Sandra Lee: The Anti-Julia Child

If you watch the cooking show Money Saving Meals, you'll see a svelte Sandra Lee working in an impressively clean kitchen. On the first episode, everything is white: the counters, the drawers, the bowls, even the KitchenAid mixer. So is the sweater she's wearing, which may not be a surprise, as Lee has developed a knack over her years on the Food Network of matching her appliances to whatever stylish outfit she has on. The kitchen is so pristine, you have to ask: is Lee actually cooking?

Not really. She's mixing ingredients, yes, but all recipes are prepped by staff at the Food Network's test kitchens, in a loft above a market in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. Her two shows—Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Meals (which isn't currently in production) and Money Saving Meals—are actually shot in Connecticut, at a borrowed home.

Lee and I are sitting a wooden dining table in the test kitchen. We're avoiding the salsa and chips that had been prepared from Lee's recipe for the interview. Here, in the steel space with rows of counters, cutting boards and cooks, Lee and her staff create quick recipes for the two programs. Take mousse, for example, which she explains to me is easily made by mixing chocolate pudding cups (the store-bought goo), with some creamy whipped topping (not the one from the can, though!) and a splash of vanilla.

Mousse, of course, is a French dessert, and one of the reasons we all indulge in it today is because it was brought stateside in Julia Child's seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Since the volume was published in 1961, the recipe for mousseline au chocolat has become one of the book's benchmark treats, the sort of recipe that both professional pastry chefs and ambitious home cooks still use today. The same could hardly be said for Lee's recipe, which starts to sound (even more) unpalatable after reading Child's two-page treatise: 4 egg yolks, instant sugar, orange liqueur, not-quite-simmering water, more cold water, semisweet baking chocolate, strong coffee, mounds of butter, orange peel, egg white, salt and vanilla-flavored crème anglaise—an ingredient with its own recipe on page 588 of the book.

But who has time for that? Lee's easy-bake operation is the modern recipe for being a successful TV chef. She has a block on the Food Network every day, and she's the only host with two cooking programs playing in rotation. Many of these are reruns of Semi-Homemade Meals, the show that made her a star six years ago. By mixing store-bought ingredients with the occasional fresh item, she parlayed a new strategy into a television show, 17 cookbooks, a memoir and her own magazine (Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade). When the economy went south last year, she exploited the news and created Money Saving Meals. On this new show, which premiered in May and was renewed for a second season, she teaches moms how to feed a family of four for $4.

Since the Food Network has been offering cheap food for years, it didn't really need a recession-themed show. So why give Lee a second contract? The answer lies in her backstory, says Bob Tuschman, the vice president of programming for the Food Network. "She has struggled," he says. "Even though she has been successful, she knows what it feels like just to have to try to get food on the table." As a child, Lee raised her four younger siblings on food stamps and welfare after her mother walked out. With help from her grandmother, she learned how to cut costs at the grocery store. It's a story she's not embarrassed to tell, especially when promoting the new show. "As a career woman, I know that so many people benefit from what we had to go through," she says.

For her career trajectory, this story has worked: Lee is among TV's most successful female chefs, and she says she owes her success to the woman who created the medium, Julia Child. "She was a pioneer with the first television cooking show and I'm honored that people are saying I am a 'daughter' of Julia's," Lee says. But when Americans tuned in to see Child bake up a soufflé, her kitchen looked nothing like Lee's. On The French Chef, the host was a mess: she spilled, she mussed and, as a large woman, Child struggled to navigate her small set. Pans were in the way, bowls had to be pushed to the side to make room for cutting, and utensils, which were left on the counter, could be splashed with sauce. It was thrilling, but also familiar—it looked like the kitchens we all have at home.

So what would Child think about these new shows? When The French Chef first appeared on television in 1963, audiences were immediately hungry for more; they excused Child's boisterous chortle and laissez-faire attitude (not to mention dropped omelettes) in exchange for her faith that anyone could cook coq au vin without burning their noses off. At 6 foot 2, Child often looked like a man stuffed into drag; Dan Aykroyd played her on Saturday Night Live. Lee, on the other hand, is a petite blonde, the sort who wears angora sweaters in the kitchen, and would never get grease splattered on her opulent Van Cleef & Arpels jewels. Among her colleagues, she even calls herself a drag queen; she's a performer—if nothing else. "You've got Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee—mostly women—and in a way, they're very much the children of Julia," says Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, who spoke about the Food Network on Fresh Air Radio earlier this week. "Although, I think their style is different, and their cooking is different. I don't think they have the kind of conviction that Julia had, even though I think they're probably useful to some people."

