Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Defending the Doyenne - The Semi-Cheap, Kind-of-Healthy Goodness of Rachael Ray

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. This one is from November 2007.

From The Onion
Yes, she plugs Dunkin Donuts.

Yes, her recipes occasionally don't work. (The applesauce in this one? Takes almost 45 minutes to mushen.)

Yes, she undertips on her $40 a Day show, the nutritional aspects of her 30-Minute Meals are occasionally questionable, and if I hear “yummo” one more time, I’m going to kill a kitten.

Yet, undoubtedly, Rachael Ray is one of the best things to happen to American kitchens in the last 20 years.

Sweet, sweet Anthony Bourdain was pretty rough on her in his Time interview (“She genuinely offends me.”), but I think he might have confused her with She Who Shall Not Be Named. And while some of his criticism was warranted (seriously, WHY is she shilling for Dunkin?), most of it was a wee bit off.

Think about it. No other ‘90s and ‘00s cheflebrity (not even Emeril) has driven average citizens back to their stoves like Ray has. Nor has anyone else made sort-of upscale cooking look as affordable and achievable. Oh, it’s easy to rag on the ear-splitting accent and the kitchen-sinkiness of some of her meals, but Ray-Ray’s good points far outweigh the bad. In fact, let’s break ‘em down:

She encourages fresh ingredients. Though Rachael’s the spokesperson for donuts, Munchkins, and other assorted sugar, her shows nearly always highlight produce and non-processed foods. I’ve never seen her break out a pre-chopped onion or a store-bought meal base. And while her dishes may be high in calories and fat, they don’t contain half as many bizarro chemicals as most convenience foods.

She tries to keep things vaguely affordable. As opposed to other, more upscale TV chefs, Rachael thinks like a middle-class mom, focusing somewhat on frugality. She may use a large number of ingredients, but most aren’t particularly exotic or expensive. Plus, she’s pretty good about mentioning thriftier substitutes.

She stretches. You will never find authentic Mughal Indian or Indonesian dishes on 30 Minute Meals. You might even raise an eyebrow at what she calls Greek food. However, Rachael often tries to bring one or two ingredients relatively unfamiliar to American palates into her cooking. It’s a solid way to introduce kids and finicky adults to foreign cuisines without overwhelming them, and she should be lauded for it.

Her recipes are available for free. Sure, Ray-Ray makes sweet bank off her cookbooks, but as of this morning, 1558 recipes were on, and several hundred more were listed at her personal website (stunningly, at She doesn’t HAVE to do that, and would make even more moolah if she didn't. Yet, it's a concession she make for her economy-minded fans. It's really great, actually.

She knows her audience.
Maybe this is an insult to those who believe all cooking shows should be aimed at French Culinary grads, but working moms can’t be braising beef or whipping up a gelee every night of the week. Rachael aims her food at families and/or young people getting into a kitchen for the first time, not professional or even proficient chefs. That’s why her dishes are relatively simple, fresh, and fast. In her case, brevity is the soul of food, not complexity. And that’s just fine.

Her food isn’t intimidating. I’ve been to two of Mario Batali’s restaurants, and the man doesn’t make dinner; he makes manna. Alas, trying to duplicate those dishes at home would be extraordinarily time-consuming, expensive, and well beyond most folks’ humble culinary expertise. For better or for worse, Rachael avoids cooking methods that busy people would find unmanageable. Like Bourdain says, taking the path of least resistance should never be encouraged (especially in the kitchen) but again, she’s marketing to home cooks with massive time constraints.

She’s not a chef, and doesn’t pretend to be. Ms. Ray is not a dummy. (Loud, yes. Dumb, no.) She knows her limitations, admits them readily, and tackles the big, bad job of meal-prepping anyway. That takes guts, as well as some level of competence in the kitchen. Ray/Batali didn’t beat Flay/DeLaurentiis on Iron Chef because they got lucky.

I’ve now spent the first day of my thirties defending a celebrity. If you'll excuse me, I’m going to the bathroom to wash my brain, but if anyone has any other convincing arguments for or against her, bring ‘em! I’d love to read.

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Hilarie said...

If it weren't for Rachael Ray being on every night when I got home from my first job after college, I might still only cook pasta, grilled cheese, and George Foreman Grill chicken breasts. She makes cooking from scratch seem accessible, not intimidating, and that's something I think is sorely needed for young adults starting out and anyone who has a busy life.
Do I make her recipes every night? No. But a handful of them are "regulars" in our house, and I respect what she's done.

Eyebrows McGee said...

