LabGenius, a London-based startup applying AI and “robotic automation” to protein drug discovery, has raised $10 million in Series A funding.
The round is led by Lux Capital and Obvious Ventures, with participation from Felicis Ventures, Inovia Capital, Air Street Capital and existing investors. Also investing is Recursion Pharmaceuticals’ founder and CEO Chris Gibson, as well as Inovia Capital General Partner Patrick Pichette, who was formerly Google’s CFO.
Lux Capital’s Zavain Dar and Obvious Ventures’ Nan Li will join the LabGenius board of directors. Notably, the U.K. company’s early investors include Nathan Benaich, Torsten Reil, EF’s Matt Clifford, and Philipp Moehring, to name just a few.
“LabGenius is a full-stack protein engineering company: we combine artificial intelligence (AI), robotic automation and synthetic biology to evolve next-generation protein therapeutics,” founder and CEO Dr. James Field tells me.
“My central thesis, the thing that’s really the driving force behind the company, is the conviction that we’re entering an age in which humans will no longer be the sole agents of innovation. Instead, new knowledge, technologies and sophisticated real-world products will be invented by smart robotic platforms called empirical computation engines. An empirical computation engine is an artificial system capable of recursively and intelligently searching a solution space.”
LabGenius’ flagship technology is called “EVA,” which Field describes as a “machine learning-driven, robotic platform” capable of evolving new proteins. “As a smart robotic platform, EVA is capable of designing, conducting and critically learning from its own experiments,” he says.
The goal: to discover and develop new protein therapeutics that are currently hard for humans alone to find.
“For decades, scientists, engineers and technologists have dreamt of building ‘robot scientists’ capable of autonomously discovering new knowledge, technologies and sophisticated real-world products,” explains Field.
“For protein engineers, that dream has now entered the realm of possibility. The rapid pace of technological development across the fields of synthetic biology, robotic automation and ML has given us access to all the essential ingredients required to create a smart robotic platform capable of intelligently discovering novel therapeutic proteins.”
To that end, Field frames the development of EVA as a “long-term, ambitious undertaking” that he says will enable the startup to address previously unsolvable protein engineering challenges and in doing so, develop urgently needed therapeutics.
“My ultimate goal for LabGenius is to establish a fully integrated biopharmaceutical company powered by the world’s most advanced protein engineering platform,” he adds. “Quite honestly, this is a gargantuan undertaking and, while we’ve already established one of the world’s most technically sophisticated protein engineering operations, we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”
More broadly, there is a tension that many deep tech companies face, which is determining how best to develop technology that’s tightly aligned to real-world commercial needs (before running out of capital!). “For LabGenius, we’ve achieved this in a highly intentional way by undertaking a series of commercial projects of increasing complexity from the company’s earliest days,” Field says.
One on-going project is with Tillotts Pharma AG to identify and develop new drug candidates for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
“Our business model is pretty simple,” says the LabGenius founder. “We use EVA to discover and characterise new drug molecules and then partner with pharma companies who can take these molecules to market. For example in a typical partner-financed early discovery program, we’ll take a project from concept to early pre-clinical stage. Typical deal structures include a blend of R&D payments, milestones & royalties.”
Meanwhile, LabGenius will use the capital to scale its team, expand the scope of its discovery platform and initiate an “internal asset development program.” The next goal is to evolve novel antibody fragments capable of treating conditions that cannot be addressed using conventional antibody formats.
EV Connect, the Los Angeles-based company that sells software to manage electric vehicle charging, has raised $12 million in a Series B round led by investors Mitsui & Co. and Ecosystem Integrity Fund.
EV Connect’s cloud-based platform has an open standard architecture that is designed to be hardware agnostic. In other words, EV Connect aims to provide a variety of hardware vendors a way to monitor, manage and maintain charging stations.
The end goal is to push the industry away from a closed and fragmented system to a more open one, according to EV Connect CEO and founder Jordan Ramer.
