The popular chef’s simple approach to cooking has
helped get America back in the kitchen.
By Allan Richter
For eight years, Rachael Ray has been cheerfully showing a national television audience how to turn out a Greek burger with feta sauce, a peanut butter-and-jelly cookie and myriad other foods with a twist, in her unique perky style and with an ever-present smile. Her “Rachael Ray” show has garnered eight Daytime Emmy Awards, and despite her years in the national spotlight, the bubbly cooking show host has maintained a strong sense of self and refused to cave in to anyone else’s opinion of what defines her.
“I’m always going to have critics, but they’re not who butters my bread,” Ray told The New York Post in a September interview, as she began her ninth year helming her cooking show. “I’m a female host who works in TV, but I’m not someone who becomes a slave to that whole thing of looking at myself, like should I wear different stuff? I go to the gym six times a week and that’s as good as it gets—I can run to China and I’m never going to be a size 0.”
Such self-assuredness should not be a surprise to anyone who has watched Ray’s ascent in popular culture. Mirroring the Oprah model, Ray is a ubiquitous presence—a bankable brand—with a hand in all forms of media. In addition to hosting her syndicated daytime talk show, Ray is a seemingly omnipresent Food Network television personality, bestselling author of numerous cookbooks, editor of her own lifestyle magazine (Every Day with Rachael Ray), purveyor of her own branded cookware and kitchen accessories (featuring her signature bright-orange handles), and philanthropist and activist.
Besides her cheery personality, Ray’s strength is her creativity—evident in the unique ways she’s packaged her offerings. In a vast sea of cookbooks, for instance, Ray’s titles display a distinctive approach to food preparation.
Ray has celebrated diversity in Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats—A Year of Deliciously Different Dinners (Clarkson Potter), rolled out the red carpet for guests in Rachael Ray's Open House Cookbook: Over 200 Recipes for Easy Entertaining (Lake Isle), and promoted togetherness in Rachael Ray 2, 4, 6, 8: Great Meals for Couples or Crowds (Clarkson Potter).
Fixing it quick is Ray’s mantra, a theme recurring in her many “30-Minute” meals books, and perhaps the one to which she owes her gangbusters career.
When Ray was working as a food buyer at Cowan & Lobel, a large gourmet market in upstate Albany, New York, she sought to increase holiday grocery sales by creating cooking classes, according to her Food Network biography. One of these classes, 30-Minute Mediterranean Meals, soared in popularity and got Ray a weekly 30-Minute Meals segment on the CBS station in Albany-Schenectady, WRGB-TV.
In its first year, Ray’s segment was nominated for two regional Emmys, and a companion cookbook sold 10,000 copies locally during the holiday season.
Ray says she was born into a life of food. “My first vivid memory is watching my mom in a restaurant kitchen,” Ray recalls in her Food Network bio. “She was flipping something with a spatula. I tried to copy her and ended up grilling my right thumb. I was 3 or 4.”
Because everyone on both sides of Ray’s family cooks, her home was a kind of culinary school that exposed her to many cooking styles and cuisines. Her maternal grandfather grew food and cooked for his family of 12, while her father’s family brought to the table the bold and rich cuisine of Louisiana.
It was natural for the Ray family to own several restaurants on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When the family moved to upstate New York, Ray’s mother worked as the food supervisor for a restaurant chain. As Ray says in her bio, “I was surrounded by all different styles of cooking and worked in the food service industry in just about every capacity you can imagine.”
City life called, however, and Ray moved downstate, where she took a job at Macy’s. She worked at the candy counter, and then managed the retail giant’s Fresh Foods department. The two years there sharpened Ray’s knowledge of gourmet foods. From Macy’s, Ray helped open and manage the reputable New York City gourmet marketplace Agata & Valentina. She was also its buyer.
When Ray moved back upstate, she managed pubs and restaurants at the Sagamore Resort on Lake George before landing the Cowan & Lobel job that jump-started her television cooking show host career.
BACK TO THE KITCHEN
Dietitian Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, LDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says too often there is a disconnect between what viewers of cooking shows watch and what they do.
“There are a lot of cooking shows on TV and on YouTube. The bottom line is, from what I hear from my clients is that it’s mostly entertainment with slight inspiration,” Krieger says. “If people are lying
in bed at 9 o’clock at night watching this, they’re not going to run to the kitchen. Most cooking shows will say, ‘go to the website for the recipe.’ That is the biggest step for people to make, and they usually forget.”
Sandra Scheinbaum, PhD, IFMCP, CHC, a Highland Park, Illinois, clinical psychologist who specializes in the psychology of eating, says that Ray may be an exception, and that Ray’s cheerfully accessible approach is her strength.
“People can connect with her,” Scheinbaum says. “They like her and they trust her. Because of that they will tune in or buy the cookbook. She has established a brand for herself and people trust her brand. It’s not just the simplicity of her recipes, but also the simplicity of her language. She is not intimidating. It’s not like going to a French cooking school and learning how to make a hollandaise sauce in a 12-step recipe.”
