Rachael Ray in The New York Times - October 19, 2005
Being Rachael Ray: How Cool Is That?
LAKE LUZERNE, N.Y.
At the stove in her little cabin in the Adirondacks, about a dozen miles from where she graduated from high school in 1986, Rachael Ray spent a night last week making pasta with sweet Italian sausage and canned pumpkin.
With her mind more on conversation than cooking, Ms. Ray cut a nice gash in her thumb. She bandaged it up, laughed it off and kept chopping.
Even with her wound, wine breaks and the start of a dozen stories she would never quite finish, the dish took half an hour.
Her mother, Elsa Scuderi, who is 71 and lives in the cabin, walked in from the garden when dinner was almost ready.
"Did you burn something?" Ms. Scuderi asked.
"No, mamacello, I didn't burn anything," Ms. Ray replied. She flashed the wide grin that critics of her performances on the Food Network compare to that of Batman's nemesis, the Joker.
Though the nation's food elite might cringe, Ms. Ray, 37, is one of the most influential people cooking today. Let the big-name chefs fuss with foams and sous vide. She'll stick with hot dog nachos and "jambalika," a dish that is kind of like jambalaya. With more than 4 million books in print and four shows on the Food Network, Ms. Ray has shown America the way back to the kitchen.
As she likes to say, "How cool is that?"
Most of the thousands of recipes Ms. Ray has "canoodled" over the years were written in her cabin. She rented it 13 years ago and has lived there off and on with her mother and, sometimes, her younger brother, since. Some months she could barely put together enough money to cover the $550 rent.
"It was check-to-check living," Ms. Ray said.
She had grown up around Lake George, but the cycle of small-town life and low-paying jobs was wearing thin. In 1995, Ms. Ray headed to New York City. She worked first at the Macy's Marketplace candy counter and moved up the ranks quickly, learning about everything from buying cheese to how to shop for Liza Minnelli's holiday food gifts. When Macy's tried to promote her to a buyer in accessories, she moved to Agata & Valentina, the specialty foods store.
She stayed in the city for only two years. After a bad break-up, a broken ankle and a violent mugging in front of her Queens apartment that left her scraped and shaken, she headed home.
Ms. Ray moved back into the cabin and eventually landed a job at the fanciest food and equipment store in Albany. She was a buyer and a cook, preparing hundreds of pounds of food every day. As a holiday promotion, she developed a class to help people get dinner on the table in half an hour.
It caught on, so Ms. Ray started teaching the concept at a chain of local grocery stores and on a Schenectady television station. Anywhere they would let her, really. By 1998, she figured she could sell a companion cookbook, so she talked an independent Manhattan publisher into turning her pile of photocopied recipes into a book.
Then her moment arrived.
In 2001 a Food Network executive heard Ms. Ray cook on an upstate public radio show. The same week, a "Today" show producer saw her book and called.
Ms. Ray and her mom drove nine hours south in a snowstorm, and she nailed the "Today" show appearance. The next day, she said, the Food Network signed her to a $360,000 contract to teach America what she had been teaching the folks upstate.
The first thing she did was to reupholster the old family furniture in the cabin. Then she bought the place.
In the four years since, with not much more than her outsize personality and tenacity, Ms. Ray has built an empire. She has nearly 4.5 million books in print, a $6 million book contract with the Random House imprint Clarkson Potter, and four shows in regular rotation on the Food Network. In addition to "30 Minute Meals," she cooks with celebrities on "Inside Dish" and offers inexpensive food travel tips on "$40 a Day." Its companion, "Tasty Travels," went on the air in August. In the network's 12-year history, only "Iron Chef America" had a debut with higher ratings.
This week, her food and lifestyle magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, will go on sale. Already, more than 800,000 copies have been ordered for stores and newsstands. Next week, she will introduce her 11th book, "365: No Repeats," which takes the 30-minute concept and offers a different dish for each day of the year. "That was the stupidest idea I ever had," Ms. Ray said. "That many recipes nearly killed me."
She also has a line of knives, pans and appliances. Within a couple of weeks, she will start selling her own extra virgin olive oil, which, to the chagrin of her critics and the delight of her fans, she calls E.V.O.O. on her shows.
And next fall she is scheduled to start her most ambitious project to date, an afternoon talk show, which King World Productions will distribute in partnership with Oprah Winfrey's production company, Harpo.
"You've got a great personality," Ms. Winfrey said when Ms. Ray appeared on her show earlier this year. "That's why you're such a hit. People like you."
Well, not everybody. Ms. Ray is regularly mocked by chefs and food bloggers, including one who started a crudely named Web site, at livejournal.com/community, created "for people that hate the untalented twit known as Rachael Ray."
Her cutesy-pie catchphrases - sammies for sandwiches, stoups for soups that are as thick as stew - are so grating on certain people that they inspired a drinking game in which players take a sip when she uses one. If she creates a new and completely unnecessary abbreviation, they have to swallow the whole drink.
"This is awesome," she said as she looked over the list for the first time last week. "But man, people are going to get hammered."
Her recipes are easy to mock. A paella burger, created as her homage to the Spanish dish, is built with a ground-chicken patty, grilled linguiça and butterflied shrimp stacked with shredded lettuce on a big Portuguese roll. On her show, Ms. Ray tried to lift the greasy behemoth to her mouth and declared: "Look at that. It's the size of my head!"
Her shows are brilliant in their lack of set design and in her wide-open, flub-filled delivery. She clanks pots around on the stove, drops things as she carries an impossible pile of food from the refrigerator and giggles mistakes away.
A favorite slam is that her meals take more than 30 minutes, which, especially for people with little kitchen acumen, they often do. They say she is untrained and relies on too many shortcuts, like shredded cheese and frozen French fries.
To which Ms. Ray says, they're right.
"I have no formal anything," she said. "I'm completely unqualified for any job I've ever had."
But Ms. Ray's mission, and the thing that has driven her to become the most popular person cooking on television, is that she simply wants people who are tired and don't have much money to cook instead of spending their paychecks and time on bad takeout or microwavable dinners.
"I never said I was the greatest thing ever," Ms. Ray said. "I just think people should be able to cook even if they don't have a bunch of time or money."
And she's getting a little tired of people making fun of her food. She may not cook like her friend Mario Batali, but, she says, "He doesn't duck his head when he comes over to eat my food."
In a way, Ms. Ray's success is like that of a surfer floating in the right spot just as the wave of a lifetime comes by.
The American food revolution of the 1980's, with its proliferation of celebrity chefs, designer kitchens and expensive artisanal ingredients, had moved into the middle class by the late 1990's. At the same time, supermarkets were offering more items like bagged salad and rotisserie chicken that made it easier to assemble dinner quickly.
Mix in a post-9/11 return to comfort foods and the increasing appeal of raw, uncensored reality TV, and the stage was set for Ms. Ray to make the most of her biggest gift: a best-friend off-screen personality that translates naturally to television.
Her sexy but nonthreatening style appealed to Food Network executives who were shifting away from celebrity chefs to home cooks. But Ms. Ray really found her niche with the lost generation of the kitchen - people hungry to cook who grew up in homes where very little cooking happened.
"Of course it never takes you 30 minutes, but I like the idea of it," said Aimee Baker, 40, a television producer in Brooklyn. Ms. Baker grew up eating at restaurants and ordering takeout.
She discovered Rachael Ray through her teenage niece.
"She's so not stressful at all," Ms. Baker said. "I love those other TV chefs, but I would never make what Mario Batali makes. I don't have veal cheeks."
Ms. Ray prepared for her moment by doing what she has always done. She hustled.
"She's a machine," said Doralece Dullaghan, the director of promotions for Sur La Table, which sells Ms. Ray's line of orange-handled knives, her books and her oval sauté pan. "I think she's one of those for-the-moment people who never stops working."
Ms. Dullaghan has watched Ms. Ray outsell Mr. Batali by nearly two to one at book signings, where she might draw 1,200 people to Mr. Batali's 700. People stay calm around Mr. Batali. They cheer Ms. Ray, crowding in to tell her about their families, their vacations and dishes they've made. One signing last year in New Jersey got so out of hand that Ms.
Ray had to be rushed away by a police escort.
It is hard to catch Ms. Ray not working. She flew her new husband, John Cusimano, to Austin, Tex., in September to watch his favorite band, the Foo Fighters, as a birthday surprise. She spent the afternoon, slightly hung over on margaritas, in her hotel room finishing her third book for Clarkson Potter. On her birthday in August, so sick she could barely talk without coughing, she was at her computer writing recipes.
To understand how Rachael Domenica Ray, a small-town cheerleader, became the cooking rock star Rachael Ray, it helps to meet her mother.
Now that Ms. Ray is worth several million dollars, she has a cozy, multilevel apartment on a side street in Greenwich Village. But she heads to the cabin to be with her mom whenever she can string together a few days.
Ms. Scuderi was born in the area, the daughter of Emmanuel Scuderi, the man Ms. Ray says she most admires. He was an Italian immigrant and a stonecutter, and he instilled in his daughter and granddaughter both a love of food and a taste for hard work.
Ms. Ray's parents were divorced when she was 13. Her mother helped manage a string of upstate restaurants, and Ms. Ray was forever filling in for absent dishwashers and waitresses. Although she still sees her father, who lives nearby in Saratoga Springs and to whom she gives credit for her great storytelling chops, it is her mother with whom she most identifies.
"If anything," Ms. Ray says of her success, "I'm a poor knockoff of her."
Her mother answers her daughter's fan mail, which can range from children's drawings to marriage proposals to letters from recently widowed senior citizens.
"She's big with the guys, let me tell you," her mother said.
Her mom also baby-sits for her beloved pit bull, Isaboo, and keeps track of Ms. Ray's charitable work, including an annual fund-raiser at her former high school.