EV Connect has a two-tiered approach. The company provides and manages 1,000 electric vehicle charging sites through its EV Connect network. EV Connect has a smartphone app to give drivers of electric vehicles real-time access to charging station status.
Its also sells a cloud-based software platform that businesses can customize. Clients include Yahoo!, Marriott, Hilton, Western Digital, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York Power Authority.
As part of the round, Mitsui and EV Connect have agreed to develop new business models around EV charging infrastructure. EV Connect plans to work with Mitsui on various applications of EV charging to lower the cost of charging and maximize its utilization, including fleet and energy management solutions, Ramer elaborated to TechCrunch in an emailed response.
“We strongly believe that EV Connect’s infrastructure management technology accelerates the electric vehicle revolution in the energy and power industry where Mitsui has many assets and access to partners,” Kazumasa Nakai, the COO of Mitsui’s infrastructure projects business unit, said in a statement. “Our unique engineering capabilities, in conjunction with EV Connect’s cloud-based EV infrastructure, will enable us to develop new business models to solve the challenges EV infrastructure currently pose for energy management companies.”
The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs.
We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:
This week, it’s a nice, in-depth workflow from Mary Phillips-Sandy and Lizzie Jacobs, the host and producer (respectively) of Let’s Talk About Cats. Now in its second season, the Acast network show sits down with artists, musicians and other creatives to, well, talk about their cats. Recent interviews include Spin Doctor Chris Barron and adult actress/writer, Stoya.
We record most of our episodes at our network’s office in New York. They’ve set up a little recording room that Acast shows can use — it’s convenient, and there are always cute dogs hanging around. No cats, though.
The Acast space has ElectroVoice RE20 microphones with windscreens on ElectroVoice 309A mounts. Love that warm, classic sound. Also, I (Mary) am self-conscious about my S’s, and these mics do a good job of controlling them. The headphones are Sony MDR-7506s. They’re… fine. Over-ear headphones always kind of suck for me because they squish my glasses. The headphones run through a PreSonus HP4 amp, which lets everyone set their levels exactly where they want them.
The studio board is a Zoom LiveTrak L-12 and the DAW is Hindenburg, which we only use for recording. Lizzie edits and mixes the show at home with ProTools and her beloved Sennheiser HD 380 pros. She has to be listening to a lot of Cats before her head hurts from the headphones. But she doesn’t wear glasses.
We try to avoid remote interviews. The more we do the show, the more we’ve realized that it works best when the guest is here in person. We make fast transitions between segments, and one bit (the Cat Quiz) involves handing over a special prize, so getting that IRL reaction is important. (Lizzie cutting in here. Mary’s prizes are next-level. It’s incredible what she’s able to find on eBay, Etsy and I don’t even know where else. The show would not be what it is without them, or without Mary’s research skills. Every week she digs up something like a vintage perfume packaged with a cat figurine in a feather boa, or musical theater-themed cat stickers.)
When remote is the only option, we’ll do Skype with Ladiocast on the studio laptop. We also ask our guests to record locally with whatever prosumer or office studio gear they can get their hands on — anything to make their voices sound closer.
This may be obvious, but Dropbox is essential to our process. We have a shared folder with Acast where studio tracks get uploaded so Lizzie (or Virginia, who helps with production) can grab them. We also use it to share clips and images for social media. Speaking of which, we’ve been using Headliner to make captioned preview videos for Instagram and Twitter. Very convenient, highly recommend. We are not graphic designers, so we use Canva to make images for our social accounts and website, which we built on Squarespace, using one of our favorite podcast’s promo codes for a discount.
Scripts, research, booking trackers, scheduling and everything else happens in Google Drive/Calendar, which we’d be lost without. In season one we worked with a human for transcription, but she went back to grad school, so now we use Otter. It’s not perfect, but it’s by far the best automated transcription tool we’ve found, and you can’t beat the price. I (Mary again) actually like taking some time to go through and correct transcripts, because it’s a good way to become (even more) aware of your verbal tics. By the fourth “of course,” you want to travel back in time and slap yourself.