In an era when you can find someone cooking and gabbing on television at any hour, Child's debut may not seem so extraordinary. But her show, recorded in real time, was the first cooking program that placed a nonprofessional in the kitchen, no less a woman who didn't feel it was clichéd to be looming over the stove. From this mold, we've heard from Martha Stewart to Ina Garten, and more recently, Rachael Ray to Sandra Lee. Each of these woman has their own spin on familiar American cooking, yet none of them manage to bring something new (say, the entirety of French cuisine) to their viewers. "Julia did something so ungimmicky and I think that's alien in a contemporary way," says Nigella Lawson, a popular English author and cook. "There's nothing like her at all any more, because these days, television stations don't seem to have an awful lot of faith in their viewers' intellect."

Lee is certainly not the first woman to strike it rich from Food Network coronation. Nor is she the only one to cook this way. Paula Deen loves her sausage and biscuits; Ray argues that cooking is so grueling, you might as well top your salad with hot dogs. All of them are female cooks (not chefs) who make entertaining look easy, but none of it is groundbreaking. "Child really was the forerunner for everything that happens on the Food Network," Ray says. "[I get] lumped in with Sandra Lee, but whatever. I try to do more than that—and I think it's important, for example, to start relearning to cut up whole chickens."

Lee's show is the furthest from Child's methods—but just like the latter brought French cooking stateside, Lee and Child have one basic thing in common: both filled a niche that hasn't yet been explored. "When I was at the Cordon Bleu [where Child also trained] things took hours and hours and hours to make," Lee says. "And they were beautiful dishes—and I know how to cook that way—but I was like, 'no one is cooking like this.' " Instead, Lee eschews her own training for semi-homemade recipes that contain 70 percent store-bought ready-made products. For her donut recipe, all you'll need is a can of biscuits (pre-made, of course), lots of canola oil and a soda bottle to slice out holes. "You'll never visit a donut store again," she boasts of the 10 donuts she makes for $2.60 in the first episode of her new show. And if you're making French toast, "you will be so surprised if you look at the price of day-old bread!" (Really?) None of the ingredients are locally sourced. Flavors come premixed—pumpkin pie spice is a common additive—and health may as well be considered an extraneous expense. "Quite frankly, with 12 million children in this country that are at risk of hunger every day, I hope they just have some food," she says, smiling. "Anyway!"

To be fair, when Child hit the scene, it was enough that she just showed up for the party. Her food was butter-laden, cleaning standards weren't rigorous, and she had a pass from the political correctness baked into America's contemporary cuisine. Lee, and other television hosts, now have to worry about making recipes that work, but also must peddle versions of familiar foodie themes: local ingredients, children's health, and keeping "green." Lee proudly declares that using reusable dish towels to clean up makes her cooking environmentally friendly. "We're much greener in our house because we want to save money, because we realize it's better," she says, referring to Andrew Cuomo, the New York State attorney general whom she has dated for the past three years.

Back at the Food Network, Lee and I are riding in the elevator up to her test kitchen, when she makes a startling confession about her new show. "There will be no cocktails," she laments, even though they played heavily in her last show. "You know, alcohol is expensive and now, it's all about saving money." On The French Chef, alcohol wasn't only added to the recipes, it was added to the conversation. Between sips of wine, and the occasional error, excess was Child's key ingredient. Lee, on the other hand, is now making virgin "mocktails." That doesn't mean she's not working hard. "Cooking this way is actually more difficult," she says a little defensively. "No one has the time to cook the [Cordon Bleu] way, anyway."

Then she gives me one of her show's cooking tips. "For example: ranch dressing has so many flavors you have to consider, so what happens when you mix that with dill?"

Bon appétit.

© 2009