Rachael Ray Celebrates a Year of Milestones

For Rachael Ray, 2015 has been a remarkable year. 

The celebrity chef will release her 22nd book October 27. The tome, Everyone Is Italian on Sunday, features recipes and stories from her family. Ray is also celebrating a serendipitous series of ten-year anniversaries. On September 14, her daytime show celebrated the launch of its tenth season. On October 14, her magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, turns 10. And her Nutrish pet food line is expected to donate its ten-millionth dollar to animal charities this fall. Ray will also host the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Burger Bash for the tenth time this February. If those happy coincidences aren't enough, she and husband John Cusimano recently celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary with a blowout party at a castle in Tuscany. 

Ray interrupted her über-busy schedule to chat about her big year. What began as a (of course) ten-minute phoner turned into a long and friendly gab session about everything from time management to SoBe Fest to her secret ambitions. 

New Times: First off, did you realize this year marked so many milestones in your personal life and your career?
Rachael Ray: It's weird, right? First of all, it's always creepy when people remind you that a whole decade of your life has gone by. It seems like one big, long day has gone by, but it's been ten years that I've had my dog, my marriage, the daytime talk show, the magazine, and SoBe Fest. That's crazy, right? I hope that isn't bad, like I hope I don't get hit by a truck or something. The fact that it's been ten years, I must have had a really lucky year, I guess.

Did you have a plan for all this success in so many different facets of media? 
I've never planned for all this. It seems pretty fantastic to me. I was working in New York, and I got mugged twice. I thought I'd better get out of dodge because the third time I'd be dead. The universe was telling me to leave New York City. Had I never left, I never would have moved back to the country, I never would have had 30 Minute Meals, none of that would have happened. It was pretty fantastical. I didn't see it coming, that's for sure.  

People ask me to lecture all the time — they want me to talk to schools and Girl Scout troops. I don't know how I can be a benefit to young people, because everything that happened to me was hard work, yes, but most of it was fate. I wouldn't suggest that people get mugged and move to the country and start their lives over again at 25. I do believe there are standards by which you can be a successful human and find happiness. Do not look for balance between work and playtime — it doesn't exist. Do look at quality of life. When you do have your free time, cook your own food, play your favorite music, dance in the living room in your socks, break rules, stay up late, be adventurous. When you work, work harder than anybody else — I don't care what your job is. Do your job with integrity. Don't take yourself too seriously, and be happy for the opportunity to work, and you will magically go farther than you expected. If you do those things, good things will happen. That's the only advice I listen to myself. 

Of all your projects — the magazine, the daytime show, Food Network — is there one that's closest to your heart?
They're all very much a part of one thing. I work with a large group of people, but we are common seekers. We all believe that you do not have to be rich to have a rich life and that work should be as much fun as play. We all believe that our material, whether it's in written form or digital form or television, should make people feel empowered and happier in their everyday lives. That material should be practical and not aspirational. Everybody is one extended family, so the work all feels the same. 

With all your projects, what do you do when you find some time for yourself?
When I'm at home, I do exactly the same thing. I cook and spend all day in the kitchen. I love to cook and spend most of my time cooking; I love to chat and spend a lot of my time chatting. I like to take pictures, but that's the only hobby that people don't see on television. Other than that, what you see is what you get. I'm also a voracious reader. I'm just finishing The Martian. I like thrillers mostly, but I will pick up anything. It's a great way to wind down. If I read, I'll get 50 to 100 pages in, and then I'm out. 

Speaking of writing, on October 27, your 22nd book, Everyone Is Italian on Sunday, comes out. How do you come up with fresh ideas for so many books?
Is it the 22nd book? I guess I just write them; I don't keep track of them. I keep a notebook with me at all times, and I write down everything I make at home. I have about 20 years' worth of composition notebooks filled with recipes. Every few months, I start to see a pattern, and it turns into a collection. There are so many recipes that I've done in the past couple of years that are my favorite food and my family's favorite food. This is so personal to me, because I have never done a book about the feeling of being an Italian-American. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, by far. When I turned in the manuscript, it was almost 700 pages single-spaced. Honestly, it was literally more than a ream of paper. But I was proud when it was done. I think they're all special and fun books, but this was my favorite because it was a labor of love.