The JEDI drama never stops. The $10 billion, decade-long cloud contract has produced a series of twists and turns since the project was announced in 2018. These include everything from court challenges to the president getting involved to accusations of bias and conflict of interest. It has had all this and more. Today, in the latest plot twist, the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recused himself from the selection process because one of his kids works at a company that was involved earlier in the process.
Several reports name his son, Luke Esper, who has worked at IBM since February. The RFP closed in April and Esper is a Digital Strategy Consultant, according to his LinkedIn page (which is no longer available), but given the persistent controversy around this deal, his dad apparently wanted to remove even a hint of impropriety in the selection and review process.
Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Jonathan Rath Hoffman issued an official DoD Cloud update earlier today:
As you all know, soon after becoming Secretary of Defense in July, Secretary Esper initiated a review of the Department’s cloud computing plans and to the JEDI procurement program. As part of this review process he attended informational briefings to ensure he had a full understanding of the JEDI program and the universe of options available to DoD to meet its cloud computing needs. Although not legally required to, he has removed himself from participating in any decision making following the information meetings, due to his adult son’s employment with one of the original contract applicants. Out of an abundance of caution to avoid any concerns regarding his impartiality, Secretary Esper has delegated decision making concerning the JEDI Cloud program to Deputy Secretary Norquist. The JEDI procurement will continue to move to selection through the normal acquisition process run by career acquisition professionals.
Perhaps the biggest beef around this contract, which was supposed to be decided in August, has been the winner-take-all nature of the deal. Only one company will eventually walk away a winner, and there was a persistent belief in some quarters that the deal was designed specifically with Amazon in mind. Oracle’s co-CEO Safra Catz took that concern directly to the president in 2018.
The DoD has repeatedly denied there was any vendor in mind when it created the RFP, and internal Pentagon reviews, courts and a government watchdog agency repeatedly found the procurement process was fair, but the complaints continue. The president got involved in August when he named his then newly appointed defense secretary to look into the JEDI contract procurement process. Now Espers is withdrawing from leading that investigation, and it will be up to others, including his deputy secretary, to finally bring this project over the finish line.
Last April, the DoD named Microsoft and Amazon as the two finalists. It’s worth pointing out that both are leaders in Infrastructure as a Service market share with around 16% and 33%, respectively.
It’s also worth noting that while $10 billion feels like a lot of money, it’s spread out over a 10-year period with lots of possible out clauses built into the deal. To put this deal size into perspective, a September report from Synergy Research found that worldwide combined infrastructure and software service spending in the cloud had already reached $150 billion, a number that is only expected to continue to rise over the next several years as more companies and government agencies like the DoD move more of their workloads to the cloud.
As access to top deals becomes more competitive, venture capital firms are creating new roles to attract top entrepreneurs. Now, in addition to recruiting top dealmakers, firms are bringing in culture experts and allocating roles to individuals who better understand and empathize with the founder journey.
In keeping with this trend, Redpoint Ventures, a venture capital firm with roots in Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road, has hired a partner and its first-ever “head of founder experience.” Travis Bryant, who joined the firm one year ago as an entrepreneur-in-residence, will be focused on how founders perceive the Redpoint brand, ensuring each individual moment a founder spends with the firm is as founder-friendly as possible.
Historically, VC firms hired investment partners to network, invest in companies and help foster those companies’ growth over a years-long period. Increasingly, these same firms are identifying new talent to provide to founders more attention, resources and support through the company-building process as a means to win access to top deals.
Earlier this month, True Ventures hired its first-ever vice president of culture, Madeline Kolbe Saltzman, who explained she would be guiding “the company and the founder to being the best they can be.” Bryant, for his part, will have a host of responsibilities, including supporting existing programs and services tailored to the needs of portfolio founders, and even remodeling the office to create a better “flow” for founders. Basically, Bryant will think through all the ways Redpoint can leave a positive, lasting impression on the companies it invests in and even the companies it rejects.
