Rachael Ray Expands Her Reach
Perky celebrity chef dominates middlebrow culinary scene
By Michael Hill
Rachael Ray makes lousy coffee.
She doesn't bake too well either. It's all the measuring. It clashes with her beat-the-clock cooking style. "I can never remember if it's one heaping, or two little or two big, or whatever," she says.
As Food Network viewers know, Rachael Ray is all about speed — a dash of salt and a splash of E.V.O.O. (extra-virgin olive oil in Rachaelspeak) heaped with liberal dollops of personal anecdotes that have made her one of the most ubiquitous cooks in America.
****Even a simple lunch in her Adirondack cabin is served with a hubbub. As her husband, mother and pit bull, Isaboo, sidle by in the surprisingly cramped kitchen, she nukes meat loaf with barbecue sauce in the microwave while nibbling on green beans. All the while, she stands and talks over plans to drive to Montreal for a photo shoot, stopping only a second to savor a forkful of her handiwork.
"Mmmm. That's good!"
At 37, Ray pretty much dominates the middlebrow culinary space between Wolfgang Puck and Chef Boyardee. Her quick-and-easy meals are perfect for guys trying to impress their dates and for working moms. Now she's preparing — surprise! — to speed things up. With a million-plus best seller, "Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats," her cooking shows and her new Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine, she is planning to edge out beyond the realm of Emeril and into Oprah territory with her own daytime talk show.
"You'll get to see the audience," she says of her new show, "not just me talking to my vegetables."
Ray's signature achievement remains "30 Minute Meals," the Food Network show in which she zips around a studio kitchen set chopping Swiss chard and frying flank steaks while taking timesaving shortcuts. Why soak black beans when you can save hours by buying them in a can?
That unpretentious style differentiates her from chefs that dazzle. Mario Batali makes goat cheese truffles; Ray makes turkey burgers.
Anthony Bourdain checks out toasted ant eggs in Mexico; Ray polkas in Minnesota.
Her approachable style and toothy smile seem to wear well. Market Evaluations, Inc., which developed the "Q score" that company's consult to measure popularity, rated Ray No. 1 in likability in a field of 22 recognized chefs.
Plus, her food is doable. Her cut carrots lack uniformity and her creations are occasionally burnt or crumbly.
"If you spent one day in a cooking school, you would most definitely see that I do not chop an onion correctly," she says, "but I get my jobs done fast. I'm not a chef. I don't cook like a chef."
Ray learned her craft growing up with parents in the restaurant business in Massachusetts and New York. As a young adult, she oversaw the candy counter gourmet grocery section at Macy's Marketplace in New York City and managed a gourmet shop before heading upstate about a dozen years ago.
A turning point came when Ray was a buyer for a gourmet market in Albany. When the store's chef was fired, she picked up the slack. She began whipping up 30-minute meals on the market floor to sell more groceries (doing it herself because local chefs wanted too much money). That led to cooking 30-minute meals on the local news, which eventually led to her Food Network gig.
Through it all, she kept her cozy cabin in the Adirondack pines, though she and her husband, John, now have a Manhattan apartment. She still considers the cabin her home, and it's where she took time to talk about her career over cups of black coffee (made by her mom).
Right now, Ray's mini-culinary empire includes "30 Minute Meals" and three other shows on the Food Network, 11 cookbooks, and the magazine launched last fall. Her cookbooks typically crack the top 10 on best-seller lists, with "365: No Repeats" the latest to hit No. 1 in its category on The New York Times list of best sellers.
"People feel that she understands the reality of their lives," said Pam Krauss, executive editor of Clarkson Potter, Ray's publisher. "She understands that people are tired after work and they really don't have a lot of time to cook and they can't go to four specialty stores in search of esoteric ingredients. She shops at the supermarket, just like they do."
Ray is compared a lot to Martha Stewart. Though they have very different images — the perfectionist blond who gives tips on trimming pillowcases versus the boppy burger maker who once appeared in a lad mag photo spread cooking in a bra — Ray is often called the "anti-Martha." It's usually a compliment.
Not everyone is won over, though. Ray has attracted a cadre of vehement critics who complain she is slapdash, ignorant of culinary basics and says goofy things like "Yum-O." Grousers on Web forums pillory her for cooking escarole in bacon fat, for her clothes and everything in between. Says one Web poster: "Somebody gag her with a bottle of E.V.O.O., already."
Ray shrugs at the personal criticisms.
"I have no argument with them because they're correct," she says. "I'm very loud. I have a sharp voice. I do laugh and giggle too much — for some people's taste. What am I going to do? Stop being me? Call them up and have an argument about how I can to try to win them over? It's ridiculous."
Still, that sort of backlash does not seem to be affecting her career arc. Debuting this fall will be her syndicated talk show, which will distributed by King World Productions in partnership with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions.
The format is not totally set, but Ray insists it will not be a couch-centric chat show. And there will be no crying. She says she's more interested in giving audiences everyday tips on things they can relate to, like dating and shopping.
"If we do have a rocket scientist on, I would rather we talk about the force that removes socks from the dryer rather than talk to me about rocket science," she says.
If she has any nervousness about moving out of the kitchen and into broader lifestyle entertainment, she's not showing it. She jokes that she's been "grossly unqualified" for every job she ever had.
"When people are sick of me they'll let me know and I'll go away," she says, "and that's that."
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