For another installment of Worst Cooks in America, Rachael Ray is taking up the role of Blue Team mentor. In the last Celebrity season, she won against Anne, but she’ll have to turn up the heat if she plans to hold off Anne’s comeback. Who better than Rachael? But will she be able to draft a strong team from among the 16 recruits? Only time and the final cook-off will tell. Tune in to the show on Sundays at 9|8c to see what challenges await both the red and the blue teams. In the end only one home cook will have beaten Boot Camp to win the $25,000.
FN Dish met up with Rachael on the set to chat about the new season. Rachael reveals why she prefers the title of “cook” to “chef” for herself, and how her experience growing up in a restaurant kitchen has informed her cooking and teaching style. This season Rachael claims she’s leaving the outcome to fate, but her laissez-faire method might just be what’s needed to take Anne down.
Anne’s been on a very long winning streak. Do you have any strategy for unseating her?
Beginner’s luck? That’s about all I got going for me.
How would you describe your cooking style when it comes to this competition and passing that on to your recruits?
I don’t really know that I have a cooking style. I mean, like all cooks and chefs, what makes me happiest is to feed people what they want. You know, so I really just try and stay focused on that. I’m trying to cook to please the customer.
You’ve made it well known that you’re not a chef, that you don’t have a culinary degree. Do you think that gives you a leg up in the competition?
I mean, there are people like Jacques Pepin, who learned how to cook from his mother and his grandmother, and I would consider him the greatest living chef on the planet. The reason I call myself a cook is because, you know, I grew up in the culinary school of my mother, but I just don’t think I’m to that level in my life of expertise like a Jacques Pepin. And people like Anne, they actually went to a culinary academy, so they call themselves “chef.” I’m more comfortable with the word “cook.” I just feel it suits my personality and my food, frankly. I break a few rules here and there, because nobody ever told me I couldn’t. You know what I mean?
Who were your teachers when you were learning to cook? You mentioned your mom.
I grew up working in restaurants, and I don’t really have “teachers.” I come from a large Italian family, and it’s just implied that you get it by watching. My mother never said, “Here’s how you peel a potato.” She’d say, “Peel the potatoes.” So, you don’t really know what you’re learning when you’re learning it if you’re just always working when you’re home. Our family’s always in the kitchen. So, it just sort of happens. And then the more you cook, the more you teach yourself as well.
What’s the first dish you ever mastered?
The first time I cooked by myself was for my mom’s birthday. I think I was 10, and I made spinach lasagna roll-ups, like a rollatini-style lasagna with a Gorgonzola sauce and asparagus with … lemon garlic butter. I was very proud of it, but I didn’t know a lot about wine pairings at 10, even though my first word was vino, and I knew my mother liked to have mimosas on her day off, so I made the fabulous wine pairing of a mimosa with Gorgonzola sauce lasagna. I’m sure she got canker sores after that.
When someone says, “There’s no way I can learn how to cook,” what do you say to that?
It depends on whether or not they enjoy eating. If you have a robust appetite, yes, you can learn how to cook. If you’re not that into food and you’re a person who just eats to live, you’re right; you probably can’t cook. You have to start with a good palate.
For someone who’s just trying to get into cooking, what’s a good place to start?
You know, make the kitchen an inviting place. Fiddle with the lighting, burn a candle, have a cup of tea, glass of wine, put on your favorite mix. Make it an environment you want to hang out in and teach yourself to cook your favorite meal first.
When you teach students, like on the show, for example, how much do you emphasize following a recipe versus cooking by instinct, and it is possible to train instinct?
I prefer to train by not measuring things, and so does Anne. We show people how to season things [with] two fat pinches, one big pinch or a palmful. I think if you’re trying to develop in the kitchen, you really need to learn what you like and what you don’t like and build a pantry on your palate of spices that you’re really into and you’re going to use more than I would, and vice versa. I think that only happens if you take people out of the box. Marcella Hazan always said, “Measuring is like putting a bird in a cage.” And there are two schools of thought on that. Ina Garten, who I love and respect so much, says, “If I don’t give you exact measurements, then it’s not my food.” For me, I’m giving you the recipe, what I think works well together, but I want you to turn it a little bit into your food when you’re using it. That’s why I write you freehand equivalents — half a palmful of this or scant palmful of that, two fat pinches of this, salt and pepper to taste — because I want people to take some of the ownership of their food, whoever’s recipe it is. I think those are both very legitimate.
What’s the best piece of advice you tell these recruits as they enter Boot Camp? What should they watch out for?
They just got to keep calm. So often they’re just their own worst enemy in the kitchen. Keep calm. And like Julia Child always said, “Only the cook knows what happens in the kitchen.” If you screw up, don’t tell me. Just change your plan. If it’s overcooked, turn it into soup. If you burnt it, don’t serve it. Serve something different, or just don’t serve that element. I think, especially, nervous cooks don’t get that.
What’s your plan to win this competition? Do you have any strategy?
I have absolutely no plan when it comes to Anne. I just got to work extremely hard, try my best and hope that beginner’s luck thing kicks in. I mean there’s no way I can strategize against one of the world’s greatest chefs, and six-out-of-eight-time winner on her show. Please, this is her house. I just got to try and get lucky and work hard.
Tune in to Worst Cooks in America on Sundays at 9|8c to see Rachael’s methods in play.