Rachael Ray relishes the challenge

Talkshow host keep Everywoman persona intact

You don’t have to interview vegetables,” quips Rachael Ray in her trademark throaty laugh about the difference between talking viewers through a recipe on Food Network’s “30 Minute Meals” and spinning yarns with celebrities on her eponymous CBS daytime talkshow.

“What helped is time. You can learn any job if you work hard at it. Whether it’s learning how to be a dish-machine operator or hosting a TV series, if you work hard and you work sincerely, then you eventually get more comfortable,” she explains.

Comfort, affordability and do-it-yourself accessibility are what Ray is all about. Those qualities plus her skills and signature girl-next-door spunk have catapulted the cook-cum-host into a veritable superstar and her CBS Television Distribution run of “Rachael Ray” into landmark status: It celebrates its 500th episode today.

“At the heart of the show’s success is that Rachel is exactly who she is on camera as she is off camera,” praises exec producer Janet Annino of Ray’s casual, conversational approach. “She has an ability to be herself day after day, and the audience is smart enough to recognize that she’s their friend, their pal. There’s a real trust factor.”

In fact, one might say that Ray’s rep is very culinarian meets Bruce Springsteen. While her career has made her a multimillionaire, Ray’s appeal is all blue-collar working middle class.

“I’m a waitress from upstate New York,” Ray chuckles, reflecting on the fact that she’s been making 30-minute meals for 20 years — but is now getting paid (handsomely) to do so.

“Let’s have a reality check here,” she pauses. “They let me go on television in plain clothes, with no chef coat and just let me teach someone how to cook dinner without having any real qualifications for doing that. It’s fun work. It’s chatting and cooking and doing stuff that I would be doing if I took time off from a real job.”

Cozying up with celebs — Michael J. Fox and Tom Jones are among Ray’s faves — at a kitchen table instead of the typical talkshow couch is one way in which she creates a homey on-set environment. When a guest sits down with Ray, it feels like a friendly neighborhood chat. No tabloid tidbits allowed.

Declares Ray: “I think what’s in your refrigerator is more telling than something that’s very private.”

Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for CBS Television Distribution, credits Ray’s infectious optimism as one of the biggest selling points with audiences.

“She’s always had a certain energy on TV that’s attracted people to the screen,” Wood observes. “There’s something about her face, and it really looks like she likes what she does. It just draws you to the screen.”

“When she’s here, she’s present,” Ammino adds of Ray’s indefatigable drive and uncompromised work ethic. “She is focused like a laser beam on this program. It’s inspiring for everybody to feel that energy. That energy picks everybody up when you’re having a bad day. That energy from day one has defined the tone of the show.”

In these tough economic times, Ray’s spirited outlook coupled with her creative spin on frugality has only further popularized the show.

“From the beginning, the show was always about value and accessibility,” Wood says. “Now more than ever its value’s through the roof. That’s where she’s scored with viewers. She’s got the kind of content that you need to survive daily.”

“It’s not a brand for us,” Ray clarifies of the show’s main angle, preferring what she dubs “those quirky next-door, this-could-happen-in-your-cul-de-sac” segments vs. tightly choreographed stories. “It’s how we all choose to live. We try and show people the real deal. We like to keep the wrinkles in the short sleeves, so to speak. We don’t want to look too polished or too scripted. We keep the bar kind of in the middle.”

That middle bar has yielded high marks for “Rachael Ray.” At 500 episodes strong, the ever-humble host hopes to continue challenging herself through 500 more and then some, wherever the future and the food take her.

“You can’t be so set on having a plan,” remarks Ray on what exactly she’ll set to conquer next. “Open-mindedness is key. When it comes to success, you should take your work very seriously but never take yourself very seriously. If you work really hard, you are always going to get noticed.”

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