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Rachael Ray’s 7 Tips for Great Cooking—and Personal Happiness

In this story from August 2004, popular celebrity chef Rachael Ray offers her secrets to a 30-minute meal and a happy life

Celebrity chef, author and television personality Rachael Ray

There are two things I can’t do in the kitchen: bake or make coffee. You laugh, but it’s the truth. So how did I end up with two popular shows on the Food Network? Well, it’s like they say, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. With what you’ve been given. It’s true in cooking. It’s true in life.

Here are seven lessons I learned about both along the way.

1. Keep it simple.
Baking, to me, is like conducting a science experiment. All those precise measurements and exact times and temperatures. I don’t have the patience for it. I don’t even own a set of measuring cups. Not being able to bake doesn’t bother me. (Besides, my sister is a fantastic baker, so if I want some apple and cinnamon cake, I know where to go.) But coffee? I break out in a sweat at the mere thought of making a pot. Is it two spoonfuls or one? Table or teaspoon? Per cup or per pot? I can never remember. I make the lousiest coffee in North America!

All that coffee-making trauma has taught me something. What might be a breeze for one person can send someone else into a panic. So I try to stick to the basics when I’m writing a recipe. I want to make sure even an inexperienced cook can pull it off. See a way to save time? I’ll put in a tip. Catch myself including too many ingredients? I’ll pare down the list. Don’t overload your brain. Keep it simple. Focus on the essentials and you’ll get results, in and out of the kitchen.

2. Choose happiness.
My grampa Emmanuel always said, “You can laugh or you can cry. Just be sure to choose what you’re going to cry about carefully.” Grampa didn’t cry about much, though he didn’t have the easiest life. He grew up in Sicily, one of 14 children. They all worked in a pottery yard. Then one of his brothers was killed on the job. Grampa came to America and became a stonemason. He settled down in Cape Cod.

Grampa’s real passions were gardening and cooking. Every Sunday he’d pick fruits and vegetables and cook up a storm for the family. There were too many of us to fit in the house, so he set up a big table outside. Pasta, meat, salad, melon, ice cream. Oh, what a feast! Grampa’s dinner table was where I first saw—I guess I should say, tasted—the power of cooking. It can fill you up. With food and with contentment. Think of how you feel after a good dinner. Is there any more peaceful feeling?

That’s why I think one great way to happiness is cooking. Say you’re worn out from a long day at the office, frazzled from juggling your kids’ activities. Sure, it’s easy to hit the drive-through or get takeout. But you’ve got another choice. How about putting on some music and making dinner? Nothing complicated. Just good fresh food. Try that one night. I think you’ll be surprised at how satisfying it is.

3. Be real.
My mom, Elsa, is only 4 feet 10. But don’t let that fool you. She has a big personality. Everything I know about cooking I learned from her. She’s a brilliant businesswoman too. At one point she ran nine restaurants simultaneously. Whenever she talked to employees, she’d stand in front of them on a milk crate. Why? So she could look them straight in the eye, really connect with them.

These days my mom is my business manager, my researcher, my morale officer and so much more. Sure, we fight sometimes. Besides, my family is Italian and Cajun—not exactly the quietest people. I think it’s terrific to be open and honest and let things out. If you have the senses God gave you, then you’re going to have opinions and, of course, they’re not always going to agree with everyone else’s.

One day a woman named Vicky was helping me prepare caponata, an Italian eggplant dish, for a cooking class. “You forgot the sugar and vinegar,” Vicky pointed out. They’re ingredients in most caponata recipes, so I explained, “In my family, we don’t add sugar and vinegar to our caponata.” She said, “We do in my family. And our caponata is good.” “Yeah? Well, ours is great!” I shot back. Back and forth we went. 

We both got so worked up we burst into tears. What are you doing? I asked myself. You’re practically coming to blows over a recipe! Shouldn’t you be happy that Vicky feels as passionate about food and family as you do? I grabbed Vicky and threw my arms around her. She hugged me right back. We’ve been best friends ever since. If we’d been stingy with our words or our emotions, we would’ve missed out on a wonderful friendship.

Be real. Make connections with people. Look them in the eye. Tell them how you feel. Don’t be afraid to say what you mean. When you let go of the stuff you hold inside, you’ll be amazed at what comes back to you.

4. Savor life.
Okay, no one really likes school cafeteria food. Me, I couldn’t stand it. I cried at having to eat it. I was brought up on squid and sardines and anchovies and garlic. All those good Italian things. To me, school food had no taste. So Grampa made me a sack lunch. The smell of it cleared the cafeteria. But I didn’t care. I was too busy savoring every bite.

I think we’re born with our minds open to everything the world has to offer. Too bad sometimes we learn to close them. One day I was doing a cooking demonstration in a grocery store. A Cajun specialty. That time jambalaya. A woman pushed her shopping cart past me. A little boy was sitting in the seat. “What’s she cooking, Mom?” he asked. “Can I have some?” They came back and stopped in front of me. “It smells yummy, Mom.” The woman peeked into the pot and crinkled her nose. “No, you don’t like that,” she told her son, and wheeled him away. She wouldn’t even let him have a taste, I thought. And he really wanted to. It made me sad.

5. Try new things.
Not just foods, but experiences. Travel to that faraway country even if you’re scared of flying. Take a different route home from work. Stop to talk to your neighbor. Don’t waste time worrying about what you might be getting yourself into. God has packed life full of interesting flavors, ideas, people. Savor it all!

6. A little goes a long way.
That goes for lots of things. Spices. Success. Think you’re not up to the task, whatever it might be? There’s a way you can knock those feelings of inadequacy right out of your head. How? Make dinner. Really! It’s the greatest therapy I know. Just give it a shot. Cooking is easier than you think. Plus, it gives you an incredible payoff.

You take a pile of raw ingredients and—presto, chango—turn them into something that appeals to your senses. Oh, that looks good, you’ll tell yourself the first time you make a nice dinner. And then you’ll be like, Wow! I did that. What else can I do? That’s how I felt the first time I helped my mom make lasagna. There’s nothing we can’t do if we set our minds to it. Well, except maybe make coffee. Which gets me back to where I started.

7. Work with what you’ve been given.
I grew up in restaurants—Mom would hold me in one arm and stir the pot with the other—but I didn’t set out to be in the food business. My majors were literature and communications. After college I took a job managing a candy counter at the marketplace in Macy’s. Not because I had a great love for candy. I needed to pay the rent, and it isn’t cheap to live in New York City. Then the guy in charge of the fresh foods department got fired. “Can you sit in?” I was asked. “It’ll only be for a little while, till we find someone qualified.” The manager of the marketplace took a liking to me. He taught me all about cheese, pâté, imported this and exported that. I took to it like a fish to water. They let me keep the job. A job I was supposedly unqualified for.

I left Macy’s to become a buyer for a gourmet supermarket uptown. But I missed Mom and home. I moved to the Adirondacks and—wouldn’t you know it?—kind of fell into a job at a supermarket. The store did a good business in prepared foods, but regular groceries just weren’t moving. The manager came up with an idea: Give cooking classes using fresh produce and meat. People would buy more if they knew what to do with it.

Great idea, but every chef we talked to demanded an outrageous salary. I could do this myself, I thought. Why not? That’s where my 30-minute meals got their start. A local news report landed me on the Today show, and that led to my own show on the Food Network.

I really believe there’s no such thing as accidents, only opportunities. God gives everyone the ingredients to a good happy life. It’s up to us to make the most of them. So, tell me, what do you put in your caponata?

Try Rachael’s Pecan-Crusted Chicken Tenders at home!

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