I like Rachael Ray. A lot. On this, America and I agree. The lady’s a star. For a decade now, I’ve had the pleasure of making regular appearances on Rachael Ray, where I help transform her TV viewers with makeovers and beauty tips. It’s always a blast to watch Rachael work her culinary magic and entertain America as she strives to keep us well fed and well informed. I’ve observed Rachael on and off camera, with celebrities and interns, dressed up and down. I’ve seen her endless generosity with her guests, often giving away romantic dinners and gifts when the cameras aren’t rolling, and I’ve been the recipient of it, too. Rachael and her producers kept me busy during a very difficult time in my life—as I cared for my dying mother—and coming to New York City to tape episodes of Rachael Ray gave me a sense of normalcy, which I so needed during that very difficult period. Still, after all these years, there was a lot I didn’t know about her, but I’ve always known this: Rachael Ray is the hardest-working person I’ve ever met, she’s sharp as a tack and has impeccable taste. For Christmas last year, she gave me a gorgeous book about the artist John Derian, which has a permanent spot on my coffee table. I love the book, and I love that she thought of me when she saw it.
Most of the time I spend with Rachael is on set, where our conversation is limited to hair and skincare products and Italian wine. So I was thrilled when my dear friend and saratoga living Editor in Chief, Richard Pérez-Feria, asked me to interview the Capital Region’s hometown sweetheart for the cover story—to actually sit down with her, one-on-one, as part of her crazy busy day, which entailed filming two shows and posing for the magazine cover with more than 50 pairs of eyes dead-set on her, and just talk. I never knew just how close she is with her mother, or about how delicious meals are just one of the many ways she expresses her inspiring creativity. I never knew that she loved to read, or that, even after being a celebrity chef all day, she goes home to cook the meals she knows her family likes. And I never knew the background behind her courageous entrance into the world of interior design. I do now.
Rachael Ray was born in Glens Falls and moved with her family to Lake George when she was eight, where she stayed through high school. Her mother, Elsa, managed restaurants in the Capital Region, including the last surviving Howard Johnson’s in Lake George. After a stint working at Macy’s Marketplace candy counter in New York City in the ’90s, Rachael returned home to Upstate New York, where she managed Mr. Brown’s Pub at The Sagamore on Lake George and then worked as a buyer at Cowan & Lobel, a gourmet market in Albany. She began teaching “30 Minute Meals” classes, which garnered the attention of the local CBS news affiliate and eventually the Today show. Now, besides hosting the multiple Daytime Emmy Award-winning talk show Rachael Ray, she hosts a trio of Food Network series, heads two nonprofits, toplines the eponymous (and best-selling) Rachael Ray Every Day magazine, has her own cookware and pet food lines and is a world-class furniture designer. It’s a lot. And she does it all so damn well.
Throughout Rachael’s ascending career, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. She still keeps a house in Lake Luzerne, where she goes to get away from her intense Manhattan life. And Saratoga Springs? She considers it her backyard. “You go to Saratoga for the arts: The jazz scene, Skidmore College, Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The place I’d always go first when I’d go down to Saratoga was the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore. I love music and read actual books, and Saratoga is where you go to get that stuff.” And her thoughts on Lake George? “I just think ‘home.’”
A year-and-a-half ago, the tireless entrepreneur launched Rachael Ray Home, a furniture collection that included three distinct lines named after three areas of New York: Soho, Highline and Upstate. The products in each line were clearly created with their namesakes in mind—the Upstate line is more traditional and relaxed than the city-named lines, and features an intricately made, polished but comfortable-looking sofa called, appropriately enough, the Lake George sofa. Since then, her collection has expanded to several other lines, including Hudson and Chelsea, her youth-centered lines, and the Cinema line, which reflects her love of Old Hollywood style. I ask Rachael to sum up her design aesthetic in one word. “Eclectic,” she says. “I don’t like matchy-matchy. I don’t like anything to look forced. I want people to take our furniture and make it their own. All of the colors and all of the lines, in my opinion, mix and match. I want people to have fun with this stuff.”