One reader who responded online to an Esquire magazine feature on the Web, in which food critic
John Mariani didn’t go for Ray’s cheerful energy, said she is a fan of Ray because the television host “represents everyday people.”
And that’s part of Ray’s secret to her success. For all of Ray’s creative approaches in packaging her recipes—30-minute cooking, cooking for couples, entertaining and more—the unifying factor is a decidedly healthful one. By promoting simple cooking methods and connecting with her audience, Ray makes being in the kitchen look easy and, perhaps more important, fun.
Ray’s recipe ingredients may not always be the kind you can associate with healthy dining—consider her BBQ Bacon Burgers and Corn on the Cob with Smoky Cream recipe from her Just in Time! (Clarkson Potter) cookbook—but her simple approaches are getting more Americans into the kitchen. And a considerable body of research has shown that the more people cook for themselves and their loved ones, the more healthful those meals are likely to be.
“We lost our way when we left the kitchen, and eating a meal together with your family, cooking a meal is something that lets you care for yourself and for others,” says Scheinbaum. “When a family sits down and eats a home-cooked meal together, the emotional connection is profound. Statistics show that the more we’ve shifted toward eating out and consumed fast-prepared processed foods, the more we’ve lost a connection as a family.”
In his book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin), food and agriculture writer Michael Pollan makes the case that cooking at home is healthier than eating out, in part because the average home cook tends to use simple, basic ingredients that are not processed. Cooking at home is also economical and can be a lively social event when, for instance, families cook and eat together, reasons Pollan, author of the 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin).
Further, Harvard University research shows that families who eat together daily—on most days at least—consumed more nutrients such as calcium, iron and fiber, along with extra amounts of vitamins such as B6, B12, C and E. The research also shows that these families have less saturated fat intake.
And teenagers whose families eat together regularly are less likely to use alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, according to another study at Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The teens, not surprisingly, also tend to get better grades. Washington State University researchers have found similar results.
FEED & FUND
Ray promotes healthy eating more explicitly as well. Her 2008 cookbook Yum-O! (Clarkson Potter)—“Yum-O!” is a famous Rachael Ray catchphrase—is filled with healthy recipes aimed at encouraging families to think anew about food, steer clear of packaged foods and cook healthful meals using more vegetables and other nutritional ingredients.
Macaroni and cheese, an old family dinner standby, is a good example. Instead of buying boxed macaroni and cheese, Ray recommends the whole-wheat pasta version that she makes. With whole milk and farm-fresh cheese as a substitute for “powdered orange sauce,” it sounds delectable.
Yum-O! includes sections titled “Lunch Boxes that Rock” and “Snack Attackers,” and offers tips on identifying greens, for example, by their nutritional value (iceberg lettuce and Belgian endive are “unleaded,” while baby spinach and watercress are among “premium” greens).
The Yum-O! cookbook is a companion to Ray’s hunger-fighting charity by the same name, with the
tagline “Cook. Feed. Fund.” Its website, Yum-O.org, features a “veggie of the month,” includes a farmers market locator, and is now promoting a campaign to fund 9 million meals for people struggling with hunger.
A lifelong animal advocate, Ray has also launched charitable efforts on behalf of dogs and cats. Last month, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced that more than 68,000 dogs and cats were adopted during the three-month 2014 ASPCA Rachael Ray $100K Challenge, bringing the number of total lives saved to nearly 300,000 in the challenge’s five years. The contest challenges US animal shelters to develop innovative ways to get more homeless cats and dogs adopted (aspca.org/100K).
Ray’s advocacy for animals and support for animal welfare groups—her fans know of her love for her pit bull Isaboo—prompted her to create a pet food called Nutrish, which includes grain-free and other natural formulas, to raise money for animals in need.
Ray’s most recent book, Week in a Day (Atria) features a signature creative theme—cooking with time constraints, with a focus on preparing one week’s worth of food in one day.
A companion to Ray’s “Week in a Day” Food Network show, the book showcases five seasons of recipes featured on the show, among them healthy dishes such as Lentil Stoup (a stew/soup combination) with Mushrooms; Farro with Asparagus, Hazelnuts & Kale; and Quinoa & Vegetable Stuffed Peppers.
In the Week in a Day section titled, “1 Grocery Bag, 3 Meals,” Ray shows readers how to fit all the groceries for three meals into a single bag. In “Foundation Recipes,” Ray’s readers learn how to stretch a single ingredient, such as poached chicken, into a variety of dishes.
Ray’ success is partly owed to the kind of accessibility that she creates between her audience and
“I do a lot of cooking demonstrations, going to companies and showing employees how to cook easy meals, and I never use more than four ingredients,” says psychologist Scheinbaum. “And with Rachael Ray, that’s what people want and get—fast and easy recipes.”