“The founder is the center of the solar system,” Bryant tells TechCrunch. “It’s not about them coming to pitch us. It’s how do we help them develop their idea and how do we give them the confidence to get it out in the world.”
One might have thought venture capitalists would steer away from the cult of the founder mentality amid the WeWork saga of 2019. Arguably, tech-founder worship allowed WeWork to garner a baseless $47 billion valuation as a result of the billions in equity funding its founder used to purchase a private jet, make several poorly thought-out acquisitions and commit other irresponsible acts that resulted in a delayed initial public offering, hundreds of layoffs and more to come.
Redpoint’s latest hire, if anything, suggests tech-founder worship is far from being erased. To that point, Bryant says his role is less about the founder and more about creating an environment that fosters more human-to-human relationships, bidding adieu to the traditional startup-VC dynamic.
“In the past, a founder might have just wanted to work with a VC because of their prior performance with a goal to just get money, but now it’s money-plus-plus,” Bryant said. “What are you going to do actively? What can you do to help them cross this chasm and get their idea out and make it successful.”
“The expectation of investors is much more significant,” Bryant added. “It’s not about writing a check and hoping to turn that check into something. It’s about adding value.”
Hackers have busted into servers of at least three popular VPN services—NordVPN, VikingVPN, and TorGuard—over the past couple of years, pilfering cryptographic keys that may have been used to intercept and decrypt highly sensitive user data or bypass browser security features to deploy web-based attacks. In other words, that’s not good, especially if you use one of the three eservices.
Here’s a quick look at what you need to know about the breaches, based of the few details that have been disclosed so far:
Multiple breaches since 2017
Ars Technica published a handy breakdown about the NordVPN, TorGuard, and Viking VPN breaches. It covers how the attacks were carried out and initially discovered, but many important pieces of information—such as how the stolen encryption keys were used or whether any of the services’ users were actually affected—are still unknown.
The most recent attack was directed at NordVPN back in March 2018—nearly 19 months ago—but is only just now being disclosed. NordVPN says that no usernames or passwords were stored on the attacked server and that no other servers or data centers were targeted. The company also says one of the three keys stolen in March 2018 became invalid by October 2018, meaning it has been unusable for over a year by now. Still, that specific key could have been used to target and collect individual user data during the months it was active, and none of the statements NordVPN has made to reporters or its users address the other two keys.
Disclosure of the NordVPN server compromise comes just after it was reported that VikingVPN and TorGuard suffered similar breaches back in 2017. Only Torguard has commented so far and says the stolen keys couldn’t have been used to compromise user data and have been disabled for months. Still, the breached server was actively in use until early 2018.
What should you do?
The statements from NordVPN and TorGuard have been questioned by security researchers, who tell Ars Technica that using the stolen keys to collect user data is easier than what these companies would have its users believe.
VPNs are often pitched as privacy tools that help you get around some of the internet’s annoying red tape, but they aren’t just for watching Netflix titles exclusive to other regions or for hiding your browsing data from your ISP so you can torrent the latest episode of your favorite show. Many people who use VPNs are also trying to maintain privacy and anonymity: political activists protecting their identity from dangerous or oppressive governments, journalists and investigators sourcing sensitive information, or even white-hat hackers looking into major security flaws.
A VPN service with lax security protocols—and those that don’t keep its users updated about potential security breaches—puts its users in jeopardy. And these kinds of incidents show that even well-reviewed products that otherwise work as they’re intended can be risky. Until more information becomes available, we suggest current NordVPN, TorGuard, and VikingVPN customers (and those shopping for a new VPN) look elsewhere.
The most secure option is to run your own VPN, but that’s a topic for another time; we’ll have a full guide for doing so in near the future. For now, the other option is to look into a new commercial VPN, but that’s easier said than done. There are lots of VPN services out there and most of them aren’t very good. A lot of them are even straight-up scams. We suggest consulting our guide for finding a trustworthy VPN, while new users will probably want to give our general VPN explainer a look as well. Both articles have tips for vetting potential services and links to other helpful lists and resources.
