Chefs and restaurant workers take great care of everyone else, but often they need a little help themselves. Each week, Food & Wine senior editor Kat Kinsman talks with hospitality pros about they manage their business, brain, and body for the long haul. Is there a topic you'd like to know more about or a guest you'd love to hear from? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to Kat @kittenwithawhip, and subscribe to the weekly Food & Wine Pro newsletter. Subscribe to the Communal Table YouTube page and never miss an episode. Catch up on previous episodes here.
Episode 65: Rachael Ray Can't Rest Until Everyone—and Their Dog—Has Enough to Eat
Some people are just called to a life of service, and Rachael Ray gratefully counts herself among them. When the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, she didn't have to think twice. She built charity into her business from the very beginning so that her brand would financially support the care and feeding of the people who need it most—as well as the animals who are keeping so many of us from capsizing right now. Ray called in from her home in the Adirondacks to talk about how her non-profit The Yum-o! Organization combined efforts with The Rachael Ray Foundation for a collective $4 million dollar donation for COVID-19 relief efforts, why politicians should take their turn working in restaurants, and why people need to look for joy in these uncertain times.
This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Rachael, as soon as the scope and severity of this pandemic started to register with me, I just knew that you would be—like Mr. Rogers always said—one of the helpers.
My respect for Fred Rogers is so enormous—not only his love of humanity, but his patience with children, and his devotion as a musician and a scholar. I literally burst into tears when I was watching a Mr. Rogers segment with Ellis Marsalis when Ellis passed. That's as good as it gets until we evolve into something better.
He overwhelms my heart. And that's a perfect example of what I think everyone needs right now, is to get a sense of their humanity. Just calm it down. Take a breath and have a moment and be more patient. Unless you're Dr. Fauci and you're giving factual information, we should be doing nothing but supporting each other and speaking in the most respectful ways about one another. This is a pandemic. This is epic. This is potentially apocalyptic.
But the country is still very divided, and we're all still yelling and ranting at each other. You can't get anywhere through that process. You have to get there through education, and you can't share ideas if you can't hear each other.
Are you getting any rest at all?
I zen out on my dog, but I can't rest if I don't work in some way. I have to cook and clean and iron and talk and think and move forward. I have to do something of service to myself and the world or I literally can't sleep. I don't know if that's a mental problem—then I don't want anybody to fix it. That's the way I was raised, and I like it. I'm going to stick with it.
You're the sort of person who needs to have a job at a party, aren't you?
Because I grew up in the restaurant business since before I could have working papers, we would spend every holiday doing something for the Policemen's Benevolent Association, or the firefighters, or the local battered women's shelter, any sort of initiative my mom could find. In absence of that, we would go to the local soup kitchen or the local church. We often spent our holidays in service, and then we'd have our holiday later. It's a little nature and a little nurture. And the way you grow up it does help map who you become—whether it was good or bad.
When people have approached me in an aggressive way, I've often realized that they are in a place of absolute terror. They're not taking a breath and they're in physical and emotional pain, and it's making them lash out. Right now, I think a lot of people have been fundamentally afraid about having enough food, If you don't have a roof over your head and food in your stomach, you can't think clearly.
When we panic, we lash out. But we're not talking enough about just general frustration. Whether you're rich or poor, whether you're sitting out in the Hamptons riding this out or you're in a neighborhood that is literally at food risk, because there's simply no one providing food in their community at a price they can afford—everyone is not only dealing with their base fears, but just general frustration. How do you stand on a line for something—including voting—without being six feet away from someone? How do you control someone else at a grocery store—even if you go in the middle of the night—from coming within six feet of you and coughing on you, and not wearing a mask? You can't control them or that situation.
I am so tired of just having to jump through all these hoops to go about my day but well, you know what—I have to get over it.
How do you not let it overwhelm you?
We have to have some quality of existence. It is a mental fight every single day to find positivity. You have to look for those moments, and the only way those moments happen is if you put some of them into the world to begin with. Every single person is a pebble, and every pebble skips at least once on the water. Everything you throw out there will make one ripple and it will come back, but you have to be paying attention. You have to catch that wave no matter how small it is. And that has always been my belief. That's everything about me and everything about the brand.
I say my prayers every day with my 15-year-old dog on the floor, holding her face. I try to help her battle her illnesses. I don't know where dogs go in the universe. I hope they go to a benevolent force that's got our back. It makes me feel good because I'm communing with her and my environment and I'm noting what we're grateful for every day.
Can we talk about what you're doing to help people who are worried about food access for themselves, their family, and their pets?
Since the day we started our brand, when I started drawing pots on bar napkins, we decided we needed to use it to not just keep us employed, but to be a pay-it-forward system so we wouldn't have to ask people for donations. We would use the business to collect money and use that as the model for anything we would do, for however short or long lived the level of success would be as long as I was in some sort of public purview. Make less money and do more good was always our plan.
We used one model to build the next model. We started with Yum-o! which was initially an initiative to put a third of the money into lobbying for better and year-round school food nutrition or replacement of meals when school is not in session for children that are at risk. Then a third of the funds go to our partners at National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation to help fund public school children into any sort of secondary education they'd like to go to because we no longer have both these programs in our public high schools.
Then there was the third portion of whatever we raised with the monies we dedicated from our brand—we would just spend that in relief in the food banks in the cities and the communities where it was needed. And we would vet that so it could be measured. How many people are actually being fed? Where are they being fed? Was the money put to the right use? We can't build an entire network, we have to use networks that are already there. That was the first model, that was Yum-o.
