Rachael Ray's Sizzling Success Story


Sept. 19, 2006 — -- She calls herself a "hick from the sticks," but at 38, Rachael Ray is fast becoming an industry.

She's the star of "30 Minute Meals" and three other popular shows on the Food Network.

Ray is also the author of 16 cookbooks for the time-starved; editor of a monthly magazine; and creator of a line of knives, cookware, furniture, and even her own brand of olive oil.

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As if that wasn't enough, she launched a daily talk show this week where she ventures beyond the stove to offer a smorgasbord of tips, celebrity visits and adventures.

The show is backed by Oprah Winfrey -- who saw something in Ray the first time the perky cook appeared on her show:

It's easy to understand.

Click Here to Check Out Rachael Ray's Site

"20/20" caught up with Ray last week, after she had already been working for 12 hours, and she was still going strong.

Sitting in the show's studio, where the audience rotates like a Lazy Susan on sets resembling different parts of the home, Ray says she's most excited about having an audience for the first time.

"I've been alone talking to myself on camera for five years."

Ray says the only rule on her new show, "Rachael Ray," airing on ABC nationwide, is "no crying allowed."

Not since Dr. Phil, has Winfrey supported a show like this.

"From the day I met her, her advice has been exactly the same. Be yourself," Ray said.

Beyond her new show, Ray is busy with books, the Food Network, a magazine and cookware. She says it's not too much to handle.

"This is a lovely life where you're afforded the opportunity to chat and cook -- two things that I would do to relax," Ray said.

"Who cares when you get home? I'm lucky enough to do the stuff that I would normally be doing to relax from a real job."

Ray says what most people consider relaxation is actually stressful for her.

"Relaxing freaks me out. All that massage and a Zen moon doggie, listen to the chimes and the ocean, let some lady rub you," she said. "It just freaks me out. I'm not good with the calm ... I'm high-strung ... I've been in a knot since birth. I want to stay that way."

Ray grew up in a sleepy town in upstate New York, in the heart of the beautiful Adirondack Mountains.

She still returns almost every other week to spend time with her mom, Elsa Scuderi, who like Ray never seems to slow down.

Ray's mom managed a string of local restaurants, but still found time to cook for her family. Little did she know she was training the next big thing in the food world.

Ray's mom gives a little insight into her daughter: "From the time she's been very small, she has always been ahead of herself."

Click Here to Check Out Rachael Ray's Site

Her parents divorced when she was 13. Rather than hire a baby sitter, her mom often brought Ray and her older sister and younger brother to work with her.

"I'm a pale comparison next to her," Ray said. "My mother worked 100 hours a week, and wouldn't bat an eyelash. All my life she was iconic to me, she was my first Oprah. … She was like the person I looked at, and I said, 'Wow.'"

Ray says she learned everything from her mom.

"I think that cooking was just a byproduct of the way we lived, and life happened around the food," she said. "We were always in the kitchen and talking and sharing, and it was just where you had a good time."

Ray started her food career in 1995, working at the candy counter at Macy's.

She quickly rose to become the manager of the entire fresh foods department. But after a few years, she moved back to her beloved Adirondacks.

She says a few things scared her off from the big city, namely, a couple muggings, crime, and not being able to afford anything.

So Ray traded in her tiny roach-infested apartment in Queens, N.Y., for a remote cabin surrounded by woods.

She managed pubs and restaurants at the famed Sagamore Resort until a job opened up as a food buyer at the only gourmet store in the area.

To help sell more groceries, Ray started a class called "30 Minutes Meals" for her customers who told her they were stretched for time.

It became so popular that a local TV station offered her a weekly spot, and she decided to put some of her recipes into a cookbook.

In the winter of 2001, the networks came calling.

At some point, her book got into the hands of NBC's Al Roker.

Soon, Ray found herself next to Roker on "The Today Show," demonstrating chicken and dumpling soup.

"It was a fairy tale," Ray said.

Click Here to Check Out Rachael Ray's Site

Executives at the Food Network took notice, and Ray became the first nonchef asked to host a program.

"30 Minute Meals" launched in 2002, and its popularity led to three more shows on the network: "$40 a Day," "Tasty Travels" and "Inside Dish."

Her lack of formal culinary training still gives some foodies indigestion.

Ray never went to culinary school so she calls herself a cook, not a chef.

"You have to have papers to be a chef. You have to have a pedigree."

Some chefs are critical of Ray, seeing her as down-market.

Make no mistake, though, Ray is clear on her position: "I'm not a chef. … And that's fine. They're absolutely correct. I don't bake. I don't do things the right way. I chop an onion wrong, and I am teaching people how to do it -- all that stuff."

But maybe that's what people really want, a down-to-earth cook they can relate to.

That's exactly what Ray says: "For a lot of people, they want to make a burger for dinner or simple pasta, a knockoff of, uh, of a great French dish that they can wrap their heads around in 30 minutes, so I think there's room for everybody."

Another thing that irritates some chefs: Ray's quirky expressions.

For instance, she calls a sandwich, "a sammy." And extra virgin olive oil, "EVOO," because she gets sick of saying the long label.

"Food makes me excited. It's like, the one thing in life that genuinely makes me childlike. I mean I get really amped up about it, it makes me happy," Ray said. "So if I wanna say, 'Yummo,' instead of, 'This is magnificent and the tones of it are blah blah blah,' what do you care, you know what I mean? You could turn the channel."

But viewers haven't turned the channel.

Some eighteen million people watch her four shows on the Food Network every week. The workaholic took a rare break last fall to marry John Cusimano. He is an entertainment lawyer and also performs in a rock band, The Cringe.

Along with their pit bull Isaboo, they split their time between a downtown apartment in New York City and Ray's cabin in the woods.

"You know, my husband is the only guy in the world I could have married," Ray said. "The only man that can possibly exist that doesn't mind eating dinner at midnight, you know. I mean, he's a really easygoing guy."

So she's got a burgeoning career, a wonderful home, a perfect husband, so what's next? Children?

Ray says she'd love to have a day off to "just read a book, let alone have a kid. I love children. I like working with them, 'cause they're funny, they're self-effacing, down to earth. Having a child doesn't make sense to me 'cause my workload is too great. I feel like a bad mom to my dog most days."

Children love Ray, and her studio is decorated with art her young fans have sent her. But her appeal spans all ages and backgrounds. Before her new show went on the air, more than 25,000 people requested tickets.

Her appeal? Perhaps, she just makes cooking approachable for people of all skill levels.

"Anybody can cook," she said. "If I can cook, the most accident-prone person in the world, anybody can."

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