Monday, May. 08, 2006

Rachael Ray

In fewer than five years, Rachael Ray, 38, has radically changed the way America cooks dinner. Her perky-girl-next-door swagger, her catchphrases for techniques and her dinner ideology of simpler, less expensive and just in time have sold billions of books and placed her at the top of the talent love heap at the Food Network, which has changed its focus from information exchange to helpful encouragement. Dinner at her house with my kids is tastier than I could have imagined. My boys went wild for the veal, meatball and pasta stoup, as she calls it, and, like her audience, were quickly softened to putty in her kitchen-confident hands, disarmed of their usual ingredient suspicions by Ray's "just try one" allure.

At book signings and public appearances, I have seen her fans faint, tremble, mumble, moan and ultimately hit the front of the line and embrace their food hero, repeating her mantras such as "let's run a knife through it" and "easy peasy" like Catholics at Sunday Mass. Mass — mass appeal — is the message. Ray dresses like a suburban American — not a chef (that is key) — and her ease with basic kitchen techniques and a simple-to-find-in-Topeka ingredient list does not challenge viewers but entices them to join her in the famous "carry the stuff from the fridge to the counter" move with her anti-food-stylist packaged groceries. The promise of a meal in less than 30 min. is delivered every day and is calculated to hit all those who ever had a family or thought of having one, coaxing them to eschew the trap of fast-food facility and truly cook — even the easy fast stuff — at home.

Chef Batali has a line of cookbooks, restaurants and food products