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So What Do You Do, Sunny Anderson, Food Network Host?

The former radio DJ dishes on turning her appetite for cooking into her own Food Network show

By Blake Gernstetter - January 6, 2010
Sunny Anderson's path to Food Network stardom didn't start with culinary school or a five-star restaurant. The ebullient epicurean joined the Air Force and began her broadcast career as a host and radio DJ in Seoul, South Korea, where she was stationed. She went on to radio posts across the U.S. in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Michigan before settling in New York City in 1998 at hip hop station Hot 97. Anderson's love of cooking for friends grew into a steady stream of catering gigs, which she transformed into her own company, Sunny's Delicious Dishes, in 2003. "I'd leave for work in the morning [with food] marinating, get on the air from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., get home at 4 o'clock, start cooking, and be ready for an event that night," said Anderson.

After impressing Food Network producers during a guest spot on Emeril Live, she eventually landed her own show, Cooking For Real, in 2008. Between odes to chimichurri, New York pizza, and Chicago hot dogs, Anderson spoke to mediabistro.com about how she transitioned from radio to cable TV's foodie haven and revealed the one thing she'd never change about herself.


Name: Sunny Anderson
Position: Host of Food Network series, Cooking For Real
Resume: Began career as a radio host, reporter, and producer for U.S. Air Force. Followed with on-air announcing stints at WYLD and KUMX in New Orleans, La.; WJWZ in Montgomery, Ala.; WDTJ in Detroit, Mich.; and WQHT (Hot 97 FM) in New York, NY. Opened the catering company, Sunny's Delicious Dishes, in 2003. Worked at Hip Hop Weekly as food and lifestyle editor for two years. Joined Food Network as co-host of Gotta Get It in 2007. In 2008, began hosting her own cooking show, Cooking For Real, as well as the primetime series, How'd That Get On My Plate?.
Hometown: "None, [I] grew up as an army brat, [and] moved more times than my age!"
Education: Defense Information School -- Broadcast Television/Radio/Public Affairs, certificate. Loyola University, New Orleans -- sophomore status.
Marital status: "Nevaheardofit."
First section of the Sunday Times: "I go front to back, I like the suspense and payoff of getting to each section. 'Travel' and 'Food' are my top picks, though."
Favorite TV show: "Seinfeld, Dexter, any and all news, Forensic Files."
Guilty pleasure: Reality TV, anything fried, and frozen candy bars
Last book read: This Family of Mine: What It Was Like Growing Up Gotti by Victoria Gotti, The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer and Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin.
Twitter handle: "None, I 'Tweet' old-school at SunnyAnderson.blogspot.com."

Talk about how you started your catering business while you were working at Hot 97. What inspired you to take what you love and turn it into a business, and how did you balance those two jobs?
It was hard. It started me, I didn't start it. I was doing a lot of hanging out with friends and was single at the time. So if I made a big tray of mac and cheese, I can't have that in my fridge -- I'll eat it. So I would just take it with me and feed people. It came to people saying, 'Can you make us a tray?' It got to be so much that I started to try and figure out: How can I slow this down? So, I said to myself, 'Maybe if I charge them, they'll stop asking me to do it.' When I charged, they were like, 'Okay, no problem!' Next thing you know, I was getting people asking me to do real events, like media events, business meetings and album release parties.

"You can't just say to yourself, I want to do A, B, and C. You've got to let people know that you want to do it."

Your first Food Network appearance was in 2005 on Emeril. How'd you land that appearance?
I was still at Hot 97, and it was a year or so after I started catering for people. One of my [radio] listeners worked with Emeril Lagasse. She's now a producer on his show, but at the time she was just audience coordinator. She said, 'Hey, I listen to this girl on the radio, she's always talking about food, and we already know she can talk. She's not going to get nervous. Let's look into it.' So they gave me a call, and I had meetings with them. I secured a performer for them to perform with the band; I submitted recipes for them to choose from, and in the end, we decided [I would] guest on the show.

I didn't even meet [Emeril] until the day of. It was like, 'He'll meet you that morning, and he'll decide after he meets you if he's going to bring you up to cook with him. Just be prepared to sit at the counter, wave at the crowd, and just answer any questions.' So I'm just sitting there, and he's like, 'So, Sunny, you gonna come up and help me out?' It's just one of the most surreal things.

How did you go from being a guest on the show to having your own?
That very day, one of the producers pulled me to the side [and] asked me if I had a good time. I said, 'