One of the secret ingredients to the phenomenal success of TV chef Rachael Ray is the little dash of imperfection she adds to most everything she cooks.
Unlike other famous domestic divas, such as Martha Stewart, who present an untouchable and often unrealistic image of flawless kitchen perfection, Ray, 37, offers recipes and tips to everyday cooks, many of whom are rushing home to prepare no-frill meals for spouses and hungry children.
If her popularity is any indication, Ray’s quick recipes, wide-mouthed smile and contagious laughter and enthusiasm have struck a chord with America’s everyday cooks. She hosts four shows on the Food Network—including 30 Minute Meals and $40 a Day—and has written 10 cookbooks, five of which were simultaneously on last year’s The New York Times’ bestseller list.
Although talk-show host Oprah Winfrey calls her a "super chef," Ray has no formal training as a chef. Instead, she learned to cook in a restaurant by watching and doing. Her recipes use ingredients found in the typical grocery store, and she steers clear of dishes requiring special foods or equipment.
"I’m happy that way," she says of her training. "That’s why I don’t wear a chef’s coat; I don’t even wear an apron. At home, I wipe my hands on my coat, I burn my fingers, and it doesn’t look perfect. But it is my food. It’s the real deal.
"I cut my finger on the very first day on the Food Network. I wasn’t even chopping. I was telling a story, and I was all excited and moving my hands back and forth. I’ve set my hair on fire, just like Michael Jackson.
"I don’t want anything to separate me from the viewers. I open the cans, I chop the onions myself, and I wear street clothes. I don’t want people to look at what I do and think that they can’t do that too. It’s extremely important."
Ray’s cooking philosophy is simple: Enjoy it.
"I was raised in a household that taught us that everybody has the right to have a lot of fun," she says.
Raised in the kitchen
Ray’s family was in the food business, so her earliest memories are of a restaurant kitchen, watching her mother flip food with a spatula. "I learned everything about cooking basically at home and in restaurants," says Ray, who was born in Glens Falls, N.Y., and raised in Cape Cod, Mass. "A lot of people ask me where I learned how to cook. My mother never showed me how to peel a potato. There was never, ‘Try this, you’ll like it.’ There was just dinner: ‘Here’s what you’re eating.’ You didn’t have to ask how to make it if you were in the kitchen, and everybody lived in the kitchen."
Her maternal grandfather, the family’s main cook, grew and prepared everything for his family of 12, while her father’s side of the family was skilled in Louisiana cooking. The Ray family owned four restaurants in Cape Cod. When Ray was 8 years old, the family relocated to upstate New York, where her mother served as a food supervisor for a chain of restaurants.
"My cooking comes from my grandfather and my mom," she says. "They were both amazing cooks. My mother so blows me away. I don’t know if she could do everything in 30 minutes or not, but she is definitely great, and she knows every dish. There is nothing she can’t make.
"My dad is a great Southern cook, but it takes him, like, six hours to grocery shop. He is fussy to the point that it’s ridiculous. My brother, who teaches martial arts, is a master of patience, and I’m not. My sister is great at baking, and I just stink at baking. It’s like the only thing that has ever made me cry besides pain or hardship."
Launching a food career
In 1995, Ray began her food career at the candy counter at Macy’s Marketplace in New York City, where she soon was promoted to manager of the fresh foods department. She left Macy’s after two years to become store manager and buyer for Agata & Valentine, an upscale New York gourmet store.
Tiring of big-city life, she moved to Lake George, N.Y. (pop. 3,578), in 1997 and managed pubs and restaurants at the Sagamore Resort. She was then hired to serve as food buyer by Albany, N.Y.-based Cowan & Lobel, where she soon took on the additional responsibilities of chef. As she began selling more of her prepared dishes, the store’s grocery sales began suffering.
"So I went around and asked all of my customers, ‘Why do you not cook?’ Why are you not buying the groceries?’" she says. "And everybody said the same thing: ‘I have no time, and it’s easier to cook the prepared meals.’"
In an effort to boost grocery sales, in 1998 she created stocking-stuffer coupons for a series of classes called "30-minute Meals." Ray focused on the "30-minute" concept because she believed that since people are willing to wait 30 minutes for a pizza delivery, they would be more open to recipes that don’t take longer than half an hour to prepare.
Although coupon sales were successful, local chefs she approached wanted too much money to teach the classes. "I went into my boss and said, ‘I think I’ve made a big boo-boo here. I sold all of these classes, and I can’t get a chef to do it," she says. "My boss told me, ‘You’re a good cook, and you know how to make pretty much anything in 30 minutes.’ I didn’t think I could teach a class; I’m not a real chef.
"But we started the class and I made a packet of 30 30-minute Mediterranean meals because the bestsellers every day were the pasta and chicken dishes. The class was three hours, and I would teach six basic recipes and five versions of what to do with each dish, so in that three hours you could really learn 30 30-minute meals. I taught the same things that I teach on my show, and that’s how it started."
Her class was written about in a local newspaper, and the next week, executives at WRGB-TV in Albany/Schenectady, N.Y., offered her a weekly cooking segment on the evening news. Her segments won two local Emmys—a companion cookbook sold 10,000 copies locally—and led to a 2001 appearance on NBC’s Today show. The president of the Food Network saw her on NBC and was so impressed that he offered her a show. 30 Minute Meals debuted in 2001, and her second show, $40 a Day, was launched in 2002. The celebrity-based show Inside Dish began in 2004, and Tasty Travels was unveiled in August.
Her most recent book, 30-Minute Get Real Meals, was a No. 1 smash, and she’s scheduled to unveil her most ambitious book yet, 365: No Repeats, on Nov. 1. In addition, she’s working on a new lifestyles magazine, Every Day with Rachael Ray.
Ray still lives in a cabin in the Adirondacks in Lake George but maintains an apartment in New York where she stays while taping her shows. "My rule is that whenever I have off 36 hours or more, I go to my home upstate," she says. "I like being home. I like a cozy life. The sky is darker, the stars are brighter, and things make more sense to me when I’m in the middle of the woods. You can play your music as loud as you want and nobody bugs you."
She planned a few days off recently to travel to Italy to marry John Cusimano, 38, an entertainment lawyer, film distributor and rock musician, and then honeymoon in Africa. When she returns, she’ll resume her life of hosting shows by day and writing new recipes at night.
"The recipes I write are not always for my own taste," she says. "Not everybody is interested in what I’m interested in. You have to have a small ego to write effective, everyday recipes. You can have a big ego and be a great chef, but that’s not my job. It’s my job to teach people and appeal to all different lifestyles, age groups and backgrounds."
Ray does not just cook for humans. Read our article on her new line of dog food.