Rachael Ray is taping her talk show at her studio in Manhattan and someone has just gotten a makeover. The woman is overwhelmed by her transformation, and Ray is encouraging her not to cry: “Turn back around, stop crying! You look so beautiful. Do you like what you see? Don’t cry!” She gathers the woman in for “huggums” as the audience cheers.

And while Ray became famous for her no-fuss cooking style, the secret of her success is that she seems warm and relatable. Watching her on TV can feel like finding yourself at your favorite sister’s kitchen table: There will be a hug when you need it — or, in my case, when I meet her after the show, there’ll be something else you may want. “Would you like a glass wine?” she offers. “I’m going to have some.” Yes, I would love a glass of wine — that’s a great way to start an interview.

Ray is now in her 50s, and to commemorate the moment she has, of course, come out with a cookbook — but it’s also part memoir. It’s called Rachael Ray 50: Memories and Meals From a Sweet and Savory Life.

“I wanted, as a woman who’s 50 and has a lot of jobs that I’m grateful for, I wanted to reflect that the American dream is still alive, that if you work very hard, opportunity will come your way,” she says. “That you can be 50 and over and female in this country and still be relevant.”

Relevant and omnipresent she is. There is Rachael Ray the show, the cookbooks, the cookware, the magazine, a new venture with Uber. It’s a long way from her working-class childhood and the adored Sicilian grandfather who taught her to love Italian food. In the book, she has a chapter about sardines — and the story of her first day of school, when she was put in a dress and took her favorite sardine sandwich to eat. It did not go well.

“So I came home that day being the stinky girl in the funny clothes with the funny shoes. And I said, I’m never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going back to school, ever, ever, ever again,” she remembers. “And I was crying. You know, that kind of choking crying, where you sound like a gasping seal or sea lion or something?”

And then, her grandfather gave her an important lesson that she has carried with her ever since: “There’s plenty in life that you have no control over that you will cry about. Certainly your vanity should never be one of them, you know?”

We should say that Rachael Ray at this point is not only telling me her story. She’s also making us her favorite spaghetti puttanesca. “Well, you can’t put a cook next to a stove and not expect that two things are gonna happen. Cooking and talking,” she jokes. “So this is puttanesca. I’ve just splashed some onto the counter here, but I do things a little differently than some people. I melt the anchovies into the copious amounts of EVOO — or olive oil — first, over a moderate heat, and then I throw in lots and lots of grated or thinly sliced garlic.”

The smell, spicy and warm, floats up from the pan. “The most important thing for me is the spirits,” Ray explains. “The Italian dry vermouth. When we cook with seafood in my family, we always use dry vermouth because it kills the smell of seafood in your kitchen.”

Even though what she’s making looks and smells divine, Ray has always been adamant that she’s not a chef. She says her background as a waitress is really what sets her apart. And so when her big break came — first on local TV and then national — she didn’t expect it. “The television thing is a very weird happening for me, and certainly not anything I planned for. I don’t know that I thought I wasn’t worthy of it. I just thought, well, that’s not me. That’s for other people. You know, that’s just not me. I serve people. I’m the service person. I wait on people that are on TV. I’m not on TV. And, you know, that’s what I told Food Network. But they said I was wrong, and come on back and sit down. So I did.”

There have been many serendipitous moments in Ray’s life since. Still, even now with all the success and fame, she feels the trappings don’t define her. “Every time I put high heels on and I have to go somewhere in a dress, I feel uncomfortable,” she says. “I’m not supposed to be at the party.” (Which is something she keeps saying.) “I don’t want people looking at my body or what I chose to wear that day. I don’t care who made my shoes. I just don’t. And so I can’t be something that I’m not. It’s the truth.”

And that’s become her brand: Connecting with average people, and making famous people who come onto her show regular and relatable too.

