- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

Rachael Ray doesn’t believe in measuring, won’t wear an apron, and says her 12-year-old pit bull, Boo, is “the sweetest thing that ever happened to me.”

“30-Minute Meals,” Miss Ray’s breakout Food Network show, features fumbling with can openers, chitchat about her food-loving Italian family and wacky cooking shorthand like E-V-O-O. (That’s extra-virgin olive oil, of course.) Not what you’d expect from your average television chef. Then again, the 36-year-old New York State native is hardly average. It’s not just any on-air cook who can wrap people around the block for a single book signing.

The foodie, on her way to a Boston event, could be any of us. Her appeal is contagious; she’s normal, she’s cute, and she’s fun. She could be your sister or your favorite neighbor. Her fans, a legion that seems to multiply every day, are eating it up.

“To show up somewhere and have generations of people standing on line for hours just to say hello is when it kind of hits you,” she says of her tremendous success. “I don’t know if anyone could deserve such warm, loving feelings from people, but I certainly do enjoy it, and it’s a lovely experience to have.”

To Miss Ray, food and cooking are as natural as breathing. She grew up in the kitchen under the watchful eye of her Sicilian mother, who worked 40 years in upstate New York restaurants ranging from Tex-Mex to Howard Johnson’s. Miss Ray followed in her mother’s footsteps, working at restaurants and with local caterers, eventually making her way to Macy’s Marketplace in New York City.

She started at the candy counter and rose through the ranks to become manager of the fresh foods department. Tired of New York City, she returned upstate, bought a cabin in the Adirondacks and became a gourmet food buyer and chef at Albany-based Cowan & Lobel market. “30-Minute Meals” began as a class to boost sales.

“I couldn’t get people to buy the food in the market” because customers said they didn’t have the time to cook it, she recounts. “The original class was designed to keep it simple, keep it fun and deliver food in as much time as they were willing to give to Domino’s Pizza. Those are the same standards I use today…I don’t wear a chef’s coat. I don’t want anything on my show to remind you that you’re watching a cooking show. I want it to feel like it’s your neighbor, it’s your kitchen. Can-do cooking is what I’m trying to do with that show.”

Her class got picked up by an Albany television station, and when the first “30-Minute Meals” book hit stands, it sold 10,000 copies in 10 days. When Miss Ray appeared on the “Today” show, Food Network executives saw her segment, signed her on for a pilot, and now, some three years and nine books later, she has three hit shows on the specialty channel — “30-Minute Meals,” “$40 a Day,” and “Inside Dish.”

“$40 a Day” features Miss Ray bopping around the country (and the world) sampling three square meals of local cuisine on a mere $40. Celebrity-based “Inside Dish” has her sharing food secrets with the rich and famous.

Cable stardom hasn’t changed Miss Ray much. Her close-knit family still remains paramount, and although she and her fiance recently purchased a modest New York City apartment, she still spends as much time as possible at her mountainside cabin, where she has been living for more than 10 years. (Though “It’s pretty much Boo’s place,” she says with a laugh.)

Don’t hesitate to stop and greet her on the street. She doesn’t mind getting recognized and chatting it up. “It’s a ridiculous argument from anyone,” she says of celebrities who complain about unwanted public attention. “If you’re lucky enough for people to want to literally stop you in the street and say hello and wish you well, it’s not for me to complain about.

“We’re not like movie stars. People want to stop people who are on the Food Network and…give you a pat on the back and trade recipes. It’s a more laid-back thing.”

The culinary starlet will hit the District Thursday(Barnes & Noble, 555 12th St. NW, 4 p.m.) to promote her new books, “30-Minute Meals: Cooking ‘Round the Clock” and “Cooking Rocks! Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals for Kids.” Both take an all-ages, casual-but-cool approach to cooking that’s low on frills and high on taste and good times. An added bonus: They’re easy on the wallet. “I won’t allow my cookbooks to be sold at a higher price than a music CD,” she says.

“Cooking ‘Round the Clock” features meals for early birds to night owls.

“Cooking Rocks!” allows children to take the helm on everything from “candy sushi” to cheese fries.

With all the shows and books, you would think Miss Ray would be worried about running out of recipes. “No, absolutely not,” she asserts.

“You can always combine things in an unlimited amount of ways. And people are always hungry, and people will always eat. It’s a pretty safe industry.”

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