User reviews are immensely helpful, especially in the world of skincare and beauty products. After all, this is stuff you put on your face. Your precious face! But when some of those reviews turn out to be fake, how can you be sure you can trust anything you read?
Skincare company Sunday Riley has settled with the Federal Trade Commission after being accused of posting fake reviews of its product for two years. According to the FTC complaint, Sunday Riley, the CEO of the eponymous brand, instructed staffers and interns to set up accounts and leave reviews for the company’s products–some of which cost more than $100—on Sephora’s website.
Riley even emailed her staff step-by-step instructions for using a VPN to conceal their identities as they set up fake accounts to leave five-star reviews while being “very enthusiastic without looking like a plant,” according to the FTC complaint, filed last year.
In addition, staff were supposed to keep track of other (legitimate) reviews, “dislike” those that were negative, and write reviews to overpower any negative comments. “As reviews come in, read them too. If you notice someone saying things like I didn’t like “x” about it, write a review that says the opposite,” one memo instructed.
What’s the penalty for pushing fake reviews? Well, nothing. The brand must be crystal clear going forward about who’s being paid to promote the company’s products, and is supposed to instruct its staff on disclosure practices. The FTC couldn’t even agree on the settlement, with three of the commissioners of the agency voting for it and two dissenting. The dissenting commissioners issued a statement that the FTC should have gone for a monetary penalty, saying this settlement rewards bad actors and hurts honest companies, according to The Fashion Law.
How to identify fake reviews
The fake Sunday Riley reviews focused on new products, in an attempt to get more attention and sales. So for a quick gut check, pay attention to the number of reviews on newly released products. “Watch out for recently launched products that suddenly have thousands of positive reviews,” Michael Bonebright, consumer analyst at DealNews.com, said.
Some sites, like Amazon, have an early review program that clearly marks reviews of new items written by reviewers who are sometimes compensated for their efforts. “If you don’t see any signs that a seller has taken advantage of that program to get those initial reviews, that’s [a] red flag,” he said. Not every online store will have such a program, but many major retailers will point out if a reviewer received a product early or free for review.
Regardless of where you’re browsing, look for repeated words or phrases that show up in a bunch of reviews. “Amazon is pretty good at weeding out these kinds of fakes, but other sites are less diligent,” Bonebright said.
And if you’re not confident about written reviews, Bonebright recommended looking for a video review you can watch: “While these reviewers are often compensated for their review, you can still see the product and get a better understanding of its actual value.”
If you’re a big Disney fan like me, you’re counting down the days until the November 12 launch of Disney+, the streaming service for all thingsStar Wars, Disney animated classics, and Ducktales. Verizon subscribers have one more reason to mark the date on the calendars: They’ll be able to sign up for a free year of Disney+ at that point.
As Verizon announced today, the carrier is planning to offer (almost) all of its subscribers a free year of Disney+, a $70 value if you’re paying annually or a $84 if you pay for Disney+ month to month. You can’t sign up for this promotion yet, unfortunately, but you’ll definitely want to make a calendar event for November 12 so you don’t forget.
And, yes, that means that if you already signed up for a Disney+ account, you don’t get a free year tacked on to the end. At least, I’m pretty confident that’s how this works; consider the free year like one big free trial, which should automatically convert to a subscription once the 12 months elapse (if Verizon is smart about this).
That’s not the only catch, though. Verizon is very specific about who is eligible for this offer:
“In tandem with the Disney+ November 12 launch, Verizon will become the exclusive wireless carrier to offer 12 months of Disney+ to all new and existing 4G LTE and 5G unlimited wireless customers. Verizon will also offer 12 months of Disney+ to its new Fios Home Internet and 5G Home Internet customers.”
In other words, if you’re on a prepaid Verizon plan—like me—I’m pretty sure you are not getting a free year of Disney+. That’s the subtle distinction between your service tier and the pricier unlimited data plans Verizon would much prefer you to be on.
You can currently sign up for “updates” about the limited promotion via Verizon’s official site. This is also where you’ll likely go to activate your free year come November 12, so be sure to check back then.
