When it was time to celebrate her 50th birthday last year, Rachael Ray decided to skip a blowout party. Instead, she decided to work more by writing her 26th book. In “Rachael Ray 50: Memories and Meals From a Sweet and Savory Life,” Ray looks back over her first five decades with essays and recipes focused on themes that are important to her: family, friends, and work.
During a break between tapings for the 14th season of her daily talk and cooking show, “The Rachael Ray Show,” Ray squeezed in time to talk more — about her work ethic, how she may be the female Harry Potter, and how a double mugging in New York led her to move back to the Adirondacks and eventually begin her extraordinary career. So far that career includes 29 seasons of "30 Minute Meals” on Food Network, an Emmy Award, Rachael Ray Every Day magazine, cookbooks, and product lines ranging from cookware to pet food to furniture. As for the party, her friends surprised her with one a few months after her birthday.
Q. Why did you want to celebrate your 50th with recipes and stories?
A. Birthdays have always made me a little uncomfortable because I’m much more comfortable on the other side of a party. I think that [my family] are people that are just more comfortable being of service to each other than we are being noticed or the center of any kind of attention or a spotlight. It’s ironic because I make TV shows, but nothing makes me more uncomfortable than moments where you’re put onto a carpet or people are giving you too much attention.
Q. You’ve talked a lot about your life and your family on TV. How was it to write about it?
A. Weird, weird, and weird.
Q. How so?
A. I like to look forward in life. I don’t like to look back, but I thought if I looked back in the same way I looked forward, and tried to look at things that might be uncomfortable but relatable, or of some purpose, or that would make people laugh, that there was some good in that.
Q. You spent the early part of your life on Cape Cod. Do you remember living there?
A. My mom had a restaurant called The Carvery. Literally my first memory in life was my mom on the phone fighting with a meat purveyor. And I was on her hip, as I always was. I was maybe 3. She’s talking on the wall phone. She gets us all tangled up, because she’s walking in circles pacing. So she has to unravel. My mother used to make French onion soup and tomato soup all the time. So she puts me down and I see this batch over there. I kind of toddler wobble over to the griddle, and I’m reaching up to try and get the spatula, and I griddled my thumb to the flat top. And that’s literally my first memory in life. So I’m sort of like a girl Harry Potter, like I was branded.
Q. What was it like growing up in the restaurant world?
A. The idea that my mom ended up running a huge group of restaurants and worked successfully in restaurants for 60 years or so is remarkable. She was a forerunner in so many ways. We were always at work with my mom. I would be cleaning the shrimp, or helping clean out the walk-in, basically, unpaid child labor. She would “let me” do different tasks. I can remember thinking, “Oh, my mom is badass,” because all of these big, tall men that worked for her. My mother’s only 4-foot-10.
Q. How did working with her influence your career?
A. There were so many skills I learned from her that were useful in life. You really learn the work ethic of the generation that came before you. Work is an absolute privilege, and those that succeed in this country will continue to succeed, they are the workers and they are humble.
Q. You are very clear in describing yourself as a cook rather than a chef. Why is that distinction important to you?
A. Because people that are chefs go through a process to become one, and I did not. I think that you should drive in your lane, and I like the word “cook." I think of myself even more as a waitress than a cook. I want to serve people; that makes me happy. I want people to feel good about themselves, to be more adventurous, to try new things, new flavors, to talk to each other more.
Q. You write about life being like a Jenga pile. In your life is there something that could have shifted and changed everything?
A. Absolutely, being mugged. So I had a great job, I was running Agata & Valentina (an Italian specialty food shop in New York City). I was a buyer. I had what I thought was going to be the pinnacle job of my life, was going to keep for decades. I was mugged. I maced the guy, and then he came back and I had an altercation with him. I thought, OK, I’ve been mugged twice within the same week. I think I have to leave New York. And I ran home to mama in my early 20s. Had I not moved back upstate to the Adirondacks, I never would have been on Food Network, or had a TV show, or any of that stuff. I learned you have to work harder than anybody else and be grateful for it, and you have to understand that sometimes the universe is showing you something, even when something terrible happens.
Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com.