NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of Food Network mainstay Rachael Ray.
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With four shows on the Food Network, best-selling books, and fans around the country, Rachael Ray is like a force of nature.
"Even when I'm out in the world, people don't come up and say, 'Oh, Rachael, can I touch you?'" Ray says. "They're like, 'Hey, what's going on? How's it going?' I'm a blue-collar girl."
Yet this blue-collar girl is one of the most popular personalities on the Food Network. Even though Ray says she usually doesn't watch herself on TV.
"(I start thinking) well, maybe I should get my hair cut, maybe I should get a little eye tuck or go to the gym," she says. "It becomes about me, and not the food."
And she doesn't let her dog watch either.
"My dog can't understand why I'm stuck in the TV," says Ray. "She hears my voice but she can't get to me, so it just confuses her."
So why is Rachael Ray so popular?
Perhaps it's her belief that you don't need to be a world-class chef to make a great meal. Besides, who has the time?
So she's made her mark by showing how you can make a great meal in thirty minutes. And the idea has hit.
"I think people really like the accessibility of it — the fact that I cook in blue jeans and a shirt, and everything doesn't look too perfect," she explains. "And I don't know what the heck I'm doing," she adds with a smile.
But all indications are that Ray does know what the heck she's doing. Some of her expressions, like "sammies" for sandwiches, "stoops" for a combination of stew and soup, and "E.V.O.O." for extra virgin olive oil, have become catchphrases.
Much has been made about how other chefs who studied at institutes might look down on Ray's food and persona.
But Ray isn't buying.
"People come in different flavors, like ice cream," she says. "Not everybody goes for strawberry. And I know plenty of chefs that have been decent and kind and sweet to me. Mario lives a couple of blocks from me, and we're good friends. He comes over and eats my food, and doesn't have any complaints."
She's talking about her friend Mario Batali, the famous New York City chef and restaurateur.
Ray says that chefs can make great masterpieces — but not every chef is a good cook. And she's taken her share of hits on the Internet. But then again, who hasn't?
"What am I going to do, haul off on them?" she says laughing. "It's just stupid, there's nothing to fight about. So, no, it doesn't bother me in the least."
Ray got married last September and lives in Greenwich Village, but she still has a place upstate near Albany, close to her hometown.
She goes to visit her mom pretty frequently, and says that the TV shows and all the hoopla hasn't changed anything when she goes home.
"My family is harder on me now than ever," she says. "So it's not like, 'Oooo, you diva.' It's like, "Oh please, don't be so full of yourself. What are you, too good to cook for us now?'"
Spend a few minutes with Ray, or watch her for a few minutes on TV, and it's not hard to imagine that she was once a cheerleader at Lake George High School.
"I don't think I was that good with the words," Ray recalls. "I was good with the claps, though."
It's not so unusual for someone to come to New York City seeking fame and fortune. But to find it the second time around? That's rare.
Ray lived in Queens in the mid 1990s, and she remembers those times as horrible and excruciating.
"It was like a bad Brazilian soap opera," she says. "I broke my leg, I broke up with my boyfriend, I got mugged twice — not once but twice! And I was on crutches. I couldn't run out of town fast enough."
Ray went back to Albany and worked as a buyer in a gourmet grocery store. She started teaching a thirty-minute meal class, and a local television station picked up on it and made it a regular segment.
"It sort of took over my life," she says. "It wasn't a plan, but once I started teaching the classes, I had so much fun that I guess, looking back, I kind of got hooked on it. It was fun to chat and talk and play with food at the same time."
The segment led to a shot on the Today Show. The Food Network saw it and made her a regular, and now her work is seen and read all over the country.
However, there's been a price to pay.
"I'm a very accident-prone girl," Ray explains. "My hands look awful. They're all cut and burned. There's scars, calluses, bubbles."
The public Rachael Ray we see is larger than life. But there are quieter moments, such as this week when we watched her sign autographs for young cancer patients.
"I'm going to put a secret in the back here — this is my e-mail address," she told one girl. "Send me some of your recipes and we can get them in the magazine in the kids' section."
It's all happened rather fast for Rachael Ray, and now there are plans for a new talk show with the support of none other than Oprah Winfrey.
"I love my life," Ray says. "It's not like I planned any of it, and if it all ended tomorrow and I went back to being a waitress, I had a great time doing that too. I'm basically a happy person and I like working hard, and if people say, 'Okay, we've had enough,' then that would be enough."