Rachael Ray is at the top of her game. Her signature 30-minute recipes and spunky personality have skyrocketed her from a Food Network television show host to a brand that includes a top-rated syndicated talk show, numerous cookbooks, her own lifestyle magazine (Every Day With Rachael Ray), cookware and knives, CDs, recipe note cards and even her own brand of extra virgin olive oil.
“Rachael Ray,” her one-hour daily syndicated series, produced by King World Productions in association with Harpo Productions, Scripps Networks and Watch Entertainment, debuted Sept. 18 as the highest-rated syndicated talk show launch since the 2002 premiere of “Dr. Phil.” The show continues to top the charts in markets across the country. Most recently, the Forbes Celebrity 100 list rated her as the No. 2 most
trustworthy celebrity, Time magazine tapped her for its “100 People Who Shaped Our World” and the Q Score ranking for hosts, moderators, announcers, radio/TV commentators, radio disc jockeys and video jockeys rated her as the most appealing personality in entertainment.
Ms. Ray points to her upbringing in a large, food-loving family as the beginning of her career path. The Ray family owned several restaurants on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and after the family moved to upstate New York her mother was the food supervisor for a restaurant chain. With Sicilian food traditions on her mother’s side and Louisiana-style French on her father’s, Ms. Ray grew up surrounded by fresh ingredients, traditional dishes and a love of food.
After jobs in the food world, including a stint as store manager at New York’s gourmet market Agata & Valentina, she married the food industry with the entertainment industry when she moved back to upstate New York and became a food buyer at Cowan & Lobel, a gourmet market in Albany. To boost sales during the holidays and encourage reluctant customers to cook, Ms. Ray taught classes at the market in making Mediterranean-style meals in 30 minutes. The popularity of those classes led the local CBS station, WRGB-TV, to sign her for a weekly segment on the evening news. After two regional Emmy nominations and a companion cookbook that sold 10,000 copies during the holidays, Ms. Ray was on her way. What began as a relationship with the Food Network became “Rachael Ray,” which People magazine rated as one of the Top 10 Shows of 2006, the only syndicated show to make the list, and has evolved into Rachael Ray, the brand.
Ms. Ray has her critics, who cite her relentlessly perky personality and recipes they say take more than 30 minutes to make. But the naysayers haven’t made much of a dent in her popularity. She has tapped into a hunger, not only for the nurturing qualities of good food and the bragging rights of being able to cook it, but for her philosophy, which encourages audiences to live life richly regardless of whether they happen to be wealthy.
Ms. Ray recently shared her feelings on television, branding and food with TelevisionWeek contributing writer Chris Pursell. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
TelevisionWeek: What do you watch on TV, assuming you find time?
Rachael Ray: I watch movies, I watch CNN, I watch cop shows religiously. All “Law & Orders,” “CSI,” “Criminal Intent,” all that kind of stuff. I don’t get a chance to watch much because, you know, I’m busy.
TVWeek: Needless to say. Do you watch daytime at all?
Ms. Ray: Only when I’m traveling on book tour, and I watch whoever is on. I love Oprah, of course. I like Ellen. I think Rosie is fantastic on “The View,” and hysterical. And I see more of her on CNN the last few days, with her and Donald. I think they’re both hysterical.
TVWeek: She’s a one-woman publicity machine.
Ms. Ray: She’s fantastic. She was a really great addition.
TVWeek: How do you feel now about being called a one-woman national marketing colossus?
Ms. Ray: Well, I’ve never heard anybody call me that except you, so…
TVWeek: No, I pulled that right from an article.
Ms. Ray: You know, I’m not a colossus anything. I work the same now as I did working in restaurants or retail or any job I’ve ever had. I go to work, I do the best job I can do and I go home and I make dinner and I go to bed and get up and do it all over again.
You know, the thing really has taken on a life of its own. There’s Rachael Ray when I go home and I’m hanging out with my family, and then there’s the business. There are a lot of people I love at work.. We all like inclusive programming, and our magazine is very can-do and the show is can-do and we’re a group of people that all try and cook. We just had a huge potluck party at the office, a big competition, and everybody there likes to cook and take little adventures and share stories and time. So the thing has a life of its own now and involves tons of people-hundreds, really, if you look at all three of the things all together: the network people and “Rachael Ray” show people and then the magazine people. But we’re all good friends, and many people cross over. There’s a lot of people that work on the show that also work on “30 Minute Meals” and “Tasty Travels,” and it’s just a big family that seems to grow.
TVWeek: Do you have a typical week?
Ms. Ray: Never. If I’m taping all “Rachael Ray” shows, Mondays and Fridays are fill packages. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays we tape two or three shows a day. All of November we taped three shows a day because I had to go out on book tour in December. I don’t have to, but I love going out on tour and seeing the kids and getting new recipes and stuff. We’ve been doing three shows a day for a while. Then I went out on the road. When I’m on book tour I’m in a different city every day for 18 days.
When I’m on “30 Minute Meals” we do four shows a day for six days a week until we get the run done. And this year I’ll tape 80 of those back-to-back and a little preview of our new kitchen in March, a dozen episodes. When this show goes on hiatus between seasons I’ll go on the road and travel for two six-week periods to do 20 “Tasty Travels.”
