"Hi, there, I'm Rachael Ray, and I make 30-minute meals."
The first time we heard those words, it was 2001, and the Food Network had just given a very big platform to someone who, unlike most of its previous personalities, was not a restaurant chef. Rachael Ray rejected swap-outs and shortcuts and instead actually made a meal in the same time it would take to get delivery, endearing herself to time-starved home cooks and inspiring countless books, magazines and TV shows.
Almost two decades later, she's back.
The truth is, she never really went anywhere. Between her daytime talk show, magazine, nonprofit organization, product lines and pet-food brand, she's as ubiquitous as ever. But now she's back to where most of us met her - starring in the first new episodes of her signature show, "30 Minute Meals," since 2012.
Why revisit it now, after all these years? Instead of a meditation on the state of food media or the challenges facing today's home cooks, the ever-practical Ray cuts to the chase: "Because the Food Network called and asked me."
Also: "It's fun to be asked to do something 20 years later and reinvent it for a new group of people," she says on a recent weekday afternoon in New York after taping her 13-year-old daily talk show. "Who wouldn't say yes?"
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Pick over almost two decades of coverage, and you'll find many first-person accounts of people trying - and failing - to make Ray's meals in the allotted half-hour. The early episodes of "30 Minute Meals" were a spectator sport, as she ricocheted around the set and you wondered whether even she would make the mark. That was partially because, Ray recalls, a staffer would say, "'Eh, it's not exciting enough. Add another course.' Some of the meals, I was really hauling a--."
This time around, she's had to pad episodes with cocktails and salads to fill the airtime. "I couldn't slow the meal down enough . . . because the food was just too easy."
But for the 50-year-old Ray, who is married to lawyer and rock musician John Cusimano, the timing is almost beside the point. "When I go home, I do not set a clock in my own kitchen. I pour a giant fishbowl of wine. I put on music or 'Law & Order' or a record, and I chill in the kitchen."
Ray had to talk her way into getting her first collection of 30-minute meals published by Hiroko Kiiffner at Lake Isle Press in 1998, based on the classes she had been teaching at the gourmet market where she ran the kitchen. Out of that came a 2001 appearance on the "Today" show in the midst of a massive snowstorm, which Ray and her mother braved to make it to Manhattan from their Upstate New York home. Food Network took notice, signed Ray, and a star was born.
Twenty-five cookbooks (number 26 arrives in the fall) and two Emmys later, Ray has developed so many recipes that sometimes she doesn't realize until after a Google search that her great new idea has already been published - by her. Today, she is as likely to pull a bottle of gochujang out of the fridge as she is a bag of tater tots from the freezer. "People of all ages in America now eat broader diets than maybe 20 years ago," Ray says. "But I think today is exactly the same as 20 years ago - a lot of people are just so busy and have so much going on in their lives, they don't have an enormous amount of time to dedicate to the kitchen, whether they enjoy being in it or not."
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Spontaneity and even mishaps in culinary television go back at least as far as Julia Child, who was beloved for plowing ahead on the set of "The French Chef" no matter what. But as Food Network President Courtney White puts it: "Rachael was one of the first Food Network personalities able to show viewers that you don't have to be a professional chef to be able to make a delicious meal. Rachael also has an uncanny ability to engage viewers, to make people feel like they have known her for years and that she can relate to how busy their lives are."
Even though she worked for years in the restaurants her mother managed and then took on her job cooking at the market, Ray has always billed herself as nothing more than a home cook. ("I'm a waitress who has a talk show!" she marveled recently.) She is one of the most studiously unstudied people on television, which cynics might call an act, but which admirers, myself included, find relatable.
She rattles around the drawers looking for the right tool. She forgets an ingredient and throws it in later. Just cut the potatoes for the chicken pot pie smaller, and they'll catch up! She is famous for not wanting to reshoot.
Ray's accessibility is what resonated most with fellow Food Network personality and cookbook author Molly Yeh ("Girl Meets Farm"). Yeh, 29, remembers "totally fangirling" about Ray with her best friend in elementary school, when Food Network was on in the Yeh household all day long. "I just remember the feeling of watching the show and seeing this beautiful meal made in 30 minutes," Yeh says, "and even as a little girl feeling like I could do this."
