This Must Be the Place
The food I created for those first few shows focused on what to make from pantry items. Americans at that moment felt like we were all on a short, unknown adventure, and we were concerned about stocking up on staples that would last however long quarantine would.
I’m a homemaker by nature and by nurture. When I was growing up, my mom always had a way, often with limited funds, to turn rooms into magical living, breathing spaces. She still has a unique eye for design, and I love her style.
When I was a girl, my family lived in a Yankee Barn on Cape Cod—a beam, peg, and groove house with sliding wooden barn doors. I remember as a child drifting off on many nights, nestled under a cozy throw on the sofa, not wanting to go to bed. I preferred falling asleep there in the living room, near the glow of a fire, looking at all the magical shapes and forms that surrounded me. Mom has always loved to layer a room with both shape and texture: statues and sea glass, an old lobster trap, weathered leather and nubby fabrics, wood and metal accents. The natural materials made the room feel real, like it had a personality and a force of life of its own.
My room in the barn was a hayloft with a small balcony and a ladder that dropped down into the living room. I put a lot of effort into keeping it cozy and nice, just the way my mom did with the rest of the house. I arranged my stuffed animals and dolls in animated poses at a tea set and around the shelves and room—Raggedy Ann and Andy swinging from their ragdoll knees on the ladder. In the morning, I’d leave the art paper on my easel either clean, calling me to paint or draw after school, or with a completed work, art to decorate the space until I felt the need for a change. I rarely left it with a work-in-progress, and the same was true with my weaving loom and Erector set. I arranged my books by height and color before that was a thing, and placed some favorites around the room on side tables and my worktable, as if my toys would come to life and read them while I was away. I took pride in making my bed and would organize the pillows in an inviting way, and I always wanted the corner turned down, an invitation to climb in and take comfort there. My room was loved as if it were a member of the family, and that’s the way I feel about where I live to this day. The house I grew up in and the comfort it provided became the inspiration for the design of the home that my husband and I built in the Adirondacks.
In cooking, you gather elements or surprising ingredients in new combinations and right before your eyes it all comes together, like magic. Home design is like that, too: some science, but also that magic that makes something surprising just work. I’ve lived in houses small and large, apartments cramped to sprawling, and rarely have I been able to sleep if there was a dish in the sink or a mess to pick up or a pillow on the floor. I don’t want to live in a “perfect” or precious space, but I do want the space to reflect that it is loved and that its purpose is care and comfort. I want my home to feel welcoming to human and animal guests, a space where they instantly feel love and warmth.
I’ve also always thought of my home upstate as a refuge, a safe place away from my career in the public eye. Over the years I’ve been asked dozens of times to be photographed or filmed here and I have always, with very rare exceptions, said no. I wanted to keep our secret garden, our crazy fort, our treehouse/clubhouse to ourselves, to be shared with only our closest friends and family. This is one reason why—knowing I would have to start recording my show from here, and let the world into my safe space—that I looked at my homecoming in March with fear and dread. Trucking upstate each week after recording shows, taking meetings, reviewing magazine spreads, and talking about new recipes was always a joyful and regular reprieve for me, one that I looked forward to throughout the week after a run of hard workdays in the city. Now that time that I used to look forward to was laced with panic. The idea of filming at home during the pandemic would mean showing viewers my private space, something I’d resisted doing for fifteen years.
Another concern was that I would have to do my own hair and makeup. The counterpoint to my love for homemaking is my hives-inducing dislike of “self-care”—including applying makeup and looking at myself in a mirror for long stretches to do it. But because it wasn’t safe to have another person touching my face during this time, I’d have to do it myself. Each day of filming at home I would put on the bare minimum of makeup—a few swipes of my Milk blur stick—and groom my eyebrows. Sharing a stripped-down version of myself meant people would judge me for who I was underneath the warpaint. In terms of wardrobe, while I was used to having people pull and prepare my clothes in advance of each show, I was now pulling on-air clothes from whatever stuff I kept in my upstate closet—mostly comfy tees and pull-on pants. And I’m not sure if it was my Sorel slippers or sneakers that first day, but it for sure wasn’t the heels I’d wear in the studio in New York. Though I’d always prided myself on being authentic on the show, this was a whole new level of “real.”
I was also worried, like everyone, about staying healthy and safe during the pandemic. And I was terrified about letting people into my home virtually, to see me in this new, intimate way. Still, this was the best plan we could come up with, so John and I girded ourselves and got ready to shoot an episode of Rachael Ray from our kitchen upstate. When the iPhone camera that John was manning rolled at last, and I said that first sentence, “Hey everybody, it’s Rachael here. Welcome to our home!” my eyes welled up a bit. I’d jumped into uncharted waters with those words. I flashed on my first swimming lesson at the YMCA when I was in grade school when everyone made fun of my bathing suit and I sank like a stone. Would people make fun of me?
They didn’t. My team called to say that ratings held and viewers responded really positively (I never watch myself on TV or check the ratings). We shot those first shows on an iPhone and Mac. The content was just us, Rach ’n’ John, cooking, making cocktails, and answering questions from viewers. The food was focused mostly on what to make with pantry staples. Americans at that moment felt like we were all on a short, unknown adventure, and we were concerned about stocking up on staples that would last however long quarantine would. So what can we cook from canned tuna and beans that would taste really good so we don’t feel deprived? John made our show very meta in that you’d hear a voice from behind the camera shouting out comments and inquiries (and a lot of direction). “Why do you do that?” Or “Slide to the center counter so we can see you better.” And the ever-popular “Tell us more about that.” The funny thing was, it was good television—it felt intimate and real in ways a studio show never quite could.
And after taping that first show I felt . . . great! There was relief and catharsis in letting it all hang out. And this new radical transparency felt like a good and much needed kick in the pants. I’d been feeling so trapped and boxed in by circumstance, panicked that I had no choice but to tape from my home if I wanted to keep the show going, keep people working. Then, on the other side, I found fresh purpose. It was liberating.
As with all things, this has been a huge learning process. It felt so good making the shows together, John and me, and we’d be so proud when we completed two per week. Our interviews were very limited, as it took us a while just to figure out how to optimize Zoom. I got overly industrious with the food in one show, a pizza special. I started at 5 a.m. lighting the oven and finished cleaning up at 11 that night. Still, we made our way, very slowly, and we were eventually shooting seven shows per week. When we started, the system involved a skeleton crew over the phone and computer, and round-the-clock editing; as I write this we just got another upgrade on our microphone and a computer that can be controlled by our friends and colleagues in the show’s control room in NYC. The quality has improved with cables and wires that run all around us and have turned taping into a strange game of Double Dutch from the ends of my kitchen countertops.
I miss the studio. I miss our great circus and our team and crew so much, all of our habits and rituals. I miss my daily routine: coffee, gym, hair, car, studio, check food in kitchen, “good morning everyone!” Try on clothes, makeup, show, show, show, home, make dinner, bed, do it all again. Now I get up at 4 a.m. most days and we never catch up to the work that needs to be done before we collapse at night. These are strange and strained days and I am so curious what our new vibe and life will become when we go back to rebuild the show and ourselves, all together again in the same place.