Beyond TV and EVOO: Rachael Ray Looks for Her Next Act

Rachael Ray in March at Feedback, her annual concert at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q during the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex. The daylong event features free music, free food and free beer.

LAKE LUZERNE, N.Y. — Rachael Ray washes and irons her own sheets, and those of anyone who stays in her guesthouse here.

Pitching in with cooking or cleaning is nearly impossible, no matter how many times one offers. Like a friendly shark that needs to keep oxygen-rich water flowing over its gills, Ms. Ray survives on constant motion.

“I don’t need help,” she said, moving me away from the ramps she was chopping. “This is my happy place.”

Despite the kind of wealth that allows her to drop more than $80,000 on a private jet so her beloved pit bull, Isaboo, can travel to Italy with her and her husband, John Cusimano, she is still very much the upstate New York kid whose first job was running the dish machine at a restaurant her mother managed.

Still, there are surprises to discover at the compound she has carved out of the woods near Lake George. She has a zip line, and carts her 84-year-old mother around in a covered all-terrain vehicle that Guy Fieri gave her as a thank-you gift. Her favorite love poem was written by Charles Bukowski. His words, along with a Weezer set list and a painting by her friend Jacques Pépin, hang on her walls.

She and Mr. Cusimano, an entertainment lawyer and a rock musician, spend as much time as they can in this house, which they built for $1 million a decade ago from reclaimed barn wood and stone blasted from the 199 acres it sits on. That’s big money here, but less than it cost them to buy a couple of rooms so they could expand their apartment in Greenwich Village.

“I just want a place I can die,” she said. “It’s the Italian in me.”

Here in the woods, Ms. Ray has the space to contemplate the next phase of a career arc that, at its zenith, sliced popular food culture down the middle: You either loved Rachael Ray or wanted her to drown in a vat of her own EVOO — her phrase for extra-virgin olive oil, which was added to the Oxford American College Dictionary in 2007.

Ms. Ray rose to fame in the early 2000s, when the Food Network minted stars like the old Hollywood studio system. She was the cute girl next door with a little urban flair who could teach you how to cook dinner in half an hour.

Now, facing her 50th birthday in August, she is trying to figure out how to steer a huge media and merchandise ship that is starting to show its age into fresh waters.

“The question is not only what’s the sunset time on a food star, but what’s the sunset time on a cultural moment in food,” said Dana Cowin, 57, chief creative officer of the restaurant group Dig Inn, who spent 21 years as editor in chief at Food & Wine magazine.

Ms. Ray’s camp breathed a sigh of relief when her syndicated daytime talk show, whose latest ratings placed her just below Wendy Williams but ahead of her friend Dr. Oz, was recently renewed for a 13th season.

Although Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Studios owns part of the show, made a special appearance on Ms. Ray’s 2,000th episode last year, the Emmy nominations have dried up. Syndicated television itself is on the decline. Viewers criticize her online, saying that she looks burned out and that her food segments have lost a certain joie de vivre.

Her last cookbook, “Everyone Is Italian On Sunday,” came out in 2015. Of her 22 books, it’s the one that meant the most to her, but it didn’t sell as well as she had hoped.

Her magazine, “Rachael Ray Every Day,” has an impressive 1.7 million subscribers. Yet, like many food magazines, it faces a digital landscape filled with Instagram influencers and young cooks more interested in 90-second cooking videos and technical guides for matcha marshmallows than in her printed recipes for ground-sirloin-and-porcini stroganoff.

Ms. Ray, a worrier prone to stress dreams the day before a big meeting, is steeling herself for what could be an uphill climb: making herself relevant to a new generation.

Her plan of attack includes pitching digitally streamed shows that have more to do with food, travel and music than cooking. She wants to produce some and star in others. “It’s scary to go into a meeting where you are not the coolest person in the room,” she said. “It’s exciting, but it’s completely frightening.”

She figures the worst that could happen is that she ends up staying right where she is. That’s a long way from the days when she was so broke that her hands shook when she swiped her debit card at the supermarket checkout, not sure if she had enough in the bank to cover $60 worth of groceries.

Now, she has an American Express black card and more than enough money to care for an extended network of relatives in need; she takes her friends with her on vacation and doles out extravagant presents to the people who work for her. Her list of Christmas gift recipients is 30 pages long.

She gives away so much money that you almost believe her when she says she doesn’t know if reports that her net worth tops $60 million are true.

“I have no idea if there’s $4 in my pocket or $400,” she said. “I never ask about it. That’s why I have bankers. I don’t want to know anything at all about what I’ve got or what I don’t. It’s never motivated me. It never will.”

The core team that makes the Rachael Ray machine run is surprisingly small. She jettisoned her longtime agent a few years ago. Her eight-person staff includes her older sister, Maria Betar. Ms. Ray listens to advice from her mother, Elsa Scuderi, 84, who lives in a cabin across the road.

