by Natalie Finn | Mon., Apr. 1, 2019 3:00 AM
Rachael Ray is back for seconds.
Not that she went anywhere after 30 Minute Meals left Food Network in 2012—in fact, she's only become more ubiquitous over time—but the empire-launching cooking show is returning for a new run today, just in time to get the kids whose moms were pregnant with them in 2001, when the series first premiered, to start cooking.
"I couldn't be more excited to bring 30 Minute Meals to a whole new generation of fans," Ray said back in January when Food Network made the announcement.
Ray, a former high school cheerleader (top of the pyramid, of course) with a fondness for jumping out of airplanes, was discovered in the '90s teaching a class with a gimmick of the same name at a gourmet grocery store, where she was a food buyer, in Albany, N.Y.
She had no professional training and attributed everything she knew to her mother, Elsa Scuderi, who helped run restaurants with Ray's father, James, and, after they divorced when Ray was 13, took a job managing nine eateries for a restaurant group.
"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," Ray told ABC News in 2006. "She was like the person I looked at, and I said, 'Wow.'"
A local New York station offered her a segment and helped put out her first 30 Minute Meals cookbook. Eventually network TV took notice, leading to her NBC debut preparing soup on Today in 2001. Pretty soon she was roasting chicken with Al Roker.
"It was a fairy tale," Ray recalled.
Then Food Network rang, and after 30 Minute Meals premiered—making Ray the only non-professional chef with her own show on the network at the time, three more shows soon followed—$40 a Day, Tasty Travels and the shorter-lived Inside Dish.
Her first big purchase was the cabin she used to rent for $550 a month in the Adirondacks, near where she grew up, when she was freshly dropped out of Pace University and figuring out her next step. She paid $100,000 and still considers it home.
Almost 20 years since releasing her first book, Ray has amassed an estimated $80 million fortune thanks to myriad Food Network shows; her Emmy-winning syndicated daytime talk show, now in its 13th season; more than two dozen books; a magazine; dishes, kitchenware and home goods; and Nutrish, her super-premium pet food brand with Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, which Smuckers bought for $1.9 billion last year. (In the meantime, she was donating the personal proceeds from Nutrish sales to no-kill animal shelters around the U.S. through Rachael's Rescue.)
"I have four to five jobs on any given day, and I could use a couple more Rachaels," she quipped to Good Housekeeping back in 2010. (That being said, she won't lend her name to just anything: "Even if I love the product, I don't want people to start seeing my face on so many things that they get confused," she told Forbes. "We work hard as a team to come up with fresh ideas. We don't want to slap my name on someone else's work. I'm a big believer in that.")
If being a pot-on-every-burner, one-woman show sounds familiar... fittingly, the talk show Rachael Ray is produced by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo.
"2,000 episodes on her show later, turns out, I was right."
And right Oprah was, as she was about Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, two others who also got their start in The Oprah Winfrey Show bullpen whose talk shows flourished while so many daytime talk ventures have failed, even with already-famous names attached. (Or maybe fans are tacitly urging musicians, actors and Real Housewives: don't quit your day job.)
"You have a great personality, that's why you're such a hit, people like you," Winfrey told Ray when the Food Network star first appeared on Oprah in 2005.
"I think it's because I'm not a pro, they see me chop an onion wrong and I make a big mess," Ray suggested.
She later told ABC News, "From the day I met [Oprah], her advice has been exactly the same. Be yourself."
To be sure, Ray's vivacious, easygoing and personable approach is certainly part of her appeal, a fitting complement to the kind of accessible food-preparation standards she represents. Once she got to the foot of the mountain, hers was a meteoric rise, and for the past 18 years she has been somewhere on our cable guide pretty much every day.
"It's the can-do aspect—the fact that we show you messes and successes," Ray told Forbes in 2010. "My food never looked too perfect. We never went anywhere too pricey. The whole idea is that any meal I touch or any place I go, a person can envision themselves not only being a part of it but succeeding at it—and maybe even doing a better job than I do. That makes everything about the brand accessible."