Then it evolved into the model for animals because I don't have humans, I have rescue animals and my mother's saved like, probably 50 or more cats, skunks, injured hedgehogs, blind raccoons. We used our model for Yum-o to raise money for animals. Now we have the Rachael Ray Foundation and Yum-o. They coexist very beautifully in the world. And that's why this week, we were able to donate $4 million. But that is the tiniest drop in the most giant bucket.
How does that money get divided?
We've turned into a pandemic and a disaster relief organization over the last two years. Everything we do has to be measured and never overlap. Feeding America and Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry, are all about feeding people and kids and the elderly. But we look at their initiatives and ask them can you dedicate this money to helping people with poor infrastructure in rural areas specifically to find food for their kids? And then we ask our other partner, can you dedicate our money specifically to feeding seniors and underserved communities? That's how we try to build the map.
Sometimes it's even by city. We work with World Central Kitchen—and, I think, a gift to the planet and a divine entity, like if ever there was a prophet, it's José Andrés—this particular week, that little bit of funding for World Central Kitchen is supposed to help them get Chicago up and running. Then last night, Nutrish matched our $4 million with 4 million additional meals for animals in need because all of these. People are showing up and saying, this is for my family. Do you have anything I can feed my animals? And that's why the shelters are getting overwhelmed. It brings you to tears.
I'm seeing so many people in a state of despair because they work in restaurants, and they have given up everything in their life to do service. They don't have that structure or income right now and so many of them are lost and wondering what is the point? They're worried about putting food on the table for their family, for themselves. They're worried about their rent. They need to hear that there is still a place in the world for them.
There is nothing I can say about the destruction that's happening right now that can fix that. It is real and they are feeling it and they have every single right in the world to. We're into the double digits of millions of people that are unemployed, and so many of them are in the restaurant and food and beverage industry. I literally pray, contemplate, hope every day that the wheels turn faster than slower, that people don't manipulate the money in the wrong way and give it to corporations rather than to small businesses and the people that are in need.
We will come back but it's not going to be easy and we all need to be in for the long haul. That's why I applaud the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation because they started the employee relief efforts. We all have to care about funds like that. And even if you can give $5, these are the folks that need it, because they're so scared for their own kids and their own families. And they've given their whole lives to making us happy and celebrating largely our good moments or nursing us back from our bad. That's where we go to hide out and to celebrate and be normal.
Hunger Free America is working in so many ways, ramping up their Hunger Hotline for the USDA. They're trying to increase SNAP and WIC in New York City. Rethink Food NYC is special because they are funding up to 30 restaurants in New York City to keep them afloat, and also become food distribution for New Yorkers who need meals. They asked for donations as little as $5. Share Our Strength and Feeding America are there for you. Everyone can do some small thing.
But the thing to do most is to not lose faith. We have to believe in each other. We have to listen to each other, we have to try at the core of everything to keep some sort of faith in ourselves and in something larger than ourselves.
I think people also have to be not afraid to ask for help. And I know people who work in restaurants are terrible at asking for help. But there's no shame in it. Everybody is in this together right now.
There is no face to hunger, there is no face to need. It can always be you. And one day it will be your neighbor or someone in your family or someone you know. It is the truth. There is no shame in needing each other.
That's supposed to be the ultimate purpose of politics, by the way. The whole thing is supposed to be about protecting and supporting each other, and admitting to one another when we need and are in need. They are supposed to be elected servants of the voice of the people. There is no elite in my America, there is one America. We are all supposed to be of service to each other.
I want to make all of the politicians work in restaurants after this and get some of the amazing restaurant leaders to go lead the government.
I don't think that's a funny idea at all. I would love Danny Meyer to be in some hierarchy of government right now. I think he's a very fair and smart man who's pretty terrific at building communities. I live in Danny Meyerville. Michael Schlow, Kenny Oringer—I know a lot of fine restaurant people that would really be terrific in government. It would be kind of interesting to see a few of our congress people—maybe even a couple senators—break it down at the dish machine. My first job was dish machine operator. I'd kind of like to see a couple people hit the DMO.
I'd be thrilled with that. I've heard Mason Hereford in New Orleans is calling himself a hobby lobbyist because his restaurants are having to make some tough decisions and he's out there advocating for his people. Hugh Acheson is making waves. Devita Davison, out of Detroit would be an incredible Communications Director.
We need to make sure that the money that is being funded by all of us, the money that's being taken from the whole country is equally represented as fairly as possible to the whole country. You only do that if you're squeaky. The squeaky wheel is going to get the grease.
So the larger the chorus can become, the stronger the attention will be. How many voices can we get to say let's be lovely to each other. And in calm voices, figure out how to do this in the most fair and even way possible and take care of each other.
You are Secretary of State, I've decided that. I think we'd be so much better off.
Let's do it girl.
What are you doing to take care of yourself during all of this?
Work. I feel best when I work. I made a list that I'm going to go back to finishing my studies of Danish, trying to get fluent in Italian, conquer the drum kit in John's studio and become a badass percussionist, become a proper painter. I haven't been able to crack one of those things yet because we're working around the clock trying to figure out how to project from this house some light, some love, some possibilities, and some really tiny solutions to everyday life for folks that make it fun. I mean, my only audience is a 15-year-old pit bull but quite frankly, we're working so hard, I haven't gotten to do any of those things.
I've never been a person of balance, so it's not going to happen now. Just because the world is in this disarray, it doesn't change who I am as a human. I have a propensity to just work myself to death or I can't sleep.
Somebody tweeted yesterday, that if at the end of this, you say what I achieved is that I kept myself in my dog alive, that's good enough.
Of course, it is. That's a miracle. All you can do is think and hope and have faith and move forward. I think that that's the thing that both you and I are talking about, you have to move forward with your best self. You have to do something every day. And that isn't a sickness.
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