What was it like to write something so close to your personal life?
It's definitely the most elaborate group of recipes and the ones that I really toiled over. A lot of work comes very easily to me. I think in food. It's sort of like playing a game. But this was not like that. This was about the food we love most in my family, and it's just a very personal work. I usually try to write for the customer. I try to give the publisher or viewer what they want. This was just about me really enjoying my life and being grateful that I was brought up in an Italian-American household. It's all about family, guilt, food, more food. When you plan an event, you plan the food even before the people. When my family gets together, they all have champagne and they're hugging and screaming and crying at the same time.

Let's talk about some of the other milestones this year. You're celebrating your tenth wedding anniversary in a castle.
We're renewing our vows where we were married. It's a little castle that was turned into a small hotel that my mom found when she was traveling with her sister in Tuscany. We've gone every year since we were married, except for a year they were renovating. We bring friends and go to the scene of the crime, so to speak. But this is our tenth, so we're even bringing my pit bull, who's a flower girl, along with my niece, Vivian. Then all the members of the wedding who play an instrument form a sort of supergroup for the night. Everyone has to change out of their wedding clothes and into their pajamas and hotel bathrobes, and we dance all night long.

You're also marking your ten-millionth dollar, which your Nutrish line of pet food will donate to animal welfare organizations.
We always had a pet column in the magazine that featured what to cook for your pets. Well, someone from Ainsworth Pet Nutrition company called me and said they were testing some of the recipes and wanted to talk to me. I said if I do this, it's not for me. We'll give the proceeds to animal groups both large and small. I wanted Bad Rap because they save pit bulls and North Shore Animal League. One hundred percent of proceeds go to rescues, and we're going to hit $10 million this year. All of the food is fantastic quality. I actually ate some of the cat food for breakfast on MSNBC. I had some mackerel. 

And Nutrish is the sponsor of Yappie Hour at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which is the first dog-friendly event at the festival.
It's the best event ever! Unbelievable! And [festival director] Lee [Schrager], he just gets me and he gets how to throw a party. God, that was so great. I love Lee. We've been together for ten years because he's a compassionate and loving human. 

Burger Bash also turns 10 this year.
Burger Bash is my idea, it's my baby, and I stay there the entire time. A decade ago, when Lee asked me what I would like to do, I thought this party has to be fun. I figured, what a great challenge to invite the best chefs to break down their food onto a bun? Food is about sharing and communicating with each other, and that's the thing that's most important to me. These guys are going to want bragging rights and a trophy, and they are all so competitive it's hilarious.

After ten years of judging burgers, what advice would you give chefs at this year's Burger Bash?
If you really look back at it, Michael [Symon] has won many times, but Shake Shack is a clear favorite. It's the straight-up burgers that people dig the most, rather than the ones with all the bells and whistles. I am not a burger-rulebook person. I think a burger can be made of just about anything. I think you can make a patty out of everything, but in the end, nothing smells better than beef or bacon cooking.

Each year, Burger Bash is one of the first events to sell out. Why do you think it's such a popular ticket?
People just know they're getting their bang for their buck. At Burger Bash, there's going to be an amazing band, and you'll get unlimited beer and burgers. Who doesn't want burgers and beer on the beach? It's almost like going to a really good wedding, but instead of eating bad filet or salmon, you get burgers and you get to dance to great music. It's a huge event, and each year I'm always flipped out. I say, "Dude, this looks like a Bon Jovi concert." Its a fun party. It's a good time.

After celebrating this momentous year, is there anything else on your list that you're working on, or have you done it all?
Nooo! There's never a point where I've done it all. That's no fun. The whole game is what I'm going to do next. I'm working on quite the few nexts.

If you could do anything on the planet, what would it be?
I love jumping out of planes, so I'd like to do more of that if I had the opportunity. But if I had all the time in the world, I would go back to my music lessons. I always wanted to play keyboards. I'm a frustrated rock 'n' roll musician. My ideal existence would be to be named the backup drummer for the Foo Fighters. But even if they break limbs, they still play, so I guess they don't need me. But I am a musician at heart. When no one is home, I literally dance around my living room, screaming karaoke into a kaleidoscope for a microphone, with my dog looking at me like I'm crazy. I will party with myself with the music turned up to around 50.

Are you talking about dancing like in the famous Tom Cruise scene in Risky Business?
I'm not ashamed of it. Totally like that, but I'm in pajamas, not men's underwear. 

Rachael Ray returns to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which runs February 25-28, 2016. Ray will host the tenth-annual Burger Bash, beachside at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, Friday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. (tickets cost $250 and $350) and Yappie Hour at the Standard Spa Saturday, February 27, at 4 p.m. (tickets cost $95).  MasterCard presale tickets will be available October 5-18.

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