Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spunky and self-made: Sandra Lee

How Sandra Lee’s escape to Wisconsin led to sweet, Semi-Homemade success

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, December 2007
Cover story

When Sandra Lee was 15 years old, she looked her mother straight in the eye and announced that her future would be a good one.

She got the beating of her life.

Sandra left home that day. Exhausted from spending years as the primary caretaker of four younger siblings, emotionally spent from the thankless ordeal of rescuing her mother after a suicide attempt that nearly succeeded, shaken by a rape attempt by her former stepfather, and now more bloodied, black and blue than she’d ever been before, the teen fled for shelter with her boyfriend’s kindhearted family.

Sandra didn’t know it then, but she was only a few months away from the haven that would change her life forever: Wisconsin.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the 40-year-old Sandra Lee as anything other than the celebrity lifestyle expert she’s become. Her upbeat persona has led many to suppose that her success was effortless, her upbringing comfortable and coddled.

She’s the CEO of Semi-Homemade, Inc., the New York Times bestselling author of a string of cookbooks bearing the Semi-Homemade name and a guest lecturer for Harvard Business School conferences. She’s an entrepreneur who for years ran an industry-award-winning business based on do-it-yourself window-treatment gadgets she invented using clothes hanger wire. She’s a tireless worker for charities including UNICEF, Project Angel Food and Share Our Strength, and a trustee of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

But she’s probably best known as the chipper host of Food Network’s popular show Semi-Homemade Cooking. For each strongly themed episode, Sandra personally develops an array of recipes including her signature “Cocktail Time,” dramatic “tablescapes” that incorporate anything from garden ornaments to dime store props for 3D effect, a complete overhaul of the set’s dressing and even a coordinating wardrobe for herself, sometimes with multiple costume changes. She’s done this over 200 times since the show’s debut in 2003.

She balks at the suggestion that the themes express who she is: “It’s not me coming through. It’s not job to dictate what you should like and what you should not like. My job is to show you, if this is your taste, this is how to put it together with the minimum of time, effort and expense. Because I’ve already done it every which way there is to do it. By the time it’s on the air, it’s perfect.” The sheer volume and scope of projects covered in each show can seem overwhelming, but, Sandra explains, “No one’s going to make everything that’s in any episode. You might see one thing and say, ‘I can do that.’”

Sandra is known for an exuberant cooking style that uses lots of brand-name mixes, jars, seasoning packets and cans, for her full-throttle ruffles-and-lace decorating, and not least for a blazingly sunny disposition. This last, paired with her willowy, California-blonde good looks, seems to have predestined her success as the upbeat multimedia juggernaut she’s become. But her background of poverty, abuse and family hardship tells a different story.

In her newly published memoir, “Made From Scratch” (Meredith), Sandra recounts her rocky upbringing. Born to teenage parents, at the age of two she and her younger sister were deposited at the Santa Monica home of her father’s mother. There she spent her happiest childhood years. “Grandma Lorraine,” whom Sandra called “Mommy” at that time, worked hard to make home a special place to share with loved ones. She kept an immaculate house, cooked good food, made crafts with the girls, took them to church. When it was time for celebration, she went all out making decorations and treats, playing on a shrewd inventiveness that made the most of the slim paycheck she earned working at a cafeteria. Sandra lovingly recalls the simple foil pie pans she upturned to make “grand, shiny silver cake pedestals” at birthdays. The lesson in repurposing mundane objects would serve Sandra well later in life.

At six, when Sandra's mother and new husband took the girls to live in Washington State, the peaceful rhythms and special celebrations were gone, replaced by chaos, mess and violence. By the time Sandra was eleven, her stepfather was gone and her mother was immobilized by depression. Sandra took over the household responsibilities, buying groceries by bicycle, rationing food stamps through the month, cooking, cleaning, minding four children, raising extra money by selling bunches of flowers she picked from empty lots, dodging her mother’s beatings and admonitions that she wasn’t helping around the house enough -- and going to school, where she hid her bruises from the school nurses.

Just before her sixteenth birthday, Sandra left Washington for the Onalaska townhouse her father shared with his girlfriend. “I got there just in time,” says Sandra, speaking from her recently adopted city of New York. “If I hadn’t gone to live in Wisconsin, we would not be having this interview. I would not have become the person I am. There’s a sensibility in Wisconsin and the Midwest that’s wonderful. The values and morals are really prevalent in the society. ”

Her father’s household, too, dissolved into domestic violence, but Sandra believes Wisconsin life saved her. “The kids in Washington were doing drugs, but Wisconsin was a very different environment. There was really no bad crowd to get involved with.”

Grandma Lorraine helped Sandra find her own apartment in Onalaska. “It was the best and the worst time in my life,” Sandra recalls. “It was the first time I was really on my own and had to just focus on myself, to be still -- which was just odd and awkward. On the other hand, it wasn’t the chaos I was used to in my life in Washington. I was more peaceful and serene. I didn’t have parental guidance or supervision, but there was also this quiet environment. Being able to grow. I read. I focused on school much more. I was the entertainment editor, and in charge of advertising at the school newspaper. I joined cheerleading.”

Here Sandra says she developed the distinctive aesthetic of her show’s coordinated set dressing, tablescapes and wardrobe. “It’s very matchy-matchy, just like Wisconsin. When you’re in cheerleading, your hair-bow matches your purse matches your book cover. Everyone matches. All the time.”

Unaccustomed to what seemed like loads of free time, Sandra went to work, too. “My first jobs were at Hardee’s and Penny’s Shoes. Then I went to the pet store in the LaCrosse Mall. The work ethic and the support and the understanding -- Wisconsin was just a super terrific place to be.”