It was "as if she was cooking in her own kitchen," says Kelsey Nixon, 34, who was not only inspired by "30 Minute Meals" to go into food media but applied that same keep-rolling mentality when she filmed "Kelsey's Essentials" for sister network Cooking Channel. The message people got from Ray, Nixon says, was "I'm going to cook just like you do."
To Yeh, "30 Minute Meals" was the first place on TV where the kitchen came across as "a playful, fun space [that] could be the heart of the home."
"She seemed like she could be your friend or your cousin or aunt - like the cool aunt," Yeh says. (Or "your next-door neighbor, a menschy cousin," as Ray told The Washington Post in 2004.) For all her girl-next-door vibe and professions that "my life is pretty dull," Ray is just edgy enough to keep things interesting. She caught flak in 2003 when she did a saucy photo shoot for FHM magazine. "When I'm 80 I'm going to look back and be like, 'I represented!'" Ray told the New York Times in 2005.
Sometimes she makes news without intending to: A few years ago, confused Beyoncé fans pilloried Ray instead of fashion designer Rachel Roy, a.k.a. the alleged "Becky with the good hair" other woman in a song on Queen Bey's album "Lemonade." Ray told Yahoo it was "the most ultimate backward compliment - the idea that anybody would think that I groove in a universe where I get to hang out with Jay-Z or Beyoncé."
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Whether you know it or not, you've probably picked up something from Ray. Long before I went into food, I watched her show as I taught myself how to cook, and I still have recipes from "30 Minute Meals" in the three-ring binder I put together over a decade ago. Even now, years later, I learn from her. After months of breaking down kale for my son's favorite pesto with pasta, I saw an old episode in which Ray suggested curling your fingers like a cat about to pounce so you can easily strip the leaves off the stems. I'd never heard it described so succinctly and visually. It was a lightbulb moment, and it worked like a charm the next time I made the dish.
In a piece I recently published, I used the phrase "screaming hot." Only after prepping for my interview with Ray did I find old news stories crediting her with popularizing the phrase.
And you can't talk about Ray without talking about EVOO, the shortcut term for extra-virgin olive oil that she propagated. Love it or hate it (and yes, there are plenty of people, entire websites even, that have hated on Ray's cutesy words, her voice, you name it), it's part of the lexicon now - officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
What else have we learned from Ray? Try the garbage bowl, the countertop catchall that saves multiple trips to the trash can (she sells them, naturally). Also: It's okay to carry as much as you can while gathering ingredients! Although if there's one obvious change in the new season, it seems to be that Ray is making a few more trips to the pantry these days. Oh, and more cheese is always good, at least if you believe the supercut that late-night host John Oliver recently shared of Ray's audience going wild for the stuff, even though part of the blame goes to warm-up comedian Joey Kola for egging them on. "I get in a lot of trouble over at John Oliver, but I love him," Ray says.
As pop culture-ish as all that is, what Ray prefers to drive home are the underlying principles of "30 Minute Meals," and smart cooking in general. So, yes, gather your ingredients first. Have a garbage bowl. Use a big cutting board. Don't toss food in a cold pan. Clean your vegetables before storing them so you're more likely to use them. Cooking at home is better for you when you control the ingredients. Have fun.
Every episode of "30 Minute Meals" - classic or new - is a master class in how to be instructional but not didactic.
"I really hate that feeling of being talked down to," Ray says. "I don't think anybody enjoys it. And you never know who's watching or listening and how much more they know than you do about what you're talking about or what you're not talking about."
"Even in our home, my grandpa never said, 'Here's how you peel a potato.' He just said, 'Peel a potato.' . . . There was an implied ability in our household, that of course you can do this. Everyone can do this."
That, in a nutshell, is Ray's message.
The you-and-I-are-in-this-together sensibility is so natural that it's almost easy to gloss over how much information is packed into a single episode. I ask Ray what fans have told her they took away from "30 Minute Meals."
"Just the idea that they cooked more or got into cooking because they watched programming like mine," she says. "The feeling I get from food programming is that comfort. It's like a hug. 'Cause food appeals to all your senses, and it's kind of magic.
"It's this big, raw pile of ingredients, then a few minutes later it's this whole other thing," she continues. "And it smells good, and you can eat it. . . . It's like a little roller-coaster ride."