The Rachael Ray Home website has a quote that I love: “I want everyone to feel as welcomed home by their spaces as I do by mine.” “Welcoming” to Rachael means tidy but lived-in, she tells me, pointedly. When she was young and struggling financially, if she had to be at work by 5am, she’d wake up at 3am to make sure her living space was clean and ready to receive her when she came home late at night. “Since I was a kid, I’d spend my last ten bucks in life on flowers or a pillow at the odds-and-ends store. To me, the aesthetic of life is about good food and your environment.” She says she likes to imagine that her home has a life of its own while she’s away. If she can tell that a worker or a delivery person has been in her space, she apologizes to the space for the disruption. She respects her home as its own entity, similar to the respect one gives a family member or pet. It seemed so obvious to me that this inherent love of her home is what made her such an instinctual designer. “I think that having a home environment that you’re proud of and is welcoming is an essential part of life,” she says, excitedly. “Whether you’re rich or poor, it makes no difference. It changes the quality of your life. It changes how you treat other people. It changes how you face your day and how you end your day.” Pride in one’s home is part of the reason Rachael loves traveling to Italy and the South of France: No matter how poor people appear to be, they sweep their stoop every day, and everyone has fresh-cut flowers on their table. “There’s a respect for themselves and for their environment.”
Coming of age in the early 1990s, I remember hearing about Madonna’s legendary work ethic. Rachael has it too. (Have you seen her résumé?) Her work ethic comes from the way she was raised: Her mother allowed her to stay up past her bedtime if she was creating something—a drawing or painting—or if she was reading. She said she learned that there was freedom in creativity, and she liked that freedom. Thus, Rachael Ray Home.
“Why did I start designing furniture? To face a fear. I didn’t think that people would take me seriously, because I don’t have a degree in design,” she says, candidly. In fact, Rachael claims she’s been underqualified at every step in her career. When her furniture line won a design award shortly after its release, she was embarrassed looking at the long list of college-degree qualifications that followed the names of all the other winning designers. “My listing said ‘Rachael Ray’—period.”
All academic credentials aside, design is about creativity and problem solving, which are things Rachael Ray has proven she possesses again and again. Whether she’s explaining how to cook a complex dish in a simple, accessible way, figuring out how to design a cabinet so that you never have to see the electrical cord attached to the gaming console inside, or making furniture that looks beautiful from all angles, so that it can just as easily go in the middle of a room as against a wall, Rachael is always thinking about the best way to do things. Just look at the massively successful oval pasta pot she released more than a decade ago, an obvious culinary upgrade that only she was bright enough to bring to market. “Spaghetti is freaking long!” she says. Yes it is.
The second reason Rachael gives for her entrance into the furniture design world is frustration. “I think that not enough of the furniture that’s affordable is made in America, and I don’t think it’s smart. It’s made in a crap way, because people can get away with it. And furniture that’s really well made and extremely expensive? The case goods are still made in China.” Rachael Ray Home’s products are made as entirely in America as possible. The factory is run by two women, and has an apprenticeship program where young people can learn the old-school way of building furniture. “I don’t mind global trade,” Rachael says. “I just think you should do as much as you can in our country and bring back as many jobs as you can.”
As I sit listening to Rachael Ray, I realize it’s quite an experience. She’s a woman with strength, vision, clarity and exuberance. She’s also spectacularly indefatigable—the Energizer Bunny has nothing on Ms. Ray. During our conversation, I casually called her a powerhouse, and she quickly shut me down. Rachael doesn’t like the word “power” and all that it implies. She’s a person of fairness, generosity and her own brand of kindness. She’s got moxie—a much better way of thinking about her, I find. Rachael Ray is a person of raw talent, unbridled energy and brazen courage. And I get to call her my friend.
No wonder everyone loves Rachael Ray. You should, too. After all, she’s one of us.
About the Author
The Emmy Award-winning grooming expert on the original Queer Eye, Kyan Douglas has had a regular makeover segment on Rachael Ray for more than a decade. “Looking over Rachael’s furniture collections got me excited about design, because her pieces are both elegant and familiar,” he says. “It’s similar to being on set while she’s cooking: Your mouth waters as the aroma of her food fills the air. Her designs stimulate my passion for the possibility of my own space.”