there because I really wanted to learn. As I got older, I realized that being a chef is a difficult profession – especially if you’re a woman and you want to have children. When I was in high school and college, the food media space wasn’t what it is today and so the idea that I could be in food just wasn’t something I ever considered, I sort of let that idea go.
I studied International Relations. I didn’t study journalism. I thought I would be like Christiane Amanpour.
I just was like, “This is what I want to do.”
You also did the NBC Page Program, right?
I had an internship at ABC World News, when Charlie Gibson hosted. After graduation, I became an NBC Page. You see so many things – you get to be backstage at SNL and, at the time, it was the Late Show with Conan and you see all of these cool things. My best assignment was working on the NBC News specials desk during the 2008 election. I got to go to Colorado for the Democratic convention and see Obama. It was just an amazing night.
Due to my background, I got a job at Nightly News, I was slotted into what I thought was my dream job. There was a shift around digital and I started doing my own pieces for the Nightly News website. It soon became very clear to me that there was no way to move up in that. At that time they weren’t hiring people specifically for the website – especially during the recession.
Brian Williams, who at the time was the anchor of the show, suggested that I go work in local news. He helped me get a job at NY1 as a reporter.
How was working for the local news?
While I was there, I realized it wasn’t for me. You’re covering local topics with the rule of “If it bleeds, it leads.” Some people have a real passion for that but I was like “This is just not where my passion lies”. On the flipside, I learned a lot about storytelling, production and getting things done quickly. I decided that I needed to leave New York. I moved to India and I worked on a documentary about domestic violence prevention in the slums.
When I was in India, I also learned a lot about the food there. I came back realizing that I really wanted to do something in food. I thought about starting my own business – I just needed to be in food in some way.
How did you find your way back to food from there?
A job opened up at a website that was just starting to add videos regarding food and drinks. Even though I didn’t really have “food experience”, I told them I was the person for them as I had lots of production experience. They hired me, which was great, and I did that for a few years. I was producing 10 videos a week by myself.
The production value of some videos weren’t always the highest, but it was a baptism by fire. I was meeting a lot of people and getting great contacts.
It started to become clear to me that I wanted to find something else, so I pitched my show to NYC Life which, at the time, was looking for more food content. Now I’m on the 11th season of my show.
I had kind of a weird path but everything I did was necessary to get to the next step. It ended up working out.
What makes you excited about the future, especially when it comes to home chefs? With all the shifts in social media, and media in general, anyone can have that ability to start a personal blog and/or Instagram that can amass large numbers of followers.
Social media scares me on a lot of levels because I worry about substance. I think there’s a lot of bad content – which doesn’t necessarily mean that all blog content or Instagram content isn’t good. It’s become more visual rather than necessarily about the quality of the recipe. That scares me.
I think what honestly excites me the most is not about social media – it’s about access to ingredients. You can order almost any ingredient online and have it sent to your home in two days.
I like the democratization of all types of food.
I think that in media, we have a long way to go in terms of figuring out how we think about food and food cultures, like who gets to talk about people’s cultures. We’re still in these very difficult moments, especially when it comes to women and food and minorities and food.
But at the end of the day, I appreciate that I am an English-Jewish person who grew up in the South, lived in India and lived in Scotland (for college), travels steadily every year and can have all of those different types of food in my life in a very accessible way.
Let’s talk about the changing role of women – not only in the culinary/foodservice space but also in media.
I used to host segments where we would do food news of the week and I would ask the PR people to please pitch me people who are women or people of color. When you think of who usually has access to money, PR and influence, it tends to be white men.
And we’re now in this difficult moment where, on the one hand, there are some really excellent white men cooking. For me, it’s always been so important to try a restaurant, make sure it’s good, and then cover that. On the other hand, I know a lot of women who are chefs who try fundraising for a restaurant but they cannot get the same money or attention. A lot of women chefs do not have access to the same level of resources.
So say, if a woman has a supper club, rather than a restaurant, but they’re a great cook – maybe I’ll do a segment with her in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t do with a restaurant. I don’t like the idea of buying into a narrative. “Is their food really excellent?” should always be the first question. Then, we need to realize that just because they don’t necessarily have a restaurant, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a big platform.