Ms. Ray was living with her in the cabin in 2005, when I first interviewed her in person — material I later used in a book about women in the food business. It had been a big year for Ms. Ray. She had gotten married, signed a contract for “The Rachael Ray Show” and started her magazine. She is more savvy and more sure of herself now, prone to long reflections on life. But she is still the bubbly character you see on TV.

Her marriage has matured, too. Mr. Cusimano, 50, has been her business partner from nearly the start, and remains her closest adviser. Theirs has always been a fiery relationship, often dissected in the tabloids. But the two have settled into a comfortable, solid, middle-aged partnership filled with accommodation, admiration and frequent kisses.

He makes her romantic playlists, writes cocktail recipes for her books and does the grilling and the dishes. She is a faithful fan of his music, buys him fancy motorcycles and other toys, and cooks him dinner.

“We’re the same,” Ms. Ray said. “We’re loud. We don’t have to have dinner at a set time. And he knows he can’t boss me around over how much money I give away.”

Ms. Ray, who doesn’t sleep much and relaxes with “Columbo” reruns, has two essential operating principles. First, she won’t put her name on anything she wouldn’t want to use at home or hasn’t sketched out in one of the notebooks that never leave her side.

“I even have baby notebooks I put in those stupid handbags when you have to go do the red carpet, because I hate being anywhere where I can’t write anything down,” she said.

Second, she works hard and trusts her instincts. “My gut is what got us here,” she said. “I am not going to change what I do or make my decisions any differently.”

Despite protests from advisers, her gut led her into the pet food business in 2008. Owners of a small, family-owned Pennsylvania company noticed how much attention animals received in her magazine, and approached her. Ms. Ray agreed to let them use her name, as long as the food was inspired by her recipes and her piece of the licensing agreement went to her foundation for animals.

“People were like, you can’t put your head on dog food. That’s insane,” she said. “I was like, ‘Who cares? It’s not like I have a stellar reputation as one of the world’s great chefs.’”

Her instincts were right. The brand, Nutrish, sold $650 million worth of products in 2017. Ms. Ray’s animal foundation (she has another dedicated to family nutrition and cooking) has given $27 million to causes big and small. Puerto Rico and Houston each received $1 million for hurricane relief. Smaller grants went to Goats of Anarchy, which cares for sick and injured goats, and a local no-kill cat shelter that her mother asked her to build.

This month, J.M. Smucker is buying the company, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, for $1.9 billion, largely on the strength of the Nutrish brand. None of the parties would comment on whether Ms. Ray’s company would benefit from the sale, but she says Smucker’s president, Mark Smucker, told her over dinner that he would keep the charitable agreement intact long after she dies.

Other ideas are in various stages of execution. She is writing a new book that is neither a memoir nor a cookbook, but has elements of both. She is developing a gardening line and designing handbags, both expensive ones with hand-dyed Italian leather and more affordable vegan models aimed at millennials.

And like Paula Deen and Trisha Yearwood, she has introduced her own lines of furniture. Ms. Ray has had a hand in designing every piece, adding useful elements like napkin drawers in compact dining sets for New York apartments and clever ways to hide electrical cords in night stands. She created a cinema-inspired line, several pieces of which she gave her friend Kathy Griffin, the comedian. Other lines reflect Ms. Ray’s love of Denmark, Italy and, coming soon, Austin, Tex. More than 250 retailers sell her furniture, and the list is growing.

Unlike media, housewares is a market where maturity is an advantage, said Niraj Shah, the chief executive of the online retailer Wayfair, which sells Ms. Ray’s merchandise. “The home core shopper is 35 to 65,” he said. “I don’t think she’s looking to someone particularly young for advice.”

Still, Ms. Ray made sure her is name is hidden inside the pieces. “That way, even if you hate me you can still buy it,” she said.

She perfected that self-effacing jujitsu a long time ago, when she became so reviled in some corners of the food world that blogs were devoted to how much she was hated and Rachael Ray jokes became cultural currency.

She laughs about it now, but it wasn’t always that way. “Believe me, I cried my eyes out plenty,” she said. “But you can’t battle mean-spiritedness by answering it with behavior that is less than what you want for yourself.”

She is less confident about her push into the music world. For 11 years, she has staged shows during the South by Southwest Music Festival, in Austin. “Music is scarier than furniture because I love it so much,” she said. “If every time I put on a concert and people were whispering things about me, it’d be like an endless prom.”

Feedback, her annual free concert at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q for 3,000 people, is a gift to a city she would live in if it weren’t so hot. People start lining up well before dawn to spend the day listening to music, drinking free beer and eating Ms. Ray’s food. This year’s theme was hot dogs, and featured mini vegan corn dogs with tomatillo gazpacho shooters and Hebrew Nationals in various stages of dress.

The musical lineup included Dr. Pepper’s Jaded Hearts Club Band, a Beatles supergroup, and the hip-hop throwback Salt-N-Pepa. As always, her husband’s rock band, the Cringe, had a slot. Jon Pareles, the New York Times music critic who covers the South by Southwest festival, described it to me as “a slightly older person’s lineup, but not bad.”

