“Where are the hot peppers? I thought you had hot peppers in here!” says Rachael Ray, while filming an upcoming episode of 30 Minute Meals in Williamsburg, Brooklyn earlier this year. One of the show’s culinary crew members comes running. “I think they’re on the door,” he yells. They are. Ray didn’t know exactly where the peppers were because, well, she didn’t put them there—but this is about the extent of things that happen on set without her knowledge.
Ray is involved in every detail of the reboot of the Food Network show, which is airing one new episode every day in April. She writes every recipe weeks in advance, most of the time late at night with a Law & Order marathon on in the background for company. “I read through the recipe again when I get to set just to refresh,” she tells PEOPLE for this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “Then I just say it aloud so [the cameramen] know where I’m going.”
There’s a timer running as they film so to be sure they stay true to the beloved show’s name. On this particular day, while Ray makes her husband John Cusimano‘s favorite spin on a Philly cheesesteak, the clock runs for about 35 minutes, including the breaks they take for commercials when the food comes off the heat.
“Once we start, we legitimately just cook for 30 minutes and then we’re done and then they clean and reset,” says the author of her upcoming new cookbook, Rachael Ray 50. “It’s crazy.”
Fans of the cooking show will get an even more authentic look at Ray’s process during a select number of episodes airing in real time on Food Network’s Facebook page.
“I don’t want people to think that there’s elves, that’s why I love showing behind the scenes,” says Ray. “When we go to break, they take some dirty dishes or something because the camera shot gets jammed, but they don’t touch my food, it’s still my food.” Below, the chef and talk show host discusses food, family and 30 Minute Meals—all in, yes, 30 minutes.
This show went off the air seven years ago. Why are you excited to bring it back?
I get to be new to a new generation, and I get to roll in a different way and cook different food. We get to mix cocktails, we get to drink—it’s fun.
What’s different about it now versus how you did it back in the day?
I love the way we’re doing them now because the way we always did them in the past was the cameras were much bigger and they weren’t as easy to move around. We had dollies and giant cameras, so we’d have to do these elaborate camera rehearsals. I’d do the first act and then we’d stop and we’d take the food out of the pan. But we’ve never done what we do here, which is we just roll.
You’re also of course still filming your talk show. Are you exhausted?
No! It’s so easy. Filming this show is like a vacation. [For the Rachael Ray Show], we do three episodes day; it’s a lot to move in an audience of 150 people at a time three times a day, three different groups of people. The crew has to take a much longer break at our show. Here, they just take a half hour and then pop, we’re back. These are like snow days from school.
What do you do with your free time?
I cook. I love to write. I watch movies. I’m a thriller kind of gal. I also just watched You [on Netflix].
What’s your favorite 30-minute meal?
I don’t like favorites of anything, it sounds so mean to me. It sounds like snot girls in the cafeteria, you know what I mean? My husband has a favorite, it’s carbonara. My mom, she loves pastas but I don’t think she really has a favorite dish. In general she loves anything lemon. Her nickname is Mamacello because she loves limoncello so much.
I never pick favorites. If I’m sick, my husband will make me minestra: escarole-and-white bean soup. But I’m an equal opportunity eater.
You turned 50 in August, what was that like?
I didn’t want it to be like anything. I usually just cook or have a pizza party on my birthday. I like to just be quiet when I’m not at work. My friends wouldn’t have that so I had a small surprise birthday party at Casa Enrique, which is a Michelin-star Mexican restaurant in Queens, Long Island City, which I loved.
What do you think is your greatest achievement?
I was psyched about moderating for Michelle Obama [on her Becoming book tour]. I respect her so much; being asked to do that when you started out as a waitress in upstate New York is pretty incredible.
Do you have any regrets?
I’m not a person that believes in them. If you’re alive, there’s really nothing ultimately to regret. If I hadn’t been mugged, for instance, I never would have moved back to the country. Had I not moved back to the country I never would have 30 Minute Meals and so on and so and so on. I say to people all the time that life is Jenga and if you went back and put a piece back in, who knows what you’re doing to the overall structure.
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Now some quick-fire questions. Biggest fear?
Spiders, but I don’t kill them. And snakes because they don’t have legs, but I don’t kill them either.
Being willfully ignorant. Holding fast to something that you know is not true or choosing not to learn something. I think we can all be guilty of that, I catch myself doing it sometimes. I’m like, “You’re just being stupid for no reason. You’re being willfully ignorant.” I think you could do it in large and small ways and I’m going to leave it at that.
Your greatest extravagance?
I don’t feel guilt about spending money that I earned, and I like to share, so I don’t know really. I guess including all of our friends and close family every year in our anniversary, which involves a flight to Italy and a several-day stay in that situation.
We bring everybody and we feed them. I cook for them for four days and they get spa treatments and look out on Tuscany. We fly everybody there, we fly them all home. That’s pretty extravagant. But I earned it, I don’t care. I think that I should share what I have with all of my friends while I’m here. It ain’t no fun when you’re gone.
What would be your last meal?
I hate that question. I’ve always said I’d be way too depressed to eat, I wouldn’t care about eating. I would try heroin, have crazy amounts of sweaty sex, drink until I literally blacked out. I would not be worrying about having a steak if it’s my last few minutes on the planet.
I have always said if there is a heaven, when I die I would meet my first dog Boo and my grandfather and he would want salty fish spaghetti: sardines or anchovies with garlic and oil and chili. And Boo would want butternut squash more than anything, she loved butternut squash.
30 Minute Meals airs every day in April at noon ET on Food Network.