Coaching a Celebrity Worst Cooks Winner: Rachael Ray on Her First Win in Boot Camp
When it comes to Worst Cooks in America, there aren't many other mentors who can beat Chef Anne Burrell, who holds the record for most wins (six out of eight). But in Season 9, mentor Rachael Ray — coaching only her second season in the series — rose to the top with celebrity recruit Loni Love. Rachael's strategy of finding what her recruit loves about food and bringing that to the forefront worked successfully. Loni cooked a Southern comfort menu that came straight from the heart. It touched and impressed the judges, who awarded her the win. Loni left with $50,000 for her charity, the American Red Cross. And Rachael left with quite amazing bragging rights, having broken Anne's record.
FN Dish sat down with Rachael on the set of Worst Cooks to find out more about how she approached the finale and coaching Loni to the win, as well as what she thought about being in the competition with Anne.
How would you sum up this entire season of Worst Cooks: Celebs? How did you approach it?
Rachael Ray: It was such an exciting season, because I was rooting for people on my team, but I also kind of fell in love with a couple people on the Red Team. … It’s hard for me to juggle emotional players like The Sitch on Anne’s team, but he was so sincere and he cooked with such just vigor and honesty and integrity, and he was trying so hard. Like sometimes I couldn’t even watch him. I’d have to glance away, because he brought me to tears [with] how hard he tried. So, there were really emotional players on both of our teams. On our team, I love Double L. Double R and Double L had a mutual admiration society. I adore John, who's so funny, and I’ve been a fan of his for years. He’s just so witty, and it’s my kind of humor … . And, you know, this is Anne’s house, basically, all of Worst Cooks: Celebrity and straight up. So, I try and learn from her as a coach too, because she’s so good at it, and I’m brand-new at it. This is only my second season on the show, but I do think that I also have to roll with a little bit of my own style, and the way I like to work is: I feel if a person is really committed to the type of food that they’re preparing and it’s what they want to eat and it’s what they want to learn the most, that even if it’s not my favorite, it’s kind of my job to try and teach them how to do that for their final so that they can be really excited about getting it right. So, my kind of food is Mediterranean cuisine. I cook largely Italian food at home, grew up in an Italian household with multi generations, so that’s my primary diet. But Loni wanted her food to reflect her favorites, and she loves Southern comfort food, so she really wanted to reinvent her favorite dishes for a new generation, for a new palate, for a new audience, a new customer. So that was our goal as a team, and I think that working together we came up with a very creative menu that she did really, really well at. And it was a lot of work.
Would you have ever thought from the beginning that Loni would have ended up in your top two?
RR: Loni’s a very emotional and passionate, funny woman. She certainly brought a lot to the kitchen from day one with personality. I didn’t know what her skill set was, but she grew so fast, so quickly, and it turns out that in the end, her food has as much personality as she does, and she was very committed to having things move … quickly and efficiently, and of the two of us, I was for sure the basket case during the main cook. I was babysitting her like a mama hen. I tried to step off, but it’s just so hard, when you’re so committed to someone, not to overmanage them. But it really took me by surprise, because I thought, “Oh, I’m crushing her brain.” I’m only in the second round of this job as a coach. I gave us basically a 30/70 shot — 30 percent chance of winning, 70 percent chance of definitely being schooled and losing — so I was pretty shocked in the end that we won.
What were some of the ups and downs of the final cook? What was Loni's weakness? She forgot to put the bacon on a dish, for example.
RR: I think she just ran out of time. I think our time management and the food that we prepared when we were working together learning the meal for the finale … the plates were better, with the exception of the grits, [which] I think got better the second time around, but I thought the other two dishes actually came out better the first time around. But as Julia Child always says, only a cook knows what happens in the kitchen, and our panel of culinary experts certainly doesn’t know that the day before it was just a little bit tastier.
You had a really tough time choosing between John and Loni in who to take to the finale. What was your aha moment when you decided to go with Loni?
RR: When I had to choose who to take to the finale, I asked my recruits to just describe to me what it meant to them, and in John’s case he said how devoted he was to the charity he was playing for, and in Loni’s case it was kind of a multitiered thing — a commitment to what she’s learned and her quality of life and overall education, and her charity — and when it comes down to it, all of these people torture themselves for the good of their charity. I just thought the more well-rounded explanation for wanting to go to the finale came from Double L, and John was a gentleman about it to the nth degree; he was very cool and he told me off camera that he thought I made the right decision. He thought that Loni was the stronger player to win.
Last time we spoke, you said you'd need beginner’s luck to win against Anne. After winning, do you feel like you have a more concrete strategy?
RR: You just got to go into a competition with an open mind, choose the best players that you think will listen to you effectively. … I think each time you play this game it has to be a combination of throwing everything you’ve got at them, all the knowledge you could share, but you also really have to learn to appreciate their personalities and how people learn. Everybody needs different technique when it comes to that, so it’s a tricky game, and I don’t think there’s any sure bets no matter how long you’ve done it, as Chef Anne has proved. And “beginner’s luck” was a flip answer, but I don’t think that winning once means a hill of beans going into another round.
How does it feel to have earned bragging rights against Anne?
RR: You know, I always thought I was a super-competitive person, and I like to only do a job if I can envision myself doing it very well. I like to see growth within my brand and growth in my kitchen and growth in my food, but I also like to stay true to who I am. I have always had a fierce competitive nature if it’s something I think I’m good at. I think that it’s kind of ironic that on this show I love and have so much respect for Chef Anne that I feel guilty if I win. I was like, "Oh no, I hope Anne’s not insulted." I was thrilled for Loni, and that’s how I enjoyed it. I thought it was so moving and amazing that she came from this and then won. That was the way I needed to experience the win, because I also felt, like, deference to Chef Anne, because I have such respect for her and her food that, like, I was kind of scared to look at her. So, it was a weird sensation, because I’m not like that. I love to kick ass, especially with my food; even if you’re my best friend or my mama, I like bragging rights. It was a weird sensation. … I had to kind of learn a new way to enjoy a win. Had to be about the other person, not about me at all. Weird, right? Trippy. It was very trippy.