At 40, Rachael Ray sits atop a multi-million dollar empire built by none other than Rachael Ray. It's not that she puts it that way. And it's not that there isn't an army working for her these days. But the day time TV show, the cookbooks, the magazine are all built around one central idea: Rachael Ray.
She is the brand -- a down to earth, upstate New York waitress who can teach anybody how to whip up a no-nonsense meal in a jiffy. She is a hard-working, funny and devoted to what she does. And for all her energy and drive, she is also surprisingly modest, saying emphatically she hasn't "reinvented the wheel."
"I'm not a chef," she said. "I haven't created any new technique in the kitchen. I'm not a rocket scientist. I think I'm good at writing accessible, fun, and affordable meals for the average American family. That's what I think I'm good at."
Ray's culinary empire has been intentionally -- and brilliantly -- molded out of her life as a middle-class gal who loves to cook simple, cheap, fast meals.
Her business, she said, is "built for a recession."
"The magazine, the daytime show, we've always tried to write affordable, accessible [recipes]," she said. "Those are key words for us, and I do mean us, a huge staff of people at the magazine who love to cook affordable, friendly food that helps families eat better for less. So I think this is really a time for all of our team to shine. ... You know, food is such -- it's a hug for people."
There have been a few rough spots along the way for Ray, most recently involving reaction to her endorsement deal with Dunkin' Donuts. She was criticized by star chef Anthony Bourdain, who called Ray's role in commercials for the company "evil" and "like peddling crack to kids."
"I absolutely love Tony Bourdain," Ray responded. "I have an enormous amount of respect for him. It's a free country."
She admitted that the endorsement "wasn't the greatest thing for my PR," but maintained that she respected the company's attempt to make donuts healthier by removing trans fats, and said she doesn't regret her decision.
"They came to me and they said, 'we want to make healthier food for America. You drink a lot of coffee. You grew up on Dunkin' Donuts. Have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts on us.' They gave their support and their money to [Ray's children's charity] Yum-o. They've been very supportive of me. I don't regret a thing. Not for a minute.
"I'm an all-things-in-moderation kind of person," she added. "I do eat a warm donut occasionally. I especially enjoy a cider donut when I'm apple picking. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
Ray took another PR hit when racy photos of her were printed in FHM magazine. Ray's mother was furious, but Ray said she was proud.
"I think I was 35 at the time," she said. "And I thought about it for a while, and I said, 'You know what? This magazine has as young as 17-, 18-year-olds in hottie bikinis, and these are all actresses, models, pin-up girls. I don't belong to any even remote club of theirs.'
"And I thought, 'If I'm gutsy enough to do this, this is a good thing for everybody. This is the everywoman, here she is,' she added. "And I did it, and it was the most scared I've ever been, and I wouldn't change a thing. I'd do it again tomorrow."
Ray has faced plenty of public criticism, especially on the Web.