Alison Roman—cookbook author, Instagram microlebrity, and creator of a viral chickpea stew—is a hugger. “I feel like we’ve met before!” she gushes, after embracing me and apologizing for a logistical snafu that left me waiting at Korean grocery store H Mart’s outpost in Manhattan’s East Village while Roman was on her way to the original location in Koreatown.
Nothing about this surprises me; following her on Instagram for the better part of a year led me to experience the sort of assumed intimacy one experiences when meeting people from the internet in real life. Roman’s fame is, for now, insular; her recipes are most frequently shared with the circles of people who stay glued to recipe Twitter and pay close attention to the New York Times food section’s newsletter, “What to Cook This Week,” which often features Roman’s recipes. Her Instagram presence is relatable enough—true to her word, and the title of her newly released cookbook, Nothing Fancy, neither her kitchen or her life are particularly luxurious. Her apartment, from what I’ve gathered on Instagram, has a decorative mantel, some good plants, and one to two cats living within its walls. It is the sort of place that inspires jealousy only to people used to the specific hell that is the New York city real estate market, where rickety one bedroom apartments with slanted floors go for the kind of money that could get you a very nice house literally anywhere else. It’s a clever trick meant to rectify the notion that cooking her kind of food—and living her kind of life—is out of reach.
Though I feel like I know Roman, intimately, from social media, I have never met her in person. “Do you work out of the Wing sometimes?” she asks me. “I know it’s bad,” she says, almost apologetically. I shake my head. We soldier on, grabbing a basket and wandering through the aisles, where Roman finds herself distracted, repeatedly, by something beautiful, delicious, or both.
“Giant uni,” she says, pausing by rows of fish, wrapped tight in plastic and nestled in styrofoam—bad for the environment, sure, but nice and neat and tidy. “The salmon, I mean, it’s farmed but it’s beautiful.” We turn our attention to a wall of gochujang, a barely-sweet, fermented soybean and chili paste, an ingredient that Roman uses in her recipes like one might tomato paste for a quick hit of umami, with greater depth. It’s this thinking that defines her palate, which feels very of the moment—big, rustic, flavors, lots of lemon, nothing delicate or too precious. She excels at making the very simple taste and look much more complicated than it actually is.
Roman is a woman known to me for her very good recipes and her indefatigable ability to engage with her fans. Buying into the hype about Roman went against my natural inclination towards contrarianism; if everyone likes a thing or a person, then I am liable to do the opposite out of spite. But my awareness of Roman grew organically, against my will: I rarely pay attention to the people who write the recipes I make, but I found myself cooking her food more and more, barging into text chains and DMs with links to this sheet pan chicken recipe, also endorsed by Chrissy Teigen.
But Roman’s real claim to fame is a dish that, for better or worse, has defined her career: #TheStew, a recipe that has caused its author some consternation. A hearty mix of chickpeas and chard, simmered in a coconut milk broth redolent with turmeric, garlic and ginger, the stew is actually something in between a soup and a stew: a “stoup” in the cutesy parlance of one of Roman’s spiritual predecessors, Rachael Ray, the woman who brought “EVOO” to the American vocabulary and introduced me personally to the concept of a “garbage bowl.” Its rise was meteoric.
The stew was remarkable because generally, recipes don’t go viral. But The Stew took on a life of its own. Roman reblogged admirers who made the dish to her own Instagram story, showering their efforts with praise. At various points over the winter, watching Roman’s Story or reading her Twitter feed produced an onslaught of #TheStew, with photo after photo showing yet another satisfied customer. One assumes that this dish made its way to various dinner parties and friend gatherings over and over that winter—a proud home cook plopping a blob of yogurt atop greens and chickpeas with pride.
Roman had briefly brushed viral fame earlier in her career with #TheCookies, published in her first cookbook, Dining In. Easy enough for the novice baker to execute, but with a complex flavor and rustic presentation, #TheCookies took off on Instagram, Roman’s preferred medium, and rocketed their way to The Today Show, where Roman made the cookies alongside Carson Daly. The Today Show appearance was the beginning of a different future. It is because of the simplicity of both these recipes and her appearance on the morning television show that Roman became a name—someone that your Aunt Elizabeth might mention in the group text in passing.
