Collectors Issue 2003
The Adirondack roots of one of TV’s hottest chefs
by Annie Stoltie
If you’ve caught Rachael Ray on television slicing and dicing a thirty-minute meal in all her spunky, offhand, salt-over-the-shoulder splendor, you can imagine her at home in Lake Luzerne, simultaneously chatting up her Adirondack roots, slugging down coffee, instant-messaging her boyfriend, John, and fielding phone calls from family and friends about a birthday bash she’s planned for her mom. Ray pauses, midconversation with her sister Maria, and waves a copy of her schedule, a grid crosshatched with appointments. “Doesn’t this look scary?” she asks with her trademark exuberance.
Ray is indefatigable—she’s gotta be. At thirty-four she’s a success, a Food Network diva with a multimedia cooking empire à la Martha, minus the highbrow, labor-intensive fare. (A tour of Ray’s cabin reveals a plaque above a bathroom door that reads Martha Stewart Doesn’t Live Here—“my prized possession,” she jokes.) Ray’s unique spin on streamlined, affordable cuisine has led to two programs on the cable channel—“30 Minute Meals” and “$40 a Day”—and five cookbooks, two of which have landed on the New York Times bestseller list—“Can you imagine?” she says. “I’m on the same list as Hillary Clinton, and I’m just a cook!” Her calendar is crammed with appearances, book signings and excursions to places like Philadelphia, Oahu, Vancouver and Brussels to shoot “$40 a Day,” a show that features Ray eating out on a tight budget. She’s also popping up on Price Chopper grocery store commercials; shoppers can access her healthy and speedy recipe of the week using the mega-market chain’s website.
But today, after months on the go, Ray’s decompressing in her lakeside home by snuggling with pit bull, Boo, and catching up on personal business with her mom, Elsa Scuderi, whom she describes as her “hero, accountant, dog-sitter and head chef of the only cooking school I’ve ever attended.” (Dad, James Ray, lives in Saratoga Springs.) Even if it’s just for a few hours, she’s grateful to be here before shoving off again, first to Albany for voice-overs for her TV programs, then to New York City for more taping.
“I have a wonderful job, my family is happy and healthy. I mean, what is there to complain about?” asks Ray. Except, perhaps, leaving her digs.
This cabin, her home for almost a decade, is woodsy and unassuming with its Adirondack camp exterior. But it’s unbelievable inside, the kind of place to hibernate, burrowing in the deep leather sofas. (Ray fanatics take note: she doesn’t live in a kitchen. In fact, hers in Lake Luzerne is just big enough to accommodate one person swiveling from stove to counter and a tank for her pet goldfish, Jaws and Orca.)
Twiggy, rustic ambience is refreshingly absent here. Ray decorated the place with roadside bargains, Oriental rugs, stained glass, dark colors and fabrics, plus eclectic knick-knacks creating a funky sanctuary. Moody paintings, mostly of monks, by her aunt Geraldine (“Chee Chee”) cover the walls. A portrait of this cabin, also by Chee Chee, hangs above the fireplace; Ray points out Boo in its front yard. Next, she taps the glass of a framed photograph on an end table. “That’s my grandfather,” she says, “He was my best friend.”
Ray’s grandfather Emmanuel was a stonemason who emigrated from Sicily to the Adirondacks. “[He and his brothers] worked their way up the Hudson and came upon Lake George and they loved it,” she says. “In Ti there was a community of Italian immigrants.” There he raised his ten kids, helped rebuild Fort Ticonderoga and worked on the area’s most elaborate homes until moving in with Ray’s family in Lake George.
“His friends would come over and I’d sit up with all these old men as they smoked their pipes and played cards all night. My grandfather knew everything about everything: cooking, landscaping, gardening. He taught my mother everything he knew. Anyway, I was really bored when I went to school because I had been hanging out with eighty-year-old Italian men, and I thought they were my contemporaries.”
Which explains a lot, particularly Ray’s confidence and comfort in the kitchen. “The Food Network allows me to be me,” she says. “If [they] asked me to be Wolfgang Puck I don’t think I could do that. But they just want me to be making dinner, and I can do that.”
And she does it with humor (in one segment of “30 Minute Meals” she describes peppers as being little, “but they pack a punch—kinda like my mom!”). Ray uses back-kitchen colloquialisms like “hit it,” “kick it up” and “I’m gonna let that hang out a bit.” There’s also her freehand measurement system: she suggests eyeballing ingredients—“food will taste better if you let your own hands and tastebuds be your guide.”
Even in print, her personality and quirky anecdotes dominate: Ray’s 30-Minute Meals 2 has chapters like “Make Your Own Take-Out” and “Passport Meals,” which includes menus that, like her favorite movies, sweep her away to Tuscany, Hong Kong and Paris.
The food is primarily Mediterranean, influenced by flavors she’s familiar with—“lots of olive oil and garlic.” However, she says, “my style of cooking definitely reflects where I live. It’s very earthy. I lean toward the woodsy spices: rosemary and thyme and sage. And I chop everything big. Most of the year I live off one-pot menus like soups and stews and things that go hand in hand with living on a mountain.”
But Adirondack cuisine, says Ray, is more about atmosphere than ingredients. “That’s why here feels like home. It’s laid back. You can enjoy a lot of the finer things here, but it’s really a relaxed environment.”
Ray’s tasted the North Country spectrum, from The Point, the jet-set lodge on Upper Saranac Lake, to Papa’s Ice Cream Parlor, in Lake Luzerne. And she’s earned her celebrity chef profile, first as a HoJo’s fountain girl, later managing the Sagamore Resort Hotel’s restaurants and pub, and buying food for prestigious gourmet outlets like Macy’s Marketplace, in New York City, and Cowan & Lobel, in Albany.
At Cowan & Lobel, Ray’s natural talent was recognized during her popular, freeform cooking classes. Soon, an Albany TV station began airing “30 Minute Meals” and “$40 a Day” until the Food Network, available to eighty million cable subscribers, picked up the shows in 2001.
Despite the fame and a globe-trotting (and tasting) life-style, there’s plenty to keep Ray rooted to the region. She says she couldn’t live without Hicks Orchard, in Granville, particularly “their cider donuts, really hot.” She’s been going to Sutton’s Marketplace, in Queensbury, since it was a roadside apple press. Of Jacobs and Toney’s Meat Store of the North, in Warrensburg, Ray says, “A sandwich there is twice the size of your skull!” Also in Warrensburg, Oscar’s Smoke House—“their smoked turkey breast, their Canadian bacon; everything they make is fantabulous. That horseradish cheddar, give me a break with that!” And she says everyone should put a calendar from Martha’s Dandee Cream ice cream, in Queensbury, on the fridge and plan “what flavors are what days so you don’t miss the peanut butter days or the black raspberry days.”
Favorite foods aside, in 30-Minute Meals 2 Ray makes a promise to herself and her mother that she won’t forget where she comes from. She writes, “I can’t and I won’t, Mama. I still live here!”