Thursday, April 3
Still, the ebullient and aptly named Sunny Anderson—whose new Food Network show Cooking for Real features a “fresh, uncomplicated approach to classic comfort foods”—might just prove that modern-day truth wrong. For real.
I spoke with Sunny last week by telephone and asked her about her background, her new show, and how she felt being the newest African American host on a network occasionally criticized for its lack of diversity.
The warmth and candor she displayed when discussing her military background, her food experiences, and her outlook for the future makes me believe she has that intangible thing it takes to spark a successful show on Food Network. And I don’t say that about just anyone.
So let’s get...(sigh)
Food Network Addict: I’m sure you’ve heard about the JAG and Robert Irvine controversies, so let’s just get this straight: Are you really a real Air Force vet?
Sunny: [laughing] Yes, I joined in ‘93 and got out in ‘97. I’d love to forward you some of my documents, if necessary. I had a great time in the military. I did news stories and hosted radio shows. My dad was in the Army and I chose the Air Force; it’s [like] a family business. I have never… I could never falsify anything about the military. What they do for us is quite amazing.
Much to my surprise, Sunny really did forward me a document outlining her military experience and honorable discharge. Future scandals averted!
FNA: You worked in radio for many years in the military and after you got out. Was cooking always an important part of your life during that time?
Sunny: It was one of those weird things. You’ve got something and you don’t even think it’s something. When we were moving around a lot [as a kid], my parents’ goal was not just the cultural exploration but also the [exploration of] food. And being in the military, there’s so many ethnicities. You’re living next door to someone from Vietnam who can show you how to make spring rolls. Growing up with that was really amazing for me.
FNA: You’re not a trained chef, though.
Sunny: No, not at all. I’m a cook. There were always dinner parties [in my family] and the kitchen was very central. Growing up was all about exploring. We’d be somewhere like Germany, eat something, and then try to make it at home. I’ve taken cooking courses, though. I’ve taken a knife course. Anyone who claims to know everything about cooking, I’m so sorry for them because they’ve closed the door on food.
Sunny’s first stop after getting out of the Air Force was New Orleans—a city she had only visited a few times before. It was there, she says, that she fell in love with the local cuisine. It must have been a strong connection, as the premiere episode of her show “Noshin N’Awlins” is dedicated to the Crescent city. “When you get somewhere like that, you’re going to cook,” says Sunny
While she enjoyed her time in New Orleans, Sunny’s goal of making it to a major radio market meant she needed to move to either New York or L.A. She chose New York—eventually landing a gig at the top hip-hop station, Hot 97.
Sunny: When I first got to New York, people kept asking me “What’s next? What’s next?” and I didn’t have an answer for them, but I was still cooking for people. I didn’t put two and two together.
This casual hobby of cooking for friends and coworkers turned into a pretty big endeavor for Sunny. Bringing food here and there for people in the studio turned into catering big name events (including one for New York's Olympus Fashion Week), with her free time at the radio station (and during commercial breaks) spent using the building’s kitchen and calling her friends at home to ensure everything was on track.
Sunny: At first it was like, “It’s friendly. I’m bringing food. Let’s eat and hang out. Someone brings a bottle of wine, I bring a dish.” One summer my boss and all the executives went to a house out in the Hamptons that the radio station had and I brought my mac ‘n cheese, my chicken… a lot of standout dishes. A week after that I started getting booked by all the station’s executives. I didn’t even know I was in the running; I thought I was just cooking for friends. It was a total organic thing. I didn’t set out to do it, which is probably why when it got a little too big for me I had to stop. I couldn’t wrap my brain around doing it full force while still doing radio.
Cooking constantly, Sunny naturally talked about it on the radio. Eventually, an audience coordinator for the Food Network show Emeril Live heard Sunny and invited her to be a guest on the show.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for Part II of the interview in which we find out out how the title Cooking for Real came about, her thoughts on race and the Food Network, and what she did when she first pulled up to Food Network studios to be a guest on Emeril Live.
I'll also have my review up tomorrow of the first episode of Cooking for Real. Lots of Sunny going on over here at FNA! Hope you enjoy it.