In her spare time, her mother has turned the tree-dotted land surrounding the cabin into an elaborate Tuscan garden. Paved stone paths wind around fire pits, benches and a boccie court.
"This is what happens once a person retires and they've worked all their life and you leave them alone in the woods," Ms. Scuderi said.
She, along with her best friend and Ms. Ray's fiancé, made all the plans for Ms. Ray's September wedding in Tuscany. Ms. Ray paid for about 100 friends to fly there.
The bridegroom, Mr. Cusimano, is a lawyer who worked for an independent film distribution company and plays guitar and sings in the Cringe, a band he started in college. He now serves as the lawyer for Ms. Ray's empire.
Her mother adores her daughter's new husband, but she's not as happy with some of the other decisions Ms. Ray has made. She still criticizes a photo spread Ms. Ray did two years ago for the men's magazine FHM. The shots feature Ms. Ray in short-shorts with an exposed midriff, licking chocolate off a big wooden spoon, eating a strawberry and sitting in a sink, laughing as suds cascade down her thighs.
For her mother, who pinned McGovern buttons to her children's clothes, it's a feminist issue. None of the men in the magazine were scantily clad. For Ms. Ray, who did it at the request of the Food Network and got no money for it, it was a fun shoot. She thinks it is cool that college men bring copies of the magazine to book signings.
"I thought, I'm a cook, I'm over 35 and these young guys love it," she said. "When I'm 80 I'm going to look back and be like, "I represented!' "
"I don't think your base will understand," her mother said.
But as her friends will tell you, Ms. Ray has always looked for opportunities. As a teenager, she wrote a letter to John Peterman because she loved the J. Peterman catalog. The title: "Little Girl, Big Ideas." A couple of years later, she wrote to Harry Connick Sr., then the New Orleans district attorney, proposing he send his son north to a jazz supper club she wanted to open in Saratoga Springs. The two became pen pals.
Her first business was a gift basket service called "Delicious Liaisons." Still in high school, she would spend her evenings in her room, putting together baskets of pasta and cocoa mix and hand-lettering her catalog.
In 1998, Ms. Ray published her first book, "30 Minute Meals," with Lake Isle Press in Manhattan, a one-woman independent book publisher run by Hiroko Kiiffner. They eventually produced nine titles together, with Ms. Kiiffner acting as her de facto agent and publicist. Altogether, they have sold almost 3.2 million books.
The books helped lead to Ms. Ray's "Today" show appearance and the Food Network deal.
Those programs caught the attention of Jon Rosen, of the
William Morris Agency, who signed up Ms. Ray. He urged her to jump to Clarkson Potter, a much bigger house that wanted to not only sign Ms. Ray but also to buy the titles she had done with Lake Isle Press.
Ms. Ray struck a compromise with Ms. Kiiffner. She would leave Ms. Kiiffner, but would let her keep control of the nine titles they did together. The two women split the profits.
"When it's your baby and you've sort of nurtured it from the beginning, of course it's painful," Ms. Kiiffner said. "We both acknowledged that our friendship and personal relationship were more important."
Still, Ms. Ray keeps herself surrounded by people who feel to her like family. Her makeup person has become one of her closest pals. Her public relations person, Rebecca Brooks, is married to an old college friend of her agent. Her experience has largely been in the hair and makeup industry.
But sentiment goes only so far. This summer, when she was assembling the first edition of her magazine for the Reader's Digest Association, Ms. Ray said, she and the original editor, Kitty Morgan, disagreed on too many things. So Ms. Morgan, who agrees with Ms. Ray's assessment and has moved on to Latina magazine, was replaced by the food editor, Silvana Nardone, whom Ms. Ray says she adores.
"She's opportunistic, but not in a planned way," said Ms. Dullaghan of Sur La Table. "I don't think she'll sell her soul to the devil, but I think she sees opportunity and goes for it."
Lucy Sisman, the magazine's original design director, who got caught up in the churn at the top but left on good terms, said she admires Ms. Ray. But Ms. Sisman and some media executives question whether Ms. Ray's freewheeling approach and near disregard for brand building can sustain a magazine and a national talk show.
"The only thing that seemed worrisome is that Rachael wanted a magazine of basically everything she thought was great," Ms. Sisman said.
That means a section on cooking for dogs, a spread on her wedding and a peek inside Whoopi Goldberg's refrigerator. For her new talk show, Ms. Ray hopes to incorporate a little game she and her girlfriends invented during her bachelorette party in Nova Scotia. It's called interpretive dance charades.
The bigger issue may be whether Ms. Ray can keep up with the life she has created. She still maps out her own schedule in freehand in a small notebook. She still finds it hard to say no, and doesn't quite seem to understand how big she has become.
"This thing took on a life of its own," she said. "It's my job to keep working because now there is this thing that people depend on."
To make it work, she intends to keep doing what she has always done: show up, work hard and listen to her mother.
"My life came out way better without me planning it," she said