She's famous for her tablescapes. She can frost a cake to perfection. Even her cocktails are colorfully sweet. But Semi-Homemade's Sandra Lee faced some sour moments before tasting success, and she's sharing her story in tonight's installment of Chefography (9 pm/ET, Food Network). TVGuide.com spoke with the culinary pro about how she turned food stamps into an everyday philosophy, why her difficult childhood led her down certain roads, and how she's giving back to those in need.
TVGuide.com: Who or what inspires you when you're in the kitchen?
Sandra Lee: A lot of my inspiration comes from my two grandmothers, when they were alive. My Grandma Dicey used to do a lot of Southern cooking, and my Grandma Lorraine did a ton of baking and cake decorating. I was really fortunate to get the best of both worlds.
TVGuide.com: You definitely frost a lot of cakes on Semi-Homemade.
Lee: Exactly. Tomorrow I'll be frosting a cone and sticking powered doughnuts on it! [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Do you ever have a night when you just don't know what to make for dinner?
Lee: Sure, I just grab one of my cookbooks and I'm like, "Oh yeah, I'll have that!" There's this pepper-peach veal chop.... I had exactly one of those days, and I opened up the cookbook and that was the page I turned to, and I said, "Perfect." I went to the grocery store and bought it, because everything's easy and fast.
TVGuide.com: And you probably had half of the ingredients already.
Lee: No, you have all of them, because you can improvise, too. If it's not pepper-peach, it could be pepper-raspberry, because it starts with preserves. Plus, with Semi-Homemade [recipes], you can really improvise the taste; it doesn't have to be exact.
TVGuide.com: How do you create new recipes for Semi-Homemade. Do you start with a theme?
Lee: Sometimes I just start with an idea and then I go look. Sometimes I'll find an ingredient in the store that looks interesting. Sometimes I'll be sitting in a restaurant going, "Hmm, this is amazing. OK, what's in here?" I feel sorry for people who have to go out to dinner with me. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Because you're picking apart the recipe?
Lee: I am. I'm, like, writing on napkins.
TVGuide.com: Tell me a little bit about your Chefography story.
Lee: Well, it's going to be pretty intense, because I don't often talk about my childhood. In fact, never. I talked about it once when I was given an award for mentoring and no one in the room really knew my story. When I got up, all you saw was this successful, tall blonde. You know, the look, like Samantha Stevens. It was the first time I told my story, so it was really hard, sharing, "Hey, I was these kids. I know exactly what this is and what they need." And that's where the Semi-Homemade philosophy came from. It was really hard — we didn't have any money growing up, we were literally on welfare, I would organize the food stamps when they came in the first of the month. Food was always better the first of the month; the last of the month was not so good.
TVGuide.com: Was it important for you to share your childhood with viewers?
Lee: I told [my story that previous time] in a closed environment, at a charity luncheon, so this is the first time I'm really telling it to the general public, and certainly to any of the fans. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I couldn't get through the first hour of the interview; I just cried, because you don't deal with that stuff, you just move on in your life.
TVGuide.com: What did you first think when they approached you about the show?
"Are you out of your mind?" [Laughs] "No way!"
TVGuide.com: Did it take a lot of convincing?
Lee: Yeah, I didn't want to do it for a long time. In fact, after the first week of shooting, I literally said, "I don't want to do this." It was just too painful. But they were very right in that it will inspire and help other people who don't think there's a future when you come from places that aren't perfect. I remember watching a Shania Twain biography and before I watched it, I was like, "Ugh, I can't stand her," and [after] I was like, "Oh, my god, I love her."
TVGuide.com: What perspective does your past give you about your life today?
Lee: I know why I'm doing what I'm doing now and why I'm so good at it. When you're growing up and going through those hard times, you look up to heaven and literally say, "God, why am I going through this exactly? Why does this day have to be such a root canal?" Who doesn't think that growing up? "Why am I standing in this warehouse packing boxes? Why am I at the state fair chopping onions? Why are you doing this to me?" [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: And now there's an answer.
Lee: Now you know. "Oh, that's why I had to go through that. That's why I had to learn how to shop at the grocery store with food stamps. That's why I was reading all those JCPenney and Sears catalogs at Christmastime and tear-sheeting outfits that go with bedroom sets," all sorts of stuff. It's unbelievable. Every single part of it makes sense now, because this is what I'm supposed to be doing.
TVGuide.com: I've seen your family on the show before. Do you ever find that cooking with your nieces and nephews brings back feelings about when you were in the kitchen at such a young age?
Lee: I baked a lot in the kitchen with my grandma, and I am very thoughtful that these are going to be their memories when they grow up. I think it's important that they have good memories that are meaningful. [They shouldn't] grow up and say, "Well, I never cooked with Aunt Sandy. I was never on her show." I like being with them. It's a pleasure. And we're all going to Disney World for spring break.
TVGuide.com: No cooking while you're on vacation!
Lee: No, we'll just get served.
TVGuide.com: Are there celebrity guests on your Chefography?
Lee: Mary Hart was interviewed for it, and also Florence Henderson. Mary is a girlfriend and she wrote the introduction to [my book] Semi-Homemade Desserts, and Florence Henderson was the spokesperson for my company when I was too young to be the spokesperson. I've known her since '93. She has a very similar upbringing to mine, so we bonded instantly. And she has also been a huge mentor to me.
TVGuide.com: How did you come up with the idea for Kurtain Kraft? That's when your career really took off!
Lee: Well, I had taken coat-hanger wire and formed it into these different apparatuses when my uncle came over and saw it and was like, "Honey, I have a welder friend. You should make these up and go down to the L.A. County Fair." So, he did, and they sold out within three days. Plus, we took the blue ribbon for booth display and design and new-product entry in the fair. So, from there, Wal-Mart was my first retailer, Target was my second and QVC was my third. It just kind of happened.
TVGuide.com: Tell me about your involvement with Project Angel Food and UNICEF.
I was one of the founding members of the Los Angeles board of UNICEF. I sit on the board of directors at the Los Angeles Children's Hospital and all of the proceeds from Semi-Homemade Desserts are donated to Project Angel Food.
TVGuide.com: That's a lot to juggle, but they're all very important.
Lee: They are. Project Angel Food delivers meals every day to people who are homebound with cancer, Parkinson's, HIV, diabetes.... They also have a new initiative for poor children who normally don't get the nutrition they need to even go to school, so there's a food program set up for them. My mom was bedridden, and that's why I had to do most of the things in the house. She had severe fibromyalgia, which attacks the joints in your body and is debilitating, and that would be the same type of person that Project Angel Food would serve.
TVGuide.com: That's great, how it comes full circle.
Lee: Yes, it really is.
Send your comments on this Q&A to email@example.com.