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RAY OF LIGHT
HOST OF 3 SHOWS ON FOOD NETWORK FLASHES ALONG

If you need inspiration to kick-start your quest for impossible dreams, flip on the Food Network. There's a good chance you'll see a pretty, perky brunette looking back at you with a pair of brown eyes so warm they could melt butter in a cold saute pan.

Saying Rachael Ray is a one-woman powerhouse is as big an understatement as saying caviar is fish eggs.

The 36-year-old hosts three -- count 'em, three -- Food Network shows ("30 Minute Meals," "$40 a Day," "Inside Dish"), hits the road regularly to promote her nine cookbooks and is planning a September wedding (her own).

The woman has two speeds: fast and stop. Shorthand, supplemented by a tape recorder, can barely keep up.

Why she has enjoyed such great success?

"I love food," she replies in that cool, throaty, Demi Moore-meets-Joy Behar voice.

"That's who I am. I don't like severe trends; a little moderation goes a long way. Recipes are just ideas, suggestions. My recipes are can-do."

Breath.

"All my books follow strict rules. My ingredients are in a certain price point and are accessible. I won't tell someone to go out and buy ground cumin so they'll get stuck with that."

Apparently, this is Ray at her most subdued.

Not much stops Ray, in the kitchen or out. It never has.

The abridged version, just the way she'd like it: Grew up surrounded by cooking. Both parents -- Dad's from Louisiana, Mom's Sicilian -- were in the business. The Ray family owned a restaurant in Cape Cod, Mass. The common thread: "All of us have big tempers and love spicy food."

First job away from the fold: working the candy counter and later fresh foods at Macy's Marketplace in New York City. After two years, Agata & Valentina, a chi-chi Upper East Side market, hired her away as store manager/buyer.

In a perfect case of life not imitating art, Ray grew weary of the city-slicker scene.

"I'm a bumpkin," she says, seriously. (Born in the Adirondacks, she still keeps a pad there. "Lake George will always be my home.")

Bolting north to familiar upstate territory in the early '90s, she became buyer for Cowan & Lobel, a gourmet market in Albany.

That she moved so quickly up the food-industry ranks boggles her mind to this day.

"Through a series of accidents, I kept ending up in jobs I was completely unqualified for," she says.

C'mon, Rach, do you have to be humble, too? After all, you created the "30 Minute Meals" brand.

The story is now lore: To boost sales at C&L, she started doing cooking classes, teaching time-saving shortcuts like "eyeballing" instead of measuring, and using only ingredients most folks have on hand.

"It was happening," she says of her wildly popular "30 Minute Meals" classes. "We had girls coming who were getting married, retired people, Girl Scouts, even."

Who knew folks in Albany were so harried? Or perhaps it was her frank, big-sister style and knockout looks. She became the resident rock star, and eventually got her own segment on a local television station.

A rock star in a very cold climate.

"It was the winter of that crazy 'snowstorm of the century' that never happened," Ray recounts, "and I got a call from Al Roker." (It was 2001, for the record; she was 33.) The Today show's request: Do that snappy thing that you do with some soup.

She more than complied, impressing major-league decision makers with her network appearance. The Food Network came calling, and the "30 Minute" empire was born.

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