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How Food Network's culinary queens broke gender barriers and rose to the top

Giada de Laurentiis, Rachael Ray, Valerie Bertinelli and Anne Burrell chat with Know Your Value at the 2020 South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
Image: Rachael Ray, Giada de Laurentiis and Anne Burrell.
Rachael Ray, Giada de Laurentiis and Anne Burrell.Getty Images; NBC

It can be overwhelming when you work in a male-dominated field, especially in the culinary world, where less than 7 percent of restaurants in the U.S. are led by female chefs.

Despite the difficult journey, Giada de Laurentiis, Rachael Ray, Valerie Bertinelli and Anne Burrell beat the odds. Know Your Value recently spoke to the celebrity chefs at the 2020 South Beach Wine and Food Festival about how they were able to rise to the top, their best career advice and lessons they learned along the way.

Rachael Ray: Play the long game

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Rachael Ray at Cipriani Downtown on Nov. 12, 2018 in New York.Jim Spellman / Getty Images file

No one knows more about the ins and outs of the culinary business than Rachael Ray, who started working in kitchens when she was just 11 years old.

Ray said she was inspired by her mother, Elsa Scuderi, who opened and managed several restaurants. Scuderi, according to Ray, didn’t take working for granted, and emphasized that there was no role that was beneath her.

“My mom was just such a force of nature,” Ray, 51, told Know Your Value. “You know, my mom started as a hostess and ended up running a huge food operation with millions of dollars’ worth of sales a year in a time when people told her she should be a housewife or a secretary.”

By watching her mom, who is now 85, Ray learned about the restaurant business from the bottom up. Ray and her siblings worked as dishwashers, servers and everything in between.

Ray, who is now the author of more than 20 cookbooks and host of the hit show “Rachael Ray,” said she learned as a child that “the idea that having a job is a privilege.”

Ray also stressed the importance of playing “long ball,” which she said women don’t talk about enough. In her case, it has meant at times accepting less money (for a better studio and to be able to give higher wages to her employees), but knowing it was part of a longer-term strategy.

“Sometimes it’s not good to think about yourself first or getting the most money or what some man is getting — I made my choices and sometimes they weren’t making me equal with the other men, but they were making me stronger than the other men because I had the space I wanted or the people that I wanted,” said Ray.

Giada de Laurentiis: Advocate for yourself and your family

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Chef Giada De Laurentiis attends at Pier 94 on Oct. 13, 2018 in New York.Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images for NYCWFF file

Giada de Laurentiis has been a trailblazer on the food scene for years.

In addition to her Emmy-winning Food Network show “Giada at Home” and nine cookbooks, the 49-year-old chef opened one of the first female-branded restaurants, aptly named “Giada,” on the Las Vegas strip.

She characterized the opening of the Sin City restaurant five years ago as “one of the biggest highlights of my life.”

While Laurentiis doesn’t live in Las Vegas, she visits at least twice a month. Those trips are much easier to do because her cooking shows are filmed in nearby Los Angeles, a request she made that “was unheard of at the time.”

Still, Laurentiis knew she had to advocate for herself and advised women to do the same.

"Everybody shot in New York, but I wanted to be near my family, and I didn’t want to do it without them. And it meant the world to me to be home rather than doing it from a different state,” said Laurentiis. “I basically said from day one: I either shoot them in L.A., or I don’t shoot them at all.”

Valerie Bertinelli: Surround yourself with women who lift you up

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Valerie Bertinelli on "Today" on Jan. 7, 2020.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Varerie Bertinelli said she has been successful, in part due to several women she has been lucky enough to have worked beside.

“I’ve had a lot of amazing women teach me to know my value as I go through this business,” said Bertinelli, who, before entering the culinary scene, spent nine years on the sitcom “One Day at a Time.”

Actress Bonnie Franklin “was the first woman who let me know that as a woman you have value. She made sure her voice was heard on ‘One Day at a Time,’ and as I’ve gone through the years and made new girlfriends and connected with people — you start to understand your value and not listen to the negativity out there,” said Bertinelli.

She also said fellow Food Network star Ray has been a huge influence. And when Ray in 2019 presented Bertinelli with an Emmy for her hit show “Valerie’s Home Cooking,” it was the icing on the cake.

“To be given an Emmy from Rachael — that was a beyond moment… She is someone I’ve admired for years and decades,” said Bertinelli.

The chef stressed the importance of following your passion and sticking up for yourself.

“I’ve lucked into this career, I don’t plan anything out — I just keep playing,” said Bertinelli. “When we just do what we love to do — that is valuable. Understand your value, because you are valuable no matter what anybody says — no matter what the negative voices in your head say.”

Anne Burrell: Be willing to ‘work circles’ around everyone else

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Anne Burrell on "Today" on Aug. 6, 2019.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Anne Burrell has spent years in the culinary world — from studying in Italy to working in kitchens throughout New York City.

And all that hard work has paid off. Besides becoming Mario Batali’s sous chef on “Iron Chef America,” she has written best-selling cookbooks and has hosted numerous Food Network shows, including “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef” and “Worst Cooks in America.”

Burrell recounted her family reacting skeptically when she told them she wanted to become a chef.

“When I decided to go to culinary school, I went to my father and I was like, ‘Dad, I wanna go to culinary school,’” said Burrell, 50. “He was like, ‘You wanna do what? A girl like you wants to go to work in a kitchen?’ And there was not even a Food Network to aspire to be on — It was just like I just knew that I wanted to do it.”

It was in culinary school that Burrell discovered her true passion for food. “When I got to culinary school, it was like the first time I was at the right place at the right time in my life,” said Burrell. From there, she was hooked.

“Being a chick in culinary school when it was like 10 percent women, and then coming up in New York City kitchens — in Italy and in the U.S., as a girl chef, you learn how to work harder and talk dirtier,” said Burrell. “But I was also like ‘I believe in me, and I will work circles around every single one of them. I will make myself invaluable.’”