By 8 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, the line wrapped around several city blocks. People close to Ms. Ray’s age, in green leprechaun hats, said they had learned to cook from her. Men in their early 30s recalled her as their first TV crush. College students playing cards on the sidewalk barely knew she had something to do with cooking, but liked her work as a music promoter.

Addie Broyles, 34, a food writer for The Austin American-Statesman, said Austin senses Ms. Ray’s sincere love for the city. “If she had started hosting this party two years ago, people would say she was hopping on the Austin train,” she said.

Ms. Ray’s superpower has always been her ability to read what Middle America wants and know just when to deliver it, Ms. Broyles said. “I would not call sous vide mainstream until she does it,” she said.

As the country struggles with deep cultural and political divisions, the skill could be the very thing that helps Ms. Ray recapture a certain currency.

“This might be her time, in a zeitgeisty kind of way,” said the food journalist Charlotte Druckman, 42, who this year tapped Ms. Ray as a judge for the Piglet, a cookbook tournament she runs each March for the cooking website Food 52.

“She is anti-aspirational, which actually seems refreshing,” Ms. Druckman said. “If fast casual is a thing, Rachael is fast casual.”

Kat Kinsman, 45, the food writer and editor, put it another way: “People don’t realize how cool Rachael is. Like, you would totally smoke under the bleachers with her.”

Still, among some in their 20s, Ms. Ray’s reputation remains that of a simplistic cook who appeals to children and grandmothers, said Emily Johnson, 25, the associate editor for the website Epicurious.

“It always seemed like she was learning to cook along with you, which I do actually like,” she said. “But my friends want to read a Wirecutter review where someone tested something scientifically for eight million hours, or they want a Cook’s Illustrated recipe where somebody tried 47 different ways of making whatever thing.” (Wirecutter, a product-recommendation site, is owned by The New York Times Company.)

Ms. Ray has not embraced a digital life, at least not personally. Although she is a prolific texter, it wasn’t long ago that she put down her flip phone. Her brand has nearly 11 million followers spread across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time on those platforms.

“I don’t take in negative information online,” she said. “I just don’t feel it’s a constructive use of my time, and I have too much work to do.”

Although Ms. Ray is a daily reader of The Times, watches MSNBC and listens to Howard Stern, she tries to separate her show from politics. It doesn’t always work.

In March, the Fox News talk show host Laura Ingraham mocked David Hogg, a high school student who survived the February mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., and became a vocal advocate for gun control. Mr. Hogg retaliated by posting a list of her advertisers on Twitter. Nutrish was on it. The brand and Ms. Ray, who said she had sobbed while watching Mr. Hogg and other survivors on TV days earlier, were among the first to pull out.

That doesn’t mean she is going to stop advertising on Fox. Late into an evening that she punctuated with several glasses of red wine might not be the best time to talk politics with Ms. Ray, but on this point she was crystal clear: She will continue to advertise her brands and schedule guests without regard to anyone’s political beliefs.

“On the television show, everyone has to be welcome,” she said. “It’s our safe space.”

Tommy Crudup, a CBS talent executive who books guests for her show and spends weekends at her house in the Adirondacks, explained it this way: “Rachael is happiest when everyone around her is happy, and she made them that way.”

But her sunny, everyone-in-the-pool approach could also undercut her.

Last week, after the comedian Michelle Wolf was criticized for lacing into the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Wendy Williams, who shoots her show in the same Chelsea building as Ms. Ray, asked the audience to clap if they thought criticizing other women’s looks was wrong. Two women applauded.

“Well, you’re at the wrong show,” Ms. Williams said. “Rachael Ray is downstairs.”

Ms. Ray said that was just Wendy being Wendy, but the comment made it clear that Rachael Ray is an avatar for a certain slice of America that doesn’t know how to throw shade.

Ms. Ray won’t comment on sexually abusive behavior by her friend Mario Batali, the chef, whom she hasn’t spoken with since it was exposed in December. But she says she hopes the #MeToo movement makes the world safer.

She did offer a little advice on how to navigate sexual harassment, based on her years of restaurant work, two muggings, a terrifying incident with a stalker and some difficult childhood experiences: Punch back, at least verbally.

“Women should see they need to speak out in the moment,” she said. “When something happens, say it out loud and address it immediately.”

With that, Ms. Ray headed to bed. The next morning, she squealed when she saw a photograph of her next to Michelle Obama on “CBS Sunday Morning.” It reminded her of their work together on childhood nutrition and how much ground she feels has been lost.

But she is going to keep moving. Even if her place in popular culture slips away, she’ll still find a way to make hay, she said. She always has.

“I’m good,” she said, slicing a speck, cabbage and egg pie she had pulled out of the pizza oven for breakfast. “If I die tomorrow, I’m good.”

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