The stew’s popularity, though, also brought some trouble, in that it could be interpreted as a curry—a watered-down version of a Jamaican dish, or an Indian one, or a Japanese one. Though Roman is quick to assure me that she never positioned the stew that way, its eventual detractors took issue with the dint of cultural appropriation. Should the stew should be called a curry, and if it was, why would Roman be making it?
“I’m like y’all, this is not a curry…I’ve never made a curry, I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry,” Roman explains, with an air of exasperation.“I come from no culture. I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.” The head note of the recipe in the Times was eventually adjusted in light of the stew’s popularity and the outcry. “Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an insanely creamy, basically-good-for-you stew that evokes South Indian chana and some stews found in parts of the Caribbean,” it now reads. Clarity, at last.
If Roman wasn’t on her way to becoming famous, the stew and its accompanying backlash would’ve been meaningless—a day of brief hell, followed by blessed silence. But Roman is a woman who contemplates fame with the same seriousness as she does the vast display of Pocky at the H Mart, which she does with an expert scan before zeroing in on Choco Boy, a small cookie mushroom with a delicious chocolate cap.
“It’s not [a goal] to be famous,” she says, as we stare at the Pocky. “It’s just to have a bigger impact. To buy a house upstate one day and freeze my eggs. I just wanna be happy and be able to continue to do what I do, which I am right now.” When pressed on a working definition of fame, Roman pauses and really considers the question.
“I don’t even know what famous means anymore. Because there are so many people that are famous and I’ve never heard of them. Like famous where? I don’t know anyone. I get all my celebrity culture from Who Weekly, and then, beyond that, I don’t know who anyone is.” We continue to stare at the Pocky, paralyzed by choice. No one at H Mart has identified Roman as a known quantity. But the fact that we are talking at all signals a nascent fame, the beginnings of something larger on the horizon, whether she wants it or not.
The accusations, in Instagram DMs mostly, that #TheStew was a half-baked whitewashing of ingredients and flavors enjoyed and pioneered by brown people, is an issue that Roman says she does not take lightly. The stew’s ingredients are found in many different cuisines, from Afro-Caribbean to South Asian. As its popularity climbed, naysayers came out of the woodwork to protest. Slate published a take calling into question the stew’s worth.
It is clear that the Slate piece is a sensitive subject. “The only time I ever got upset about the stew is when some dumbass fuckin’ food writer for some dumb fuckin’ website [wrote] ‘The stew? Is it even good?’” she tells me after we’ve exited the grocery store, eating onigiri near a garbage can on the street. “He was so rude about it, he was like, if the stew is so good, why are people modifying it? I wasn’t trying to make anything to blow your tits off. I was trying to make a delicious dinner.”
To take on the task of eliminating potentially appropriative recipes from the pillars of food media would be Sisyphean: food is the one form of expression that is constantly and necessarily iterative. Recipe writers borrow from cultures that are not their own all the time and the notion of authenticity and ownership are nebulous. Coconut milk, ginger, and garlic are not ingredients “owned” by any one culture or community. If we are to go down this path in full, every recipe with a spice other than salt and pepper could be claimed by any number of different cultures, and the food world would implode.
Roman’s accessibility, in part, makes her an easy target for criticism. Like any public figure, she puts herself out there enough to make it seem like she really is your best friend—someone with whom you might have a heart to heart about whatever’s on your mind. But really, the secret to Roman’s micro-fame is not just her personality or her endearing habit of issuing cheeky correctives to those who would modify her recipes in her Instagram stories. It is the food—it’s always about the food.