But becoming a star, complete with catchphrases (EVOO was only the beginning!) and the face of a certain kind of cooking, hasn't come without its detractors, or its headaches.
Because how dare someone be referred to as a "celebrity chef" when she isn't a chef at all?!
For starters, Ray would be the last person to call herself a chef, as evidenced by the way she moves around the kitchen: organized, as we all aspire to be, but not slick. She's not toting around a satchel of knives or going on about mise en place. She has called herself "beer in the bottle," as opposed to champagne in a flute, and "a hick from the sticks."
"I'm not a chef," she told ABC News in 2006, when asked about the common criticism that she didn't have the culinary pedigree of others on Food Network. "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."
She continued, "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."
Ray said, "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. So if I wanna say, 'Yum-o,' 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."
Incidentally, Yum-o! became the name of her charity, which aims to empower kids to eat healthily and learn how to prepare wholesome food; partners with organizations combating child hunger; and helps fund educational opportunities for young people pursuing careers in the food and restaurant industries.
Her Food Network shows and cookbooks, Ray concluded, aim to demonstrate that "anybody can cook. If I can cook, the most accident-prone person in the world, anybody can."
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Not to mention, she was taking that criticism all the way to the bank, so who cared if some of the fierce protectors of the culinary realm didn't approve?
Anthony Bourdain had his predictably colorful say about Ray's appeal back in 2007 while guest-blogging for Ruhlman, writing, "Complain all you want. It's like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can't cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So…what is she selling us? Really? She's selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She's a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that 'Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!'"
Ray sent him a fruit basket.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Martha Stewart, whose brand is all about elevating one's table, home, hosting prowess and anything else that can be made more picturesque, observed to Nightline in 2009 that Ray's latestcookbook wasn't her cup of tea. "Rachael is different," she said. "She's more of an entertainer...with her bubbly personality than she is a teacher, like me. That's not what she's professing to be."
It actually sounded as if she was merely objecting to necessarily being compared to Ray in the first place, but once the comparison bureau handed the case over, the feud police were on high alert.
"Why would it make me mad?" Ray replied when ABC News asked about Stewart's take. "Her skill set is far beyond mine. That's simply the reality of it. That doesn't mean what I do isn't important, too...I don't consider it needling. I really just think she's being honest."
Moreover, "I'd rather eat Martha's [food] than mine, too."
Talking to guest Emeril Lagasse the following week on Martha, Stewart said about her and Ray, "[J]ust for the record, there are no bad feelings between us, nor have there ever been.
"I truly believe that Rachael has done a terrific job bringing people, many people who would have never even stepped into the kitchen or made a dish to cook. I applaud Rachael for her enthusiastic approach to cooking...I really had a great time being a guest on her show, and it was a lot of fun to have her on this show making pie with me too. Come on back, Rachael, anytime you want, and I hope you have a yum-o Thanksgiving."
But Stewart's initial comment was the piece of food that gets stuck in your teeth that you can't quite reach...
"It's not our job to keep track of people that put negative energy out or that say negative things about you," Ray noted on Bloomberg TV's Titans at the Table, talking to host Betty Liu and table mates Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio.
"If any of us were distracted by that kind of nonsense, we wouldn't have jobs."
"We have thousands of critics a night [at our restaurants]," Flay agreed.
Liu said that Ray must be talking about Stewart, and Ray insisted, "Martha Stewart has never been a problem to me, ever, in my life. I have nothing but respect for Martha Stewart."
"And I can guarantee you, Martha Stewart has never learned a thing from watching me." She added, "I don't work for Martha, I work for my viewers, busy people that want to get a decent meal on the table and be proud of themselves when they look down at their plate.
"And I have nothing but respect for Martha," she reiterated. "I wouldn't have my job without Martha Stewart going there before any of us ladies who work in this field. I think that's perfectly fine, not every kid is going to like you on the playground."
Asked about haters who ply their trade online, Ray told Good Housekeeping, "What am I going to do? Call them up and scream, 'You have to like me'? It's like trying to get the class bully to be your buddy—a waste of time."
But not all of it is so much noise to her.
In 2008, a rumor of a rift between Ray and Winfrey—stemming from a 2007 TMZ report claiming Ray had been badmouthing Oprah during a dinner at a Los Angeles restaurant—became so unavoidable that Gayle Kingwas dispatched to Ray's talk show to help put the story to bed.
"I read something that you two were fighting. I know that's not true," King offered.
On the day the initial story came out, Ray said, "we had written each other sweet notes, it was her birthday and I sent her snack of the day, and she sent me a note."
While Ray had been the subject of all sorts of rumors, "the one with Oprah just broke my heart. It really did," she lamented. "It killed me, I'm like, 'No! We like each other!'"
When the TMZ story broke, Ray's spokesperson flatly denied that she said anything derogatory about Winfrey whatsoever, replying, "She denies making any of the comments referenced. In fact, there are several words that are attributed to Rachael that she has never uttered in her life.
"Neither in public nor in private has Rachael made a disparaging or cruel remark about her friend and mentor, Oprah, nor a celebrity couple she has never even met. There were several associates of Rachael's at that table who, unprompted, agreed that Rachael never made any of the comments she is being accused of making...and it seems very convenient that these accusations are being levied at a time when Rachael's success has focused the public eye on her."
Ray's talk show had indeed lifted her onto a higher plane of visibility, with all the fun that entails.
Since becoming a household name, she's been dinged for allegedly being a bad tipper (which, if she ever saw that report, perhaps helped spawn the idea for Food Network's The Big Tip With Rachael Ray) and for spreading misinformation about, of all things, extra-virgin olive oil.
When she did a Dunkin' Donuts ad campaign she was slammed (by Anthony Bourdain, among others) for promoting something unhealthy like donuts, and a right-wing pundit complained that her scarf looked like a traditional Arab kaffiyeh, which apparently was a problem for some people. ("Absolutely no symbolism was intended," the company said.)
"I don't regret a thing," Ray told ABC News in 2009 about collaborating with Dunkin', which also supported her Yum-o! charity. "Not for a minute." As for the feedback, "I absolutely love Tony Bourdain. I have an enormous amount of respect for him. It's a free country."
In 2017, Nutrish was named in a class-action lawsuit that claimed the "natural" label misrepresented the makeup of the food. In November, per The Blast, the company filed a response in federal court insisting they were "in compliance with all federal regulations involving food labeling, which informs a reasonable consumer's beliefs."
Last August a New York man sued Nutrish for $5 million, alleging there was a "potentially harmful" chemical in the food.
New parent company Smucker stated its intention to "aggressively" fight the suit, saying it "strongly" stood by the quality of its products. A rep for Ray, who wasn't named in the lawsuit, told NBC News that, not only has Ray "always championed the great lengths Ainsworth Pet Nutrition and now the J.M. Smucker Company take to create and provide the highest quality and safest pet food products on the market," she also fed the food to her dog.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Nutrish
And, she sampled the food herself. "I have eaten—literally eaten [it], on camera," she said on her show in 2017, "just to prove to people the quality. You can read our food like a menu. I have eaten our kibble, and every flavor of our cat food. Every one of them.
"It needs more salt for me," she quipped.
But weathering bumps in the road had long since become one of Ray's specialties.
She told Gayle King in 2008 that the alleged fight with Oprah was even harder to stomach than reports that her then-still-young marriage was in trouble.
She married John Cusimano, an attorney and musician who does the dishes and makes the coffee, in Tuscany in 2005, four years after they met at a party.
Most importantly, Cusimano understood that his wife was also married to her career, a quality she had found lacking in other guys when she was in the dating world.
"You know, my husband is the only guy in the world I could have married," Ray told ABC News in 2006. "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."
He's also CEO of her company, Watch Entertainment, and he fronts the rock band The Cringe. He wrote their song "Burn" for Ray.
"It's not about her cooking," Cusimano told Vanity Fair in 2007. "It's about the way you feel when you're burning, whether with desire or you want to be near that person and you're not."