Then there was the food. “I experienced different foods in Wisconsin that I never had before. Brats were one, which I loved immediately. Sunfish was another -- I love sunfish to this day. Just flour and salt it, then saute in butter.”

After high school, Sandra headed to the UW-La Crosse to study physical therapy, “a great way to help people -- I got that from taking care of my brothers and sisters.” But the girl who once helped support her family selling value-added wildflowers found business classes more riveting. “Five of us got together and opened up an ice fishing shop, you know, on paper. You had to do per-square-foot dollars and figure out employee scheduling, everything. After that class, I said, ‘OK. I want to own my own business. This is just too much fun.’”

Cocktail Time, as well as the show’s occasional grilling segments, she says, comes straight from her experience of “grilling, cocktail waitressing and bartending at the Holiday Inn on Mississippi River. I learned to grill on that deck grill, in a very small space. I definitely learned creative cocktails on the deck. We’ve shot 200 themes. Who else could pump out 200 different cocktails? You need the expertise of being a Wisconsinite.”

In college Sandra also discovered the pleasures of entertaining for friends. She had no money, but as she had learned from Grandma Lorraine, “there’s no reason things can’t be special, no matter what your budget” (this attitude would later become central to the Semi-Homemade philosophy). So she learned to improvise in the kitchen. “I would make ‘Boone’s Farm Strawberry Shortcake,’ she recalls. “All you do is just simmer thawed-out strawberries, macerated in Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine. Let it all melt together -- the alcohol cooks out. That was the only thing we could afford.”

It took several years, a lot more life experience and an intensive course at Le Cordon Bleu’s Ottawa campus for all these elements to coalesce into the overarching concept of “Semi-Homemade.” And when it did, the message resonated with millions of homemakers. No publishing firm would touch her first book, “Semi-Homemade Cooking,” so Sandra self-published. The book became a grassroots phenomenon, and soon major publishers and the Food Network were lined up to get Sandra -- and her Semi-Homemade brand -- on their team.

“Semi-Homemade was really created so that the busy homemaker would have the time to sit down with the family,” Sandra explains. “It’s the solution to bringing the family back together at the table, without sacrificing quality or taste. It’s 70-30, right in line with how your grocery is laid out -- all the ready-made products in the center, and the 30% of the perimeter has the bakery, fresh meats, and produce.”

But some critics argue that 30% homemade is 70% short of real cooking. The New York Times review of the first Semi-Homemade cookbook was scornful. Members of Internet forums make gleeful sport of her menus and recipes, disdaining her advice to, for instance, stir together ready-made ranch dressing with sour cream and hot sauce to make a dip for deep-fried olives (she specifies buying them already stuffed with blue cheese) in tempura batter mix. The contempt doubles at her examples of repurposing, as when the strained-off olive liquid plays a role in Cocktail Time.

Sandra bristles at such attitudes. “They need to quit, these purists, being condescending. I take offense, and I take offense on behalf of millions of women who are working. Who want to take five minutes to sit down with their family. Or to look nice. Taking a shot at Semi-Homemade is absolutely ridiculous. They’re not even taking a shot at me; they’re taking a shot at those women.”

She continues, “Everything I do on the show, I ask first, does this work for Colleen Schmidt [Sandra’s best friend from college] of Fredonia, Wis., who’s on her second marriage and is raising two children? Does this work for Kimber Lee, who’s got no nanny to help her? If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work. Anything that creates helps create time and a platform for good family values should be greeted with open arms.”

Sandra sometimes has to fight this battle on her own show. For this year’s Christmas episode, a producer nixed a centerpiece of white, powdered-sugar doughnuts adorned with “tiny blue candies that you stick in the holes of the doughnuts,” Sandra explains, and draped with blue fruit leather, all affixed to a craft styrofoam cone.

“They didn’t want me to do this doughnut tree. It was drop-dead gorgeous! I just think the woman in charge didn’t understand what it’s supposed to be about. I said, ‘I understand that it’s not New York, L.A. sophisticated,” Sandra says, her voice becoming hot as she recounts the skirmish. “I said, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about what Colleen Schmidt Wayberg will use to make the holidays easier, better, faster.’ That’s what Christmas is supposed to be about. If you did that at your holiday party, everyone would say, ‘You are so clever!’” The producer relented.

“They don’t even know how to tell me, ‘No,’” Sandra says.

It’s a bit boastful, but that’s OK. Years ago, Sandra Lee decided to look straight in the eye of someone who wanted to beat her down, maybe for good. You wouldn’t expect her to back down now over a doughnut tree.


  1. I first thought when I seen Sandra Lee that she was going to be snobbish. Well she isn't! After I seen the chefography on her and read about her life, snobbish is not a word I would use again for her. I didn't know about the donut wreath...sure would have loved to have seen that. I think she is a very creative and inspiring person. Thank you for writing about her.

  2. Sorry, I ain't buying it. I thought she said her mother died when she was ten. Suddenly she shows up to open a can of whoop-ass on our pour Sandra? She gives out erroneous info on food and food handling, she feeds her audience a load of BS about her family life - there are so many contradictions in her story; I'm shocked and appalled that no intrepid journalist has caught on to her yet. Yeah, I know, she had a tough upbringing, but hey Effie, we all got pain!!! And to use your tragedies to shill prepackaged junk to people is beyond mercenary. I'll give her props for being a shrewd business woman, but from a culinary standpoint, I have little or no respect for her or her Meal Assemblage Manuals.