Ms. Ray: It’s all very different. And then on the weekends and at nights, that’s when I write and work on books and recipes for the next shows. When I’m flying I get a lot of quiet time. I do my recipes for the magazine then, or if I get to go home once every five, six weeks, up to the cabin, that quiet time is when I write the next issue of the magazine or some recipes for the next book. Put all kind of pieces together.
TVWeek: Do you have any plans to cut back at all?
Ms. Ray: You know, again, I do what I have to do. I worked a hundred hours a week in retail, I worked a hundred hours a week in food. I like working, and everything I do now for a job is what I would do on my day off from any other job.
TVWeek: What do you think has been your best show so far in syndication?
Ms. Ray: I don’t know. You know we mix up the taping so much-we’ll have to tape three pieces of one show today and then two weeks from now get the rest of that show because it had a celebrity and they can only be here on such and such a day.
TVWeek: Looking at the guests that you book on the show, obviously there are a lot of different personalities. What personality meshes with you the best?
Ms. Ray: I haven’t had a bum in the bunch so far. I’ve had fun with everybody that’s come on. Our goal when we have on celebrity guests is to help them relax and forget they’re celebrities and get them laughing. Ask them silly questions, like, “If you were a superhero, what power would you have?” “What was your nickname when you were a little kid on the playground?” We get them to try and forget that they’re celebrities and relax a little.
On the other hand, when we have on real viewers that we turn into our experts, we try and turn those people into the celebrities. You want them to feel like the authority. So it’s kind of a weird mix. I ha
ve a lot of fun with everybody. Certainly our two funniest were our Dennises, Denis Leary and Dennis Miller. Also, we have had two of the most amazing iconic media women, Oprah and Diane [Sawyer]. I mean, everybody-Morgan Freeman is just, he just makes my heart sing. You look at him and you just-oh, he’s such a sweet, dear soul.
Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins-I mean, just everybody has been great. But honestly the thing I’m most proud of is not the fact we can book celebrities, it’s the fact that we have so much viewer content and that the people are their own Rachael Rays on the show.
Stacey Ballis and Kristan Cunningham and Evette Rios … they’re all viewers and now they’re their own Rachael Ray stories. They’re on all the time. They’re developing their own brands and their own thing, and we have all of those wonderful videos that people send in. We read great letters. I like the show because it’s become what we all wanted it to be-a forum, a real place where people get together. It’s like a block party.
TVWeek: Have you noticed the difference in fans between your Food Network shows and your syndicated show?
Ms. Ray: No, it’s very broad. We get audiences of little kids and guys and college kids and soccer moms and soccer dads and single moms and single dads and grandparents. It’s a really nice mishmash. We don’t program for any one age group or person or sex. I lecture kids to eat at meals and talk about date dinners and firehouse cooking. I like hanging out with everybody, so I try and write for everybody.
TVWeek: What was the best piece of advice Oprah Winfrey ever gave you?
Ms. Ray: “Be yourself” is the only piece of advice she’s ever given me, and it remains constant.
TVWeek: Did she ever talk about how tabloids are going to be out for you and what-not?
Ms. Ray: She doesn’t care about that junk and neither do I. … I mean, fine, you know, it’s my job, but it’s a pain in the ass when it touches people you care about. But I don’t read that crap, and you know what, people are going to think what they’re gonna think; nothing I can do about it.
TVWeek: What are your plans for the New Year?
Ms. Ray: Well, the show goes back on the 8th and we’re going to get back to work. My job is fun so I’m kind of excited to go back. Actually, I miss everybody and I’ve already been away for a couple of weeks during book tour. So I’m kind of ready to get back in the saddle, so to speak.
TVWeek: It’s a good goal in life to love your work.
Ms. Ray: I’ve always loved my work. I was an extraordinarily happy waitress, bartender, retail buyer, gourmet production, kitchen person-every job I ever had I loved because I like life, I like food, I like sharing and I don’t think that you have to be on TV to be happy. I didn’t wait for that, you know. I’ve always been a happy person. I was raised by really grounded people. What they did was not who they were, and as long as we could go home and share good food and good stories, life was good, you know. Nothing to complain about if you have 10 fingers, 10 toes and a brain.
TVWeek: How do you feel about your “Rayisms” entering the dictionary?
Ms. Ray: I can’t believe that. That was a huge thing. They sent me an extra copy of the certificate. I’m going to give it to my mommy. That was very exciting.
TVWeek: Why do you think audiences find cooks so comforting?
Ms. Ray: You know, it’s about sharing and storytelling. I mean what’s not to like about Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet, you know? Emeril, Mario, Bobby, all of them. Paula Deen, my God, what a hoot. It appeals to all five of your senses. It’s very intimate because they’re going into your home and into your kitchen. You can share it with everyone you love. And the cooking shows over the years-the ones that I’ve enjoyed at least-were more about storytelling than they were about cooking. So it’s a nice family form of entertainment. And it just warms your heart and soul. I think it’s very relaxing for people to watch cooking or to cook.