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.
"Television itself is an intimate medium," she said, explaining why it doesn't hurt her feelings. "It's in your house. You're visiting with these people. ... Not everybody's going to like it, just like not everybody likes everybody on the playground. I mean, that's life -- especially if your job is to just go out there and be yourself.
"If you spend so much time thinking about the people who dislike what it is you're doing, you're doing a disservice to the people that employ you," she said. "I'm not employed by those people. I work for the people that want the type of food I write [about], the type of food we share with people."
But Ray seems completely comfortable with her role in the kitchen -- funny, relaxed and even humble. She maintains that anyone could have done what she's done. Does she really believe that?
"I absolutely 100 percent believe that," she said. "I'm a waitress from upstate New York. Anyone that likes chatting, that likes to cook, certainly. Could have happened to anybody."
A waitress atop an empire. A syndicated daytime talk show, four hit food network shows, 16 bestselling cookbooks, a self-titled monthly magazine, and her own brands of dog food, olive oil, and even a line of pots and pans.
Part of her success is making cooking as easy as possible -- with short-cuts, including using chicken stock from a can and pasta sauce from a jar.
Her daytime talk show is about to tape its 500th episode and there are 190,000 people waiting for tickets, according to officials at the show. Ray says the success of the daytime show still delights her though it is vastly different with its live audience and celebrity guests than her Food Channel show, "Thirty Minute Meals with Rachael Ray."
"There's certainly a noticeable difference between talking to your vegetables for seven or eight years alone with your friends on cable and sitting down on a sofa or at a kitchen table talking with all these people," she said. "That was a huge transition. It certainly felt like a rocket ship ride to me."
The rocket was launched in upstate New York. Ray worked in a food specialty store and thought maybe the reason people weren't buying the groceries is they didn't know how to cook with them. She couldn't persuade local chefs to come in and do food demonstrations, so she herself started little in-store classes. The classes were such a success they led to appearances on the "Today" show, and then on the Food Network. Oprah Winfrey saw something special in her, and voila -- a new daytime star was born.
Ray reportedly earns upwards of $18 million dollars a year now from her various ventures. When asked about her income she said she has "no idea" how much money she earns annually, but admitted "it makes me a little sick. It makes my stomach flip. I'm not comfortable with it ... because I don't like to think of my life as that far away from me. People that make that kind of money -- it's just too foreign of an idea."
She can recall a time when her hands trembled at the grocery store register, "because I didn't know if I had enough money for the groceries. And it was like $60, and I thought I'm going to have to be that lady that chooses between the toilet paper and the chicken breasts."
When she's not taping, Ray wears pajamas and sweats, and shops at Target and TJ Maxx. She said she's beer in the bottle, not champagne in a flute. And that's just the way she intends to stay.
"When I do a 30-minute meal, for instance, on Food Network, that's my food you see at the end of the show and it's not perfect. And if sometimes things break or drop or the pasta hits the wall when I'm draining it, they never stop tape. They just kind of let me go with it. And I get stains on my shirt -- oh well -- we keep shooting. It's not too perfect. "