Representation is important – especially with the cultural shift in the make-up of the country and how that affects the changing food scene.
I think that, as a country, we have to get comfortable with recognizing that there is no purity when it comes to food. Food media has sort of gone off on this tangent where only people can cook the food of their ancestors. And I find that to be really bizarre. I love Jewish food, but my mom is Christian and my dad didn’t cook Jewish food. I can claim to be Southern, but my great grandfather moved to this country from Russia. So I think that we have to start being respectful of culture and space but also make room for the fact that food evolves. After all, tomatoes didn’t arrive in Italy until the 1500s and today that is a staple.
I think we have to get to a place where, as a culture, we are accepting of other people cooking food while not claiming it as our own. I’d never write a recipe that’s influenced by Italy without saying “I went on a trip to Italy and ate this delicious thing. I started to make my own version”.
Let’s go back to this notion of “Accepting of other people cooking food” and the struggles women face in the restaurant industry.
In the US, we are so spoiled by being raised with this idea you can do and be anything. I think that a lot of women have internalized that. But on the other hand, it makes it very difficult to say “I want to have a big career and I want to be valuable in my field” and also look at other things you want.
I think for me, if I could live in a vacuum bubble where I could have all the time to be with my son, I would totally love to be a chef in a restaurant. I never felt like I had to trade anything to be a mom, I just felt like I had to think through how it was going to look.
I do think a lot of that is changing and I think you’re seeing a lot of restaurants pushing to have better cultures – and that’s being pushed by women and men. There are a lot of men who are really trying to change kitchen culture. In general, I think it’s difficult for anyone who wants to be a chef – but definitely a very difficult space for women.
What’s interesting, Food Media is still mostly consumed by women. But when you think of the biggest magazines in food, they are run by men. But there is a reason why Eater has so many more articles on “Me Too” and discrimination and bias and I believe that is because Amanda Kludt is a woman and has prioritized that.
I guess that’s why a lot of people do blogging and freelancing – you get to do your own thing and not be encumbered. I feel very lucky for that with my show. I get to cover what I want to cover. I get to promote the people that I want to promote. I get to push an agenda without talking about it. I get to promote women and people of color and those that maybe wouldn’t have a voice.
How do you think we can promote more women in the foodservice industry?
In ways that are different from what we’ve sort of decided is the “highest value”. We’ve decided being a restaurant chef is who we give awards to – and they’re the ones on TV shows. But what if you’re a woman and you work in catering because you don’t want to be away from your kids at night? You could be the best caterer and be the best business owner.
I think that we also spotlight women in other spaces within the industry. I think that some women, much like myself, could have been chefs but may not have wanted that lifestyle. These women should also be recognized and promoted. I think that’s the other place where we can start.
Finally, what advice would you have for women who are looking to go into media or the foodservice space – any of the industries you’ve touched upon?
First of all, read. Read some really excellent books like Alice Waters’ memoir or Michael Pollan’s books. Learn about our food system. So many people say that they’re “an expert”, but how are you an expert? I wrote a cookbook because I spent years and years and years interviewing chefs and learning their techniques.
Now, we live in a world where a lot of people are getting to be experts at young ages. Some minimize the actual training – but you should shadow people. Reach out to some of your favorite influencers. Ask to help them prep or clean-up and shadow them. At the end of the day, you’ll never learn about what career you’re actually interested in if you don’t see a day in the life of that.
Ask questions. Be proactive. Every job I ever got was from asking for help. Try to learn from people first rather than trying to get something out of them. Gain knowledge. Pay it forward.
About Ali Rosen
Ali Rosen is the Founder and Host of Potluck with Ali, a TV show on NYC Life and a website about food, drink and travel. Potluck was nominated for an Emmy and Ali was also named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and listed as having one of Thrillist’ Coolest Jobs in Food. Potluck Video has also partnered with publications including Edible, People and Liquor.com. Prior to Potluck Video, Ali created The Daily Meal Video Network for TheDailyMeal.com, was a reporter for NY1 and worked in production at NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams. She is originally from Charleston, SC but now calls New York home with her husband Daniel, son Guy and dog Phoebe.
Visit: Potluck with Ali