"I can't give a man an enormous amount of attention," Ray told People in 2007. "And John is totally down with that. When men I have dated over the years whined about, 'Oh, you make no time for me'—see ya! I just dumped them. I don't need that pressure in my life."
Regarding the prospect of having kids, "I work too much to be an appropriate parent. I feel like a bad mom to my dog some days because I'm just not here enough. I just feel like I would do a bad job if I took the time to literally give birth to a kid right now and try and juggle everything I'm doing."
But Ray and Cusimano continued to have the best time on their own—with their 14-year-old pit bull Isaboo, of course.
"It's fun to come home after a hard day's work and just cook dinner," he told People. "The place I'm happiest is curled up in bed with Rachael and the puppy."
She concurred: "We're very turtlelike. We listen to music, pour a glass of wine and watch Law & Order."
King World Productions / Harpo Productions
On nights when she got home late, "John and I will stay up long enough to have a laugh and share a meal, even if it's really late. So we have a few hours less to sleep. Maybe life is a few days shorter. It'll be richer on the other end."
A few years later she told Good Housekeeping, "I'm happiest at home when I'm curled up in bed with my dog, Isaboo, and my hubby watching a movie or eating Sunday brunch."
And there's sure to be music on in the background.
"My husband and I are big music junkies and we have an enormous vinyl collection with around 1,500 to 2,000 records," she told Forbes in 2013. "That's probably our favorite family past time: to listen to music with the dog."
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A typical day went like this, as she told Forbes: "I get up early every morning. I picked up running in the last year, so [my husband and I] go to the gym six days a week and run. Days off from [the Rachael Ray show] I write for the magazine and write the following week's recipes. Dark weeks and during the summers I rotate over to the Food Network. I've done so many 30-Minute Meals that I can shoot four in a day. I go home from taping between 6:30 and 8. I cook dinner every night, and my husband and I eat between 8 and 10 o'clock. John, God bless him, does the dishes."
That was 2010. And, with 30 Minute Meals coming back, that's 2019, too. Not that there was ever a gap in the schedule in the interim.
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Ray and Cusimano, now married for almost 14 years and devoted dog parents, have weathered their share of reports about being on the rocks ("I think they said six actually," Ray cracked to People about how many women tabloids claimed her husband had cheated with), but they remain rock solid.
They renewed their vows in Italy in 2015 for their 10th anniversary—and, it turned out, they were flying friends and family out every year to celebrate their anniversary. "We've done this celebration every year for 10 years," Ray told People. "We're very busy; I have five jobs. We don't see everybody often enough, and we probably take them and their friendship for granted. But they make us better people for knowing them."
Otherwise, she and Cusimano split their time between their six-level, 1,800-square-foot apartment in Greenwich Village (bought in 2004 for $1.4 million; they bought the neighboring unit to use as guest quarters in 2008 for $1.25 million) and the cabin in the Adirondacks that Ray bought when she was first making a name for herself. They listed a spread in Southampton for $4.9 million in 2017 after owning that for nine years.
"When people come over for the first time to my apartment I think they're shocked at how tiny the kitchen is," Ray told the Wall Street Journal. (It's cluttered and cozy, with a bright-blue fridge.) "If we're home, John's in his studio and I'm in the kitchen, and we come together at the cocktail portion."
Cusimano also makes regular appearances on Rachael Ray, sitting in on chats with guests or preparing craft cocktails. Sometimes he brings Isaboo, such as when he surprised Ray for Mother's Day last year.
And when Ray turned 50 last September, Cusimano was there to sing "Happy Birthday" and have cake along with Emeril Lagasse and an audience full of people also turning 50 in 2018.
"It's wonderful to have my husband here with me today," Ray said, "'cause we got married the same year we started this show, the same year we adopted our dog, the same year we started the magazine. It's a very emotional day, but to all of my 50 foodie friends—wow, what an amazing birthday present you gave me."
And then everyone in the audience was gifted with two round-trip plane tickets to anywhere.
Oprah is her mentor, after all.