Rachael Ray is not God. Or Jesus. Or Moses. Or Chad Michael Murray.
But you’d think that’s who visited the store I work at when she came in for a book signing this weekend.
Now, I have nothing against Rachael Ray. While she doesn’t deserve to be considered on the same level as famous chefs like Jacques Pepin and even Mario Batali, she’s not trying to be. She’s not pretending to be anything else than what she is: an experienced gourmet food buyer and manager who developed a catchy gimmick, which is helping people make (somewhat) healthy meals with easily accesible ingredients in a reasonable amount of time. Hence, the title of her first Food Network show and first cookbook: 30 Minute Meals.
Since then, she’s become a media princess edging her way towards the thrones of queens Oprah and Martha: 11 best-selling cookboks, three more shows on the Food Network, a new magazine (Every Day with Rachael Ray) and now a new talk show debuting in 2006. Basically, she’s taking over the world.
Since I started working at this cooking emporium for the holidays (no, it’s not Williams-Sonoma), I was surprised to learn that the entire staff was required to work due to Rachael Ray coming in to promote her latest book, 365: No Repeats. Since I still hadn’t tried a single recipe from my copy of Miss Ray’s Cooking ‘Round the Clock, I decided to mind my tight budget this season and skip buying a copy.
The crowd was lined up outside for hours in twenty-degree weather (due more to a massive lack of organization than lack of space), and the line inside snaked around the entire store. Children and the elderly were bumped up to the front. Security guards directed the crowds of eager people, some of whom had driven in from Detroit. “When will she be here?” “Where do I pick up my book?” “Where does the line start?” “Do I seriously have to wait outside?” “Sir, is there any way you can move these people up so I don’t have to wait outside?”
Employees were yelling across the store and running in and out of offices and stockrooms. We had sold through our entire stock of books and were turning away people who thought they could show up five minutes before the event and pick up ten copies for their friends. Their reactions ranged from sad to frustrated to pissed to undeservedly entitled. “I’m sure you can find one more copy for me.” No, ma’am. I can’t. When one woman found out we had no more books to sell, she called my manager a c—. Ah, leave it to potential brush-ups with celebrity to bring out the best in people.
Scheduled to begin at 6pm, when Ms. Ray finally arrived at ten after, you’d think it was Nicole Kidman getting ushered last-minute into the Oscars. She had her people, the store had their people, and there was a camera crew filming her every step. The corporate PR person was one step in front of Rachael, shouting, “Move! Move! Out of the way! Open the door! Get the door! Watch out! Move it!”
In person, Miss Ray-Ray is very cute (looks about the same as she does on TV but here she had her hair pulled back), and, it has to be said…girl has a cute bubble butt.
She holed up in the stockroom where she quickly signed a hundred pre-ordered books by customers who didn’t care to wait in line to meet her – they just wanted autographed copies. By 6:30pm, she made her way along the line of pedestrians, the majority of whom had their camera phones aimed at Rachael’s face as she passed by. She took her seat at a table with three overhead spotlights on her, two cameras, a sound guy and an assistant who took the books away from the customer to hand it to another assistant who handed it to Rachael while the customer stood on the other side of the table gushing some cliche “I’m your biggest fan” compliment that we all gush when we’re in front of our celebrity obsessions.
We kept asking people to scrunch together in line and eventually we fit everyone waiting outside into the store. Rachael, highly-caffeinated multi-tasker that she is, quickly signed and chatted with her usual peppy demeanor, even allowing a few pictures although she originally said she wouldn’t allow that as it slows things down. Some people were leaving the store with tears in their eyes. Excuse me, tears? Come on people, I know you’re excited but it’s a woman who created mini-cheeseburger salad, not the freakin’ pope. Let’s get some perspective, shall we?
By 8pm, the last customer had finally left, the spotlights were turned off, and Rachael yet again quickly signed the dozens and dozens of extra copies piled in front of her, flipping each one to the side upon completion (but not in a rude way) for my co-worker and I to stack up on a cart. She then set about the store, creating little gift baskets for friends and family.
And then, as a few of us hid in the stockroom to make ourselves sandwiches, Rachael and her assistant came in to gather their coats and purses. As I turned around, there she was, standing less than a foot away from me, with an Eli’s Cheesecake on the table in front of us. Even though I had originally planned to use my Italian heritage as a way to connect and bond with her (on her show she’s always going on about her Italian family), I knew I had to seize this moment.
“You know, you can help yourself to a big ol’ wedge of cheesecake,” I joked, obviously aware of the irony that this major food celebrity would not pick up a wedge of gooey turtle caramel cheesecake with her hands and just start chowing down.
She stared at it for a second, giggled and said “No, that’s okay,” with a laugh.
OK, so she didn’t even look at me as she said it, but I had done it. I scored. I was in with Rachael Ray. She may not know my name or even what I look like, but now I am that charming guy at [store name] who made Rachael Ray laugh. I am golden. So, tonight, not only was I touched by celebrity…I touched back.
Looking back, I realize I shouldn’t be so quick to judge others. Even I got caught up in the Rachael Ray hype. When she was still shopping and we were closing our store, I asked my co-worker Larry if there were any “regular” customers left shopping. Larry, an easy-going fiftysomething with an eagle tattoo on his arm from his days as an 18-year-old in the army, came over and reminded me, “Don, they’re all regular customers.”