Rachael Ray may be the world's most reviled chef. Entire blogs are devoted to slamming the perky Food Network superstar—"Rachael Ray Sucks" is particularly vicious. On Web sites like eGullet, a "society for culinary arts and letters," users say she should be "tarred and feathered." And professional chefs, including Slate food writer Sara Dickerman, turn up their noses when Ray comes around. It's easy to see why: Ray rejects specialty ingredients, elaborate recipes, and other foodie staples. But she deserves our respect. She understands how Americans really cook, and she's an exceptional entertainer.
Ray's marquee program, 30-Minute Meals, relies on countless foodie no-nos. She advocates store-bought shortcuts—"I take a little help where I can get it"—using boxed corn muffin mix for her Cracked Corn and Cheese Squares, and chunky peanut butter in her Thai Salad With Peanut Dressing. She loathes baking—it's too fussy—so her "homemade" desserts are things like Black Cherry Ice Cream With Chocolate Sauce: Buy the ice cream and top with chocolate sauce and a dash of cherry liqueur (Reddi-Wip is optional). Her dishes rely solely on items available at the local Safeway. And she's no stranger to fast food: She endorsed a Burger King chicken sandwich in 2003.
Ray's ditzy demeanor also makes her easy to dismiss. She giggles off-cue and constantly praises her own cooking. "Smells awesome already!" she says, making her Snapper in a Snap. "I am so psyched about that." She employs kitschy abbreviations—EVOO means "extra virgin olive oil"—and gives her menus corny nicknames like You-Won't-Be-Single-for-Long Vodka Cream Pasta. The acknowledgments in her $40 a Day cookbook read like a high-school yearbook: "Don …You are the tallest man we've ever had on crew, and yet you pack the smallest bag—ever! Cool." And it didn't boost her credibility when she posed for pinup shots in FHM. (One featured Ray licking chocolate off a spoon.) When the magazine hit newsstands, she said, "I think it is kinda cool for someone who is goofy, and a cook, just a normal person to be thought of in that way."
These days Ray is hardly "normal"—she's a multimedia queen. Since Ray joined the Food Network in 2001, she's slowly taken over. In addition to 30-Minute Meals, she hosts the travel show $40 a Day and gossips with celebrities on Inside Dish. According to the New York Times, Ray wrote four of this year's 10 best-selling cookbooks. When she touted Wüsthof's Santoku knife, sales spiked; she now endorses her own blade. And this fall, she'll have a magazine: Every Day with Rachael Ray. Just like Oprah and Martha!
To her credit, Ray has always cast herself as a sort of anti-Martha, offering options for those who want to save money, eat healthfully, and cook at home but don't have the time or budget to entertain the Turkey Hill way. Too busy to hunt down authentic ingredients at ethnic markets? Make Chicken Curry in a Hurry instead. She also offers quick versions of slow-cooked classics like stew or chicken and dumplings, so working parents can still serve comfort foods on cold winter nights.
Ray's 30-Minute shtick is simple, but inspired. Regular cooking shows are rife with annoying you'll-never-be-able-to-replicate-this moments. When the chef begins, meticulously prepared ingredients lie at the ready; he breezes through instruction and then—poof!—pulls out the perfect frittata that's been waiting in the oven. Ray cooks in real time, so you know what you're in for.
The show is also fantastically entertaining. It's suspenseful: As the minutes tick by, Ray becomes frenetic—will she finish? (She always does.) And it's educational: As Ray trims her asparagus and frantically wraps prosciutto around the green stems, she offers tips. Use a "garbage bowl" to collect debris as you're cooking. Chop chicken into small pieces so it cooks faster. Roll citrus before you cut it, and you'll extract more juice. Forget about measuring—"Eyeball it!"
For years, I devoured the show, and Ray and I enjoyed a problem-free relationship. But as she became more popular and her detractors became more vocal, I realized that if I wanted to defend her, I should try a few of her recipes. You can imagine my dismay when, 21 recipes later, I was forced to admit that I could not complete a 30-Minute Meal in 30 minutes. Ray's four-course "Cooking for 10 in 30 Italian Style" menu took me a frenzied one hour, 25 minutes, and 57 seconds. Though the food was very good, I came away exhausted and with a burnt finger. My most successful effort was Ray's "Back in the Day" menu: Super Sloppy Joes, Deviled Potato Salad, and Root Beer Floats. I prepped with the same care as Ray—produce pre-rinsed, garbage bowl at the ready, pantry items near at hand—but it took me 49 minutes and 51 seconds (and I skipped the Root Beer Floats).
Where had I gone wrong? For a while, I suspected Ray of cutting corners. Was an army of interns frying chicken during commercials? But then I learned that Ray didn't start out on TV. Her first "30-Minute Meals" were devised for a series of cooking classes that she taught at Cowan & Lobel, a gourmet grocery store in Albany, N.Y. (The classes eventually earned her a regular spot on the local news.) Back then, Ray prepared her meals for a live audience, which means she couldn't cheat: She had to rely on smart kitchen choreography. Ray may have a crack production team at her disposal today, but she still exhibits considerable logistical acumen.
Unlike most celebrated chefs, Ray seems to have spent more time in supermarkets than cooking in restaurant kitchens. She started out working the candy counter at Macy's Marketplace in New York and then managed the fresh foods department there; later she became a manager and buyer for Manhattan grocer Agata & Valentina. That's probably why she's so good at adapting gastronomy for the masses: She knows how real people shop and eat.