Roman’s recipes are delicious, simple, and toe the edge of fancy not in ingredient but in preparation. Her food photographs well, but more importantly, it’s actually very good. The flavors, the styling, and the breezy, cheery way Roman writes her recipes evokes a 2010s Laurie Colwin—switch out Colwin’s hot plate in her tiny studio apartment for a regular but enviable Brooklyn kitchen with good light and a beat-up gas stove, and the analogy works. The food is photogenic, the styling casually imperfect and messy. Like Colwin, Roman writes recipes that are meant to be approachable, but most importantly, dead easy to make, and seemingly engineered for social media.
The main difference between the two authors is not the message, but the medium. Colwin’s books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are slim homages to the fine art of cooking for one, with recipes interspersed between ruminations on meals both disastrous and successful. There is a jolly air of acceptance around these failures: it’s okay to make mistakes because everybody does. Roman’s authenticity feels more studied—a direct result of Instagram’s way of making even the very mundane seem curated. Colwin embraces her inadequacies as a home cook with the understanding that she will necessarily improve via practice. In Roman’s version of authenticity, decidedly curated for the social age, we are not privy to the process because Instagram is a platform for positive results: an exemplary sunset, a stranger’s awe-inspiring bassett hound, or an imperfectly perfect plate of tomato toast with buttered shrimp. The missteps along the way don’t deserve the documentation. The end result is what matters.
While the rest of the internet would point towards #TheStew as the dish that defines Roman’s palate, I would make an argument for her sheet pan chicken with chickpeas, tumeric, and cumin published last year in the Times and made repeatedly over the course of one winter by me. It is a quintessential Roman recipe—elevated enough to feel just shy of fancy, with ingredients that are easy to find in any grocery store. The flavors that dominate this dish are some of Roman’s signatures: the sharp tang of a barely-pickled red onion, turmeric’s dust and color, the salty tartness of lightly seasoned yogurt. It’s a dish that looks impressive, like cooking any protein on the bone does, and is a very tasty meal that works well in any season. I grumbled briefly when I bought the fennel seeds and added a bit more pizzazz to the yogurt sauce, but I have also made the dish at least four times.
The ease is the allure, but it’s also the lifestyle Roman is selling. She styles all of her food herself, because she is a self-admitted perfectionist. Roman handled the food styling for Nothing Fancy, which is decidedly not a book about entertaining, as she lays out in the introduction. “I have always been allergic to the word ‘entertaining,’ which to me implies there’s a show, something performative at best and inauthentic at worst,” she writes. “For anyone looking for tips on how to fold linen napkins or create floral arrangements, I am not your girl.”
The food is perfectly imperfect, photographed in crisp, blown-out close up shots, interspersed throughout the book with pictures of Roman and her friends living, laughing, and loving. The flatware is mismatched, the plates have chips. In one photo, two jars of salmon roe sit on crushed ice in a battered metal mixing bowl with festooned with red hearts. In situ, the result is enough to inspire jealousy, though that is not her intention. “This is not about living an aspirational life; it’s about living an attainable one,” she writes.
While I understand the sentiment, I respectfully disagree: the lifestyle as portrayed in Nothing Fancy is aspirational to a certain subset of Brooklyn women—clog-wearers and devotees of New York Magazine’s The Strategist, perhaps. In August, Roman tried the Popeye’s chicken sandwich while sitting on the front stoop of a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn; her Instagram story is a wild and rollicking journey through her days and occasionally enviable weekends eating cake and gorgeous seafood at a ramshackle house upstate, drinking wine late at night. Returning to these simpler pleasures in times of great duress is the oldest trick in the book. It is not quite idiosyncratic, but it is nice.
In case you haven’t yet made traveling arrangements for Thanksgiving, now’s your chance to book a train back home (or wherever you go to avoid family during the holidays)—for two days only, Amtrak is having a 50% off sale on travel this November.
For just $33, you can travel one-way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Or for $39, you can venture from New York to Washington D.C. and without the hassle of airports, security lines or delays.
To find sale fares, you’ll just have to book around blackout dates on November 26 and 27; otherwise, you’ll find 50% deals for nationwide travel between November 11-29.
Curious where you can travel? Below are several good deals from the sale: