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Appetito Interviews the Incomparable Rachael Ray

Our Editor-in-Chief has a candid conversation with Rachael Ray on her new cooking show and a whole lot more.

Culinary & TV star Rachael Ray.

Culinary & TV star Rachael Ray.

Rachael Ray is among America's most recognized cultural figures of the 21st century. A mainstay on Food Network programs since 2001, including 30 seasons of 30 Minute Meals, and the multiple Emmy award-winning Rachael Ray on syndicated daytime television, the effusive, warmhearted personality from upstate New York has authored 27 cookbooks, launched two successful lifestyle magazines, curated a home decor and cookware collection, and created enduring catchphrases and benevolent philanthropic organizations, among many other accomplishments. Girl even has a dog food line. I caught up with Rachael by phone to learn about her new show, Meals in Minutes (A&E), though we ended up talking about a whole lot more, including cooking in borrowed underwear, winning over Anthony Bourdain, and the magic of Italian culture.

You've only been out of the public eye for a short time, but it seems like much longer. What have you been up to?

Well, my dog died, and then my house burned down, but I went back to work immediately after the fire in borrowed underwear. Not joking. The next day, I was doing a virtual cooking camp series event to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of America and the FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. We had around 10,000 children cooking together, and the producers assumed they needed someone else because of what just happened with my home. So many people offered to fill in for me, including my sweet friend Emeril (Lagasse), who was the first. But I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I'm going to do that. I'm not dead.” We walked across the street to our little guest house, and I did the camp from there. As mentioned, I had to borrow someone’s underwear, but if you’re not dead, you go to work.

Speaking of work, what inspired your new show, Meals in Minutes?

It’s everything I’ve always been inspired by. How do we get people excited about everything: food, having a little adventure, getting lost, rethinking life in some way. These are all the things I care about. And it just took me a really long time to find the right partners for my husband John and I, our friends, with whom we created Free Food Studios. You have to find the right partners in companies. A&E is part of Disney, and it's a huge machine. It takes a really long time to find a good relationship. It’s like finding the right boyfriend or girlfriend or who you are going to marry next or first or forever. It takes a while. But I think we have people who really care about what we're trying to do and how we're trying to say it and the way we're trying to work it. I feel very happy about the new partnership in my life. I also feel very strongly about still being relevant as a woman over 50, having fresh, exciting talents to share with people and work to be done and partners that are excited about it too. That matters so much to me. I wish my grandpa Emmanuel was here because he would say, “You're kicking ass, and I'm proud of you.” I know he would.

Rachael Ray returns to TV with 30 Minute Meals.
Rachael Ray returns to TV with 30 Minute Meals.

How is Meals in Minutes different from 30 Minute Meals?

It isn’t. I just try to make people happy and to make them believe in themselves. All I want people to know is that anybody can do this stuff. All you have to do is believe in you. And anybody can go anywhere in the whole world if they just go make dinner. What an exciting, fun adventure you could have any day. I have never taught anything but what I believe in. Some days, I teach things that take a really long time. And that's lovely too. It's very relaxing. But the most fun for me is teaching meals in minutes because you empower anyone who's looking at it. Whether they're 12 or 82. They say, “Oh, I could do that. I could do that today.” And that's what I love, empowering people to have the feeling: I can do that. I love that because it can take you anyplace you want to go. It can take you anywhere, just like music. You can go anywhere. All you have to do is make dinner.

Why do you think your approach to cooking is adored by so many people?

Oh, I annoy way more people than there are those who like me. There’s an entire platform online dedicated to hating me!

Come on. To have even a few dedicated haters, you need to be adored by the masses, and your success and longevity prove that. So, there is widespread appeal. Can I lead you toward an answer by suggesting that the secret to your success is accessibility?

OK. Fine. I don’t think there’s anything else to life except making it accessible to each other. That's the whole point. We're supposed to move forward by learning to listen and love each other. A man who hated me more than anybody on the planet Earth was Tony Bourdain, and we ended up not friends but friendly. The way I got there is a joke that he made. He was writing about me and about how much he disliked me, but I booked a band that he liked at the music festival we were producing at South by Southwest. And he said, “I don't know whether to kick a puppy or send her a fruit basket, but she has good taste in music.” I asked my boss at the time to send the largest fruit basket in the world to Tony Bourdain with a note “Just trying to save a puppy.” Afterward, Tony wrote an open letter to me and said that he’d never given me any reason to do anything but hate him. But he came home late one night with his very tired daughter in his arms, and there was no food in their house, but there was a basket of fruit with cheese and crackers and snacks. He ended the post with “I guess I give up.” The next time I saw him, he bent way down and gave me a kiss on my cheek. I burst into tears.

With the Anthony Bourdain anecdote as evidence, I’d also add the elements of fun and kindness to your appeal. Can we agree here as well?

Cooking should be fun for everyone. Life should be fun. You shouldn't be a music snob. You shouldn't be a food snob. You shouldn't be a salary snob. You shouldn't be a snob at all. What fun is that in life? I just don't understand. What do you get out of making other people feel bad about themselves? I would never want anyone to feel lesser than me. Period. No one. I don't care if I'm a banker or a lawyer or cook or whatever. You shouldn't get off on making people feel bad about themselves. It's really twisted and sad. It’s from where all the ugliness comes. If you like to do that, okay. That's you. It ain’t me.

The promotional video for Meals in Minutes.

One thing that is different about this show than 30 Minute Meals is that you have a much different set. This is definitely not a Food Network stage. Where is Meals in Minutes filmed?

The little cottage where I did the kids’ cooking camp in borrowed underwear! My husband John (Cusimano) and I had previously purchased the property across the road from the house that burned down. We turned it into a little guesthouse, and that's where we lived for two and a half years after the fire. It was basically one big room and one little room, and that's where we shot the show with the help of our partners and friends in Free Food Studios.

And will you continue to shoot there in future seasons?

Actually, after the 15 episodes of Meals in Minutes we will pivot to a new concept called Living Kitchen. The first season will be Living Kitchen Tuscany, which has already been shot at our home in Sarteano, a village fairly close to the Tuscan city of Montepulciano. After that, we are back at our cottage in the Adirondacks with Living Kitchen Upstate. And after that, we will begin producing shows featuring as of yet fully-discovered food talents whom we are so eager to share with the world.

I’m really excited about the shows that don’t feature me. There are a million Rachael Rays out there. There are thousands of people who deserve your attention. There are thousands of things you could watch every day that will make you feel inspired, loved, heard, seen. That's the point of being here. I want people to be heard, seen and feel that they can accomplish anything. That's the most important part of the content that we feed each other. Whether you're writing it or filming it, the most important thing to do for another human being is to make them feel that they are seen, heard, felt, and that they can do anything you can do. That's the most important thing. 

What do you think makes Italian food and Italian-American food so enduring?

It's not the food. It's the people who are making the food and that you can feel it through their food. An Italian cares if their front doorstep is clean. If they have flowers on the table. They care about the beauty of the entire experience of life. How is someone going to feel when they walk in here for family lunch? I make family lunch every single day at my house, for anyone who's on our property or near our property, visiting, working, doing anything. Every single person is fed, and I care about the way my table looks. I care if my stoop is clean, if my floors are clean, if there's flowers. Life is 360, and you have to have flowers. You have to have cleanliness. You have to have good food and enough food for as many people who may show up. And this is why Italian food is important. It's the mentality and the culture behind it. That's what I believe is important about Italian food. It's the culture behind it. Period.

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