Friday, May 11, 2007

The True Story of Rachael Ray

"What qualifications do I have to be showing all of America how to make soup?" GOOD QUESTION! When you have an answer, get back to me.

That is basically what is at the heart of Rachael Ray: The True Hollywood Story. Her considerable accomplishments are admired by people who also love her for her down-to-earthiness, while others criticize her god-awful food and annoying mannerisms. There's truth in both views.

I was wondering how her THS would differ from her Chefography. There were many of the same stories - how many ways exactly can you tell the tale of working behind the candy counter at Macy's? The THS WAS a bit more fleshed out and it wasn't a COMPLETELY flattering portrait (only about 98% of it was). I didn't know, for example, just HOW thrilled RR was to be working behind that candy counter. I think it was an early example of her setting her sights low and making it almost impossible to fail at such a no-brainer type of job.

It did seem though that her managers took a shine to her and began to teach her about the other food departments as well. She LOVED it and moved up and up. And in the way that corporate America has of always squandering native talent, they wanted her to move to accessories(!?). She turned them down.

She loved food and moved on to Agata & Valentina, a fancy-schmancy Manhattan gourmet grocery store. There she distinguished herself by outstanding customer service and outworking everyone. She loved the job. Then unfortunately, after she was mugged once, she was mugged again by the same guy, who was mad that she had maced him. That defeated even our little spunky Rachael and she left the city.

Her Chefography glossed over that little story and I have to say I really felt for her. Here she was working incredibly hard, early in the morning until late at night and she was assaulted. (That's not to say that unemployed people should be mugged, but she really was killing herself.) I think it stinks that she felt so threatened that she had to leave the city.

She moved back upstate and got a job at another chi chi gourmet grocery, Cowen and Lobel, where, by the way, it just occurred to me that neither she nor her thrifty mother, would EVER have shopped... Interesting...

This brought up another legendary RR story. She didn't have her driver's license, because way-back-when while she took the driving test, she drove over a cat (yes, she killed it) and she left the driving instructor in the car and got out and left. When she took the job in Albany, she had 28 days to get her license. She did.

At this new job, she noticed many of the store's ingredients weren't selling. She had her famous light bulb moment (well, I don't actually know if it hit in her an instant) to do cooking demonstrations of 30 Minute Dinners to get people to buy their products. She went to her boss, and said, WHO should do these classes? And just like Mickey Rooney got the kids together to put on the show in the barn, her boss said, Well YOU should, Rachael. The rest is history. The cooking classes were a huge success.

The more I think about it, the more I think it should have been DUH, instead of Eureka! OF COURSE that's how to get people to buy your ingredients. Remember this was 13 to 14 years AFTER The Silver Palate Cookbook, which should be the marketing textbook case of the century. Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso wrote that cookbook, just to get the products moving at their Silver Palate store. NOBODY realized how it would take off and become the signature cookbook of that decade and those to follow.

In 1996, an Albany (Albanian?) reporter, Dan DiNicola, came to one of those classes and a close association (both professional and personal) was started as RR began a weekly gig doing weekly cooking segments with DiNicola on the local news. This led to a travel series with the two of them.

In the mean time, Rachael also concentrated on getting a 30 Minute Meals book published, using an unbelievably jejeune scheme of contacting a publisher and basically begging her to take a look at her recipes and help her organize them into a book. It actually worked. The pile of papers was a mess, but after the publisher saw her various television appearances on video, she thought Rachael might be a good prospect. Of course, that was a success too and they brought out an entire series of cookbooks. (This IS getting a bit tiresome for those of us that are just layabouts.)

Her next steps are well-known. Al Roker caught one of her appearances on the Albany TV station and mentioned her to a Today Show producer. NBC booked her for a demo on cooking during a snowstorm. (Of course they did.) She and her mother drove 9 hours in a snowstorm to get to the Today Show - I thought she said 7 hours on her Chefography, but whatever...This is the stuff of legends. The Food Network brought her in to interview. (Of course THEY did.)

She told them, "I'm grossly unqualified to be here. I'm not a chef. Clearly I don't belong here. You guys are champagne and I'm beer out of the bottle." They hired her anyway and began 30 Minute Meals, continuing the dumbing down of the Food Network. (Sandra Lee's Sem-Eye Homemade debuted in the fall of 2003.)

They gave Rachael other shows after that - $40 a Day, Tasty Travels and Inside Dish, where she hung out with celebrities. I remember that show. It was really annoying. There was no great cooking happening. And there was no great gossip, because she wanted to be all palsy-walsy with everyone. It was dumb.

Her True Hollywood Story continues with Rachael, in 2002, locking eyes with John Cusimano across a crowded room, mostly, it sounds like from her description, because they were both short. In 2005, she's on fire with her books and 3 Food Network shows and then...and then...she meets Oprah. Oprah loves her and one thing leads to another and suddenly she has her own magazine in October 2005. I don't think that really had anything to do with Oprah, because I don't think even Oprah could have a magazine in production that quickly.

Rachael, partnering with Harpo Productions, KingWorld Productions, and Scripps Networks, begins her own hour long talk show 11 months later. (CBS Paramount Domestic Television merged with King World in September 2006 and became CTD).

She didn't want to call it "The Rachael Ray Show", because it would "be too much about me." "But that's what it is, said Terry Woods, president of CBS Television Distribution, It IS about you." She lost the name battle, but Rachael did insist, "There will be no crying on my show," because she didn't feel that that was the type of relationship she had with her audience.

With her increased celebrity has come the inevitable backlash (and not for nothing). I was impressed that she talked about the Rachael Ray Sucks website, not by name, but they showed the actual website in the background and had several interviews with its creator. As usual, RR is the first to criticize herself saying, "I can't debate anything they say about me. I'm not a chef, (her favorite line - as if we need reminding) I don't know how to bake."

What are we to make of this pint-sized powerhouse of pathetic culinary stylings? Ok, THIS is the good stuff: She is an incredibly hard worker, who achieved her success the old-fashioned way in this new age of instant celebrity and all-encompassing fame. Another good quality, it sounds as if she would never ask anyone else to do anything that she wasn't prepared to do. (Except apparently she gets her staff to toast all the bread for her show, as that's beyond her.)

Here's the bad: With all that gumption and energy and gung-ho spirit, why can't her food be better? Why can't it be of a higher quality and why does it have to be all the same? You sling some beef or pork or some other dead flesh in a pan, add a few ingredients - not too many- and serve it as soup, stew, chili or in between some bread products or on top of lettuce. Last week, she made hamburgers and put a blob of mashed potatoes between the hamburger and the top bun. WHY? What is the point of that? It's just silly, not good cooking.

The show wraps up with folks saying nice things about her, Bobby Flay: She's America's Lifestyle Sweetheart. The Food Network's Bob Tuschman: I don't think Rachael has an endpoint.

I have an endpoint and it is BE famous, I don't care, hawk every imaginable product from every imaginable outlet. Become the Queen of the Universe. I respect your work ethic, I respect your kindness to your mother and animals, but I do not respect what happens when you get behind the stove and call it dinner.


the sobsister said...

I'm just waiting for the digest of tabloid stories about Ray-Ray. Saw two at the checkout last week. One interview where she talks about Her Weight! Her Marriage! And Why She Apologized to Oprah! Another that promised the true story of why Ray-Ray's husband "left her". Possibly related to the hugely-unflattering photo of her on the cover.

Not enough stuff in my cart to afford me reading time, gosh-darn it.

Enquiring minds, as always, want to know.

gloria j. rendon said...

donRachel Ray's cooking style is perfect for this time and place in history....hooray for her, I love to watch her. She is real. Reminds me of myself growing up in
the forties. Her recipes are quick, simple, nutritious, delicious. Love her Classic 30 minute Meals book and thos pictures.......

Anonymous said...

you know, i dont think her food is "low quality" as you put it. I think she cooks updated versions of American classics that sometimes have other regional flares to them. Maybe a particular recipe is bad, but you could say that about any cook or chef. I think she's great and I love her cooking and her unchanged by fame personality.