How lucky that Sunny Anderson grew up to be the woman she is. Ebullient. Happy. Fun. Fierce, really.
The person fits the name, which is remarkable considering that Sunny is her given name and not a childhood endearment that stuck once her bright personality formed. She is honestly, well, sunny.
"I know, weird, isn't it?" she says when talking about how the name ended up suiting her perfectly.
Anderson was in the Tampa Bay area over the weekend for demonstration classes at Publix's Apron's cooking schools in Tampa and Sarasota. At Apron's in Citrus Park, she unleashes the personality, complete with megawatt smile, that helped her win a regular gig on the Food Network as the host of Cooking for Real (noon Saturdays with repeats during the week). In case people haven't seen her ads for Viva paper towels, there is a pyramid at the door to recognize her sponsor.
The two dozen people in the audience seem less interested in what she is cooking than in her life story and how she got a Food Network show. Not that her Parmesan herbed orzo and prosciutto-wrapped beef bites don't get gobbled up with lightning speed. The food is tasty, but spending a couple of hours with Anderson provides insights into the Food Network world. For foodies, it is good dish, in every sense of the word.
She reveals that a microwave oven on her set is the telltale sign of a first season show. She lost a spirited battle with her boss, Bob Tuschman — the network's senior vice president for programming and production — to keep the convenience appliance for subsequent seasons. She argued that the kitchen set should be "real," the network wanted it "aspirational." She twitches her fingers to form air quotes around the word.
Anderson, 35 next month, describes the rolling cart of clothes brought in for the female hosts to wear for the annual Food Network Christmas special.
"Gina (Neely of Down Home With the Neelys) and I were laughing about all the small sizes," she says. "They must have been waiting for Giada (De Laurentiis of Everyday Italian) to come in." That gets a big laugh from audience members, who understand that size 12 is the norm, not the exception. And, as network junkies, they know De Laurentiis' ultra-slight silhouette.
While Anderson talks, she passes around a black-and-white composition notebook, the kind she might have carried to her high school English class. In it are scribbled notes and recipes of what she cooks in her Brooklyn apartment. Those meals become the basis of her show. She's nearly got the next season sketched out, including episodes with titles such as "I've Got an App for That" and "After School Special."
Allowing that glimpse behind the scenes endears Anderson to her audience, and her openness translates on air, too. She does not have the professional food chops of some of her older colleagues, several of whom are veteran chefs and restaurateurs. But when the camera comes on, so does she. And she's a veteran of another sort.
Anderson grew up in an Army family and joined the Air Force out of high school. In her four years in the service, she learned the art of broadcast. "You've heard of the movie Good Morning, Vietnam? That was me." After her stint in the service, she became a radio DJ and eventually found her way to a top New York hip-hop station. Radio further honed her natural gift of gab, but family taught her how to cook, and she did that on the side with a catering business. Sunny's Delicious Dishes was a hit in the city's music community.
In 2005, proximity and word-of-mouth got her an invitation for a guest appearance Emeril Live!
"Somebody said I was good on TV and I just kept pursuing it," she tells the audience. It took three years, and a few starter shows, before she landed Cooking for Real.
In the jewel-bedecked back pocket of her jeans, Anderson keeps her "lucky tasting spoon," which is nothing more than a sturdy diner utensil. She admits she might have taken it from a greasy spoon restaurant years ago. She flits around Apron's kitchen, dispensing stories and cooking tips in rapid fire.
"I'm hungry," she says.
Her death row meal?
"How much do I get? My mom's mac-n-cheese, my grandma's red velvet cake, pecan pie and sweet potato pie. A Cinnabon. Frozen Snickers bar. Fried oysters, fried pork chops, fried chicken. A good pilsner. Bagel from New York. Pizza. My mom's liver (fried with mushrooms and thyme). And bread pudding. I am telling you, I like to eat."
"In my life, I've dared to dream these dreams," she says. "And I am going to try not to cry here." Anderson's eyes well up. "I am so comfortable with life. I've never planned anything until it's bumped into me."
So far, the Food Network has been Anderson's biggest bump. That and her perfectly chosen name.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.