She is also crack for toddlers. I think it's because, and I don't mean this in a slammy way, she's sort-of like a living muppet with the voice and the smiling and the roundish face.

I have never seen a toddler who didn't want to basically jump into the TV with her!

Mary said...

I've always enjoyed Rachael's shoes because she is a real person, and she doesn't ever pretend to be something else. She came from modest beginnings learning her skills from her mom and grandma, and she's proud of that. I learned the same way, and 30 years ago, the ingredients people used weren't as healthy and exotic as some that might be touted, now. Bourdain should shut up and stick to his own stuff. Everyone is different, and the slandering should be left to the politicians, where it belongs. I think it is unprofessional and lacking in class to slam your colleagues like that.

wosnes said...

I have some complaints about Rachael Ray. One is the use of "yummo," "sammies," and EVOO. I think what bothers me more than her using them is that they've been picked up by other cheflebrities.

My biggest complaint is two-fold. Her portions are huge and she uses too much meat per serving. I typically cooked for 3 people. I'd cut her recipes -- usually geared to serve 4 -- in half, feed us and still have leftovers.

Her recipes can be made in 30 minutes if you don't have interruptions. I can't stand moving that fast to get a meal made! Too tired to eat it when it's done.

With the exception of a couple of soups, none of her recipes have become standards in my home. But I agree that she's getting people in the kitchen and she's not overusing convenience products, and helping folks see that you don't have to have lots of time or be a French chef to get a tasty meal on the table.

Anonymous said...

I love to watch 30 minute meals. Do I cook them often? Nope. But some are easy, quick and the ingredients are easy to come by. I'm not looking for recipes that are very indulgent, just good and real. She fits the bill sometimes.

audreygeddes said...

Love Rachael Ray! Her show is so fun to watch. I've gotten a lot of great recipes from her. I also enjoy a cookbook author, Gigi Centaro, who wrote, "Let's Cook Tonight," which is all about making quick and healthy meals at home. What especially like creating are her in the freezer ideas, which is a real time saver for me.

CJ said...

Your article states exactly the way I feel about her. Got to give credit where it's due. She keeps things simple, easy and gets people cooking.

Plus, at least on screen, she is genuine and seems to absolutely love what she's doing.

CJ said...

Plus, I've seen Anthony Bourdain cook on several of his programs and his cooking skills are admittedly on the shakey side at times. And he touts himself as a chef.

People who live in glass houses.....

Susan Hagen said...

I can't stand perky so find her annoying but I like some of her recipes. A simple chicken breast marinated in balsamic vinegar and sauteed. Last night I had her stuffed cabbage stoup and will sleep in the assurance that I have 4 tubs frozen for later. Anyone who can get people back into the kitchen to cook simple meals isn't all bad.

MCM Voices said...

[aside - I don't see how it could take 45 minutes for that sauce to become soft if the apples are chopped. It takes 45 minutes for an entire kettle of large pieces of apples to become soft {I just made applesauce this evening} Maybe you should try again :) ]

Kris said...

Yeah, you guys - it's taken me awhile, and it's mostly been getting over her mannerisms, but I really have huge respect for Rachael. She works her butt off, and takes far too much flak from folks (Letterman) who aren't totally paying attention.

@MCM: Right? Most of my applesauces are done in 10 or 20 minutes. I could COMPLETELY be remembering this wrong, but I think I made that recipe about four years ago, and it didn't ask you to peel the apples. I thought it was weird, but assumed it did something special for the flavor. That might have been why they took forever. But, yeah - it's been awhile. Maybe it's worth another shot.

@Eyebrows McGee: Rachael and Beyonce, methinks.

Riona said...

Food is so much about status these days, and Ray isn't.

Dawn said...

I see her as a gateway into cooking with confidence for a lot of people. I grew up with on a rotation of about 15 meals as a kid, including boxed mac & cheese and hamburger helper.

As I've grown and developed a love for good food, I've turned to many RR recipes that give me confidence in my growing skill. Her 365 meals cookbook has a recipe where you create your own sauce. Considering I used to think sauce always came out of a jar, this was a huge step for me.

While her meals aren't always the healthiest, at least she's helping people get in the kitchen so they can realize their skill.

Jenn said...

She annoys me now, and I've moved on to cheaper, healthier, less recipe-depedent, more local and less-packaged cooking, but she deserves a significant amount of credit for my transition from eating out most of the time to cooking most of the time. I think she's probably had a more beneficial impact on the way Americans eat and cook than anyone else in the 21st century.