“I don’t really want to know who you’re sleeping with unless I’m that person. But I am interested in your favorite flavor of ice cream. Other kooky, weird party skills or tricks that you know. Can you juggle? What’s your favorite color? Like, stuff you would just say to somebody you’re getting to know at a regular party,” she says. “You know, Hugh Jackman at the kitchen table, who’s hilarious and told the funniest story ever, about how he forgot to pee before the show once, and when he was playing a Disney prince, actually wet himself onstage when he hit a high note. I love that!”

Ray has also controversially remained loyal to Mario Batali — the celebrity chef who has faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment and has a pending court case. They competed together on Iron Chef, and he nominated her for the Time 100 Most Influential People list in 2006. She says she hasn’t asked him about the allegations — though she still talks to him.

“I don’t have that firsthand knowledge. And it’s not — I don’t think it’s fair. Once people have gone through something that’s so traumatic and dramatic. And that’s a family, like I’ve known that family a very long time. I don’t think of it as one person. I think of it as a whole unit. You know, I’ve known those children since they were literally babies,” she says. “I am not that person. I hate it when people do it to me, bring up something that’s hateful, like for years and years, I’d go to interview after interview and people would bring up the Web site I Hate Rachael Ray or show me clips of other professionals that are food people that are on television. And they would play them saying, you know, whatever about me.”

But while those things are hurtful, I tell her, criticism of her cooking is different from criticism of her behavior. “Unless it’s a professional setting that I have a percentage of or firsthand knowledge of, it is not my place to tell other people how to run their businesses or their lives. It just isn’t,” Ray responds.

She says the she knows that the industry has been roiled by the #MeToo movement, but she comes back to her favorite theme: hard work. “I think I’ve always been treated extremely fairly at work, yeah. Do we speak inappropriately in kitchens, men and women? Both of us do. When I have made less money than a man, it has been my choice. I am a person who looks at longball. It’s a strategy thing. That doesn’t mean I’m not super empathetic and supportive of women in the industry that have gone through hell. You know what I mean? I think that it is my duty as a female in her 50s working in this industry to give tons of respect to that and as much support as possible for women that have had challenges in male-dominated business, not just this one, but in general.”

The pasta is ready — I ask Ray, with so much that she’s achieved, now that she’s older than 50, what mountains are left to climb? “It’s not like any one thing is at the top of the list, like, oh my God, I have to do that and my head’s gonna pop off. I’m happy. I have a very low bar.”

And then she ends our interview in the same way she began it, with hospitality: two cheek kisses, and a raucous command: “Eat your spaghetti!”


Spaghetti Puttanesca

Serves 4

Ingredients

About 1/4 cup EVOO (olive oil)

10 to 12 good-quality Italian anchovy fillets in oil, such as anchovies from l’Escala, drained

6 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/4 cup Italian capers in brine, drained

1 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

1 scant tablespoon Calabrian chili paste, or 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup dry vermouth

1 (28-ounce) can whole San Marzano tomatoes (in the summer I use halved cherry tomatoes instead, a couple of pints)

A few leaves of fresh basil, torn

1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, loosely packed, then finely chopped

Salt

1 pound spaghetti or linguini

Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil for the pasta.

In a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat, heat the EVOO, four turns of the pan. Add the anchovies and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid or splatter guard. Shake the pan for 1 minute to begin to break down the anchovies. Stir with a wooden spoon until the anchovies melt away into the oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the garlic, capers, olives, and chili paste. Stir for 2 minutes more, then add the dry vermouth and reduce by half. Add the canned tomatoes, break them up with a spoon, and stir in the basil. Reduce the heat to a simmer to thicken the sauce while the pasta cooks.

Salt the pasta cooking water and cook the pasta about a minute less than the package directions for al dente. Reserve 1/2 mug of the cooking water and use a spider or tongs to transfer the pasta to the sauce or drain the pasta in a colander. Toss spaghetti with the sauce and parsley for 1 to 2 minutes, using the cooking water as needed to keep the pasta from getting dry or the sauce from getting too thick.

Excerpted from Rachael Ray 50: Memories and Meals from a Sweet and Savory Life by Rachael Ray. Copyright 2019 by Rachael Ray. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Sophia Boyd and Dorothy Parvaz produced this story for radio. Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.