In 1968, Elsa Scuderi, a longtime restaurant manager, and James, a retired book publisher, welcome daughter Rachael, whose first word is "vino." "I was a food snob by age 7," Ray tells the Miami Herald in 2006. With her two siblings, Ray grows up in restaurants from Cape Cod, Mass., to upstate New York. "I went to the school of Mama!" the former Lake George High School cheerleader adds. "My mother didn't like strangers watching her children, so we were all in the restaurants."
While working at a specialty grocery store in Manhattan, Ray is mugged in her Queens apartment. "This kid comes in behind me – next thing I know he shoves my face up against the door, jams a gun into my back and says, 'Give me your bag,'" she tells PEOPLE in 2007. She maces him, but he returns the following weekend: "He dragged me down the alley and beat the crap out of me with his gun." Ray realizes New York isn't for her, and within a week moves back upstate.
While working at a gourmet store in Albany, N.Y., Ray notices that the prepared food sells well, while basic groceries don't. She comes up with the idea for local chefs to teach 30-minute cooking classes to boost sales, but they don't bite. Ray decides to teach the classes herself, and a local TV station puts her on-air. Ray's fast food leads to a bestselling book (left) and a 2001 guest spot cooking on the Today Show.
After her spot on the Today Show, the Food Network approaches Ray and brings her 30-minute cooking classes to a national kitchen. "You're champagne, I'm beer out of the bottle," Ray tells the Food Network. But viewers clearly have a taste for brewskis. Ray eats up the ratings with her shows, including 30-Minute Meals (right), $40 a Day and Tasty Travels.
Ray attends a party where she meets John Cusimano, an entertainment lawyer and lead singer in rock band the Cringe. "I saw John from across the room immediately, because we're both short and couldn't take my eyes off him," she told PEOPLE in 2006. "I was speechless and I'm never speechless." The couple marries in Tuscany in 2005 (left).
Ray swaps oven mitts for sex appeal in a saucy shoot for lad magazine FHM (right). Ray explains it's her chance to "represent" and "have a normal person in there, not just teens from the West Coast." The following year, PEOPLE names her one of its 50 Most Beautiful.
Ray launches her own lifestyle magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, which takes familiar Ray ingredients like recipes and adds a blend of features on travel and entertaining, some with celebrity spice. Ray says the magazine "means getting more out of every day...we're going to make these wonderful meals, we're going to take fun little weekend jaunts."
Ray debuts her daily talk show, Rachael Ray (right), in association with Oprah's Harpo Productions. Ray's viewers measure in the millions. "Rachael's energy and ability to connect with her audience are why she's such a hit," Oprah tells PEOPLE. The show wins an Emmy in 2007, adding to Ray's 2006 win for 30-Minute Meals.
Ray opens up to PEOPLE about everything from her weight ("I don't deny myself. I don't want to be a size zero that badly..."), baby plans ("I work too much to be an appropriate parent...") and the tabloid speculation that her two-year marriage is on the rocks. She denies any marital upset. "I've got a man who can cook, is a lawyer and a rock star. And he doesn't mind that I come home from work at 10 p.m.," she tells PEOPLE. "What idiot would divorce that?"
Halting Ellen DeGeneres' winning streak, rookie Ray pulls a surprise win when she takes home the Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show (Entertainment). "Holy cat. That is exciting," she says during her acceptance speech. "I really can't breathe." In 2009, she takes the Emmy for the second consecutive year.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Courtesy of Rachael Ray; amazon.com; Courtesy Food Network; Wireimage; Eric Cahan/Corbis; Desiree Navarro/FilmMagic; David Russell; Jill Johnson/JPI