She is self-effacing about her talent and her depth of knowledge of food and cooking. "I'm way too beer-out-of-the-bottle," she says, brushing off those who would refer to her in champagne terms.
Yet over the past five years or so, Rachael Ray has zoomed into the U.S. popular culture
spotlight in more ways than one, thanks to her personality, her television presence, and - not the least of it - the inventiveness with which she's carved out a niche for herself.
The niche - or gimmick, if you like - is the 30-minute meal.
Almost everyone faces that urgent need - for one reason or another - to prepare something quickly, often unexpectedly. What works? What doesn't?
That's where Ray, a fixture on America's 11-year-old, cable-based Food Network, comes to the rescue.
When the network's executives - looking for something offbeat that would cater to the average person, rather than to the gourmet or connoisseur - came to Ray, she was skeptical. "I really don't belong here," she said, citing names of famous cooks who she thought did.
"Food is for everyone," countered network president Judy Girard. "No matter who you are or where you're from, you have a relationship to it. Everyone eats."
And most people, as a rule, seek simplicity and speed. Primavera orzo, for example, takes ten minutes to prepare and 15 minutes to cook. Sorbet eggs take another 10 minutes. That repast comes in under the 30-minute preparation limit that Ray has set as her goal.
Her perspective is eclectic and global - ranging from fish tacos in lettuce wraps to tomatoes stuffed with tabbouleh salad. Her selections can border on haute cuisine (smoked trout canapés with crème-fraiche and herb sauce) or be decidedly down to earth (double-dipped spicy chicken). Personally, she might lean to a basic minestra-beans and greens with garlic in broth, one of her grandfather's favorites. "I could live on this soup all winter and never tire of it," she said recently in an interview.
Thirty-minute meals aren't the equivalent of what's familiarly known as fast food. As she has noted and reiterated, on television and in the growing number of cookbooks she has written, her approach runs counter to fast food, in that she offers balanced menus; she demonstrates how to move swiftly from one preparation to another to accomplish the entire meal preparation in a half-hour.
Ray is a product of a family rooted in cooking, from her maternal grandfather, who grew and prepared whatever he needed for his family of 12, to her father's family, which emerged from the food-rich Creole culture of Louisiana. Her parents owned a family restaurant on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, and later relocated to New York, where her mother supervised food preparation for a chain of restaurants in the Adirondack region upstate.
Ray began her career in a New York City department store, Macy's, first at the candy counter and later managing the fresh foods section. From Macy's she went on to a job managing and buying for a gourmet marketplace before returning to the Adirondacks to manage pubs and restaurants. Hired away to be a food buyer and chef at a gourmet market in Albany, the state capital, she began a series of cooking classes to boost grocery sales during holiday seasons.
The classes were labeled "30-Minute Meals," and their popularity sparked local media coverage, which led to a weekly segment on an evening news broadcast. Next came a cookbook, which sold 10,000 copies in the area alone. Before long, Ray's success spread, and her name and her niche became known nationwide.
Despite her newfound fame, Ray insists that she be seen as someone who is no different than her viewers and readers - in her words, "a busy person with no extra time and a good appetite for those who belong to the same category in life."
From the e-journal "Americans at the Table: Reflections on Food and Culture"