LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Rachael Ray is taping her talk show at her studio in Manhattan, and one of her guests has just gotten a makeover. The woman is overwhelmed by her transformation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RACHAEL RAY")
RACHAEL RAY: Do you like what you see?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, God. I love it. This whole experience...
RAY: Don't cry.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Have been amazing.
RAY: You look so beautiful. Oh, huggums (ph), huggums.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And while Rachael Ray became famous for her no-fuss cooking style, the secret of her success is that she seems warm and relatable. Watching her on TV can feel like finding yourself at your favorite sister's kitchen table. There will be a hug when you need it, or in my case, when I meet her after the show, something else you may want.
RAY: Would you like a glass of wine? I'm going to have some.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would love a glass of wine. Thank you.
RAY: OK, that's a twosome.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I appreciate that.
RAY: I'm self-conscious. Why is everyone staring (laughter)?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is a great way to start an interview right away.
Ray is now in her 50s. And to commemorate the moment, she has, of course, come out with a cookbook. But it's also part memoir. It's called "Rachael Ray 50: Memories And Meals From A Sweet And Savory Life."
RAY: As a woman who's 50 and has a lot of jobs that I'm grateful for, I wanted to reflect that the American dream is still alive, that if you work very hard, opportunity will come your way, that you can be 50 and over and female in this country and still be relevant. You know, I...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of women don't feel that.
RAY: Precisely why I wanted to put it in writing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Relevant and omnipresent, she is. There is "Rachael Ray" the show, the cookbooks, the cookware, the magazine, a new venture with Uber Eats. It's a long way from her working-class childhood and her adored Sicilian grandfather who taught her to love Italian food.
In the book, she has a chapter about sardines and the story of her first day at school, where she was put in a dress, and she took her favorite sardine sandwich to eat. It did not go well.
RAY: So I came home that day being the stinky girl in the funny clothes with the funny shoes. And I said I'm never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going back to school ever, ever, ever again. And I was crying, you know, that kind of choking crying (gasping), you know, where you sound like a gasping seal or sea lion or something.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then her grandfather gave her an important lesson that she's carried with her, she says, ever since.
RAY: There's plenty in life that you have no control over that you will cry about. Certainly your vanity should never be one of them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that Rachael Ray at this point is not only telling me her story.
RAY: Well, you can't put a cook next to a stove and not expect that two things are going to happen - cooking and talking...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) That's true.
RAY: ...Especially when...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...She's making us her favorite Spaghetti Puttanesca.
RAY: So this is Puttanesca. I've just splashed some onto the counter here. But I do things a little differently than some people. I melt the anchovies into the - copious amounts of EVOO, or olive oil, first over moderate heat. And then I throw in lots and lots of grated or thinly sliced garlic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The smell, spicy and warm, floats up from the pan.
RAY: The most important thing for me is the spirits, the Italian dry vermouth. When we cook with seafood in my family, we always use dry vermouth because it kills the smell of seafood in your kitchen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even though it looks and smells divine, Ray has always been adamant that she's not a chef. She says her roots as a waitress is really what sets her apart. And so when her big break came first on local TV and then national, she didn't expect it.
RAY: The television thing is a very weird happening for me and certainly not anything I planned for. And I don't know that I thought I wasn't worthy of it. I just thought, well, that's not me. That's for other people, you know? I serve people. I'm the service person. I wait on people that are on TV. I'm not on TV. And, you know, that's what I told Food Network. But they said I was wrong and come on back and sit down. So I did (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There have been many serendipitous moments in her life since. Still, even now with all the success and fame, she feels like the trappings don't define her.
RAY: In general, every time I put high heels on and I have to go somewhere in a dress I feel uncomfortable in, I'm not supposed to be at the party.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You keep saying that. And it strikes me that after all...
RAY: Because it's the absolute truth. I don't want people looking at my body or what I chose to wear that day. I don't care who made my shoes. I just don't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's become her brand - connecting with average people and making famous people who come onto her show regular and relatable, too.
RAY: I don't really want to know who you're sleeping with unless I'm that person. But I am interested in your favorite flavor of ice cream. Are there kooky, weird party skills or tricks that you know? Can you juggle? What's your favorite color - like, stuff you would just say to somebody you're getting to know at a regular party. You know, Hugh Jackman at the kitchen table, who's hilarious and told the funniest story ever about how he forgot to pee before the show once and when he was playing a Disney prince actually wet himself onstage when he hit a high note (laughter), I love that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She has also controversially remained loyal to Mario Batali, the celebrity chef who has had multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a pending court case. They competed together on "Iron Chef," and he nominated her for Time 100's Most Influential People in 2006. She says she hasn't asked him about the allegations, though she still talks to him.
RAY: I have spoken to him, and I've spoken to his family. And if and when I feel comfortable asking about it or feel that the family is healed to a point that they want to have that discussion, maybe we will in the future. I don't know. But it's not relevant to the relationship I have with them. And I don't have that firsthand knowledge, and it's not - I don't think it's fair once people have gone through something that's so traumatic and dramatic - and that's a family. I've known that family a very long time. That - I don't think of it as one person. I think of it as a whole unit, you know? I've known those children since they were literally babies. I am not that person.
I hate it when people do it to me, bring up something that's hateful. Like, for years and years, I'd go to interview after interview, and people would bring up the website I Hate Rachael Ray or show me clips of other professionals that are food people that are on television, and they would play them saying whatever about me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hurtful things.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But when people were criticizing you before, that was their opinion on things that had nothing to do with how you may or may not have behaved in a professional setting. What's different about this is that this was something that happened in...
RAY: Unless it's a professional setting that I...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professional setting.
RAY: ...That have a percentage of or firsthand knowledge of, it is not my place to tell other people how to run their businesses or their lives. It just isn't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ray says she knows that the industry has been roiled by the #MeToo movement. But when I ask her about it, she comes back to her favorite theme, hard work.
RAY: I think I've always been treated extremely fairly at work. Yeah, do we speak inappropriately in kitchens? Men and women, both of us do. When I have made less money than a man, it has been my choice. I am a person who looks at long ball. It's a strategy thing. That doesn't mean I'm not super empathetic and supportive of women in the industry that have gone through hell. You know what I mean? And I think that it is my duty as a female in her 50s working in this industry to give tons of respect to that and as much support as possible for women that have had challenges in male-dominated business - not just this one, but in general.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The pasta is ready. I asked Rachael Ray, with so much that she's achieved, now that she's over 50, what mountains are left to climb.
RAY: It's not like any one thing is at the top of the list - like, oh, my God. I have to do that, or my head's going to pop off. I'm happy to - I have a very low bar.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then she ends our interview in the same way she began, with hospitality.
RAY: Two kisses - Italian.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Two, yeah.
RAY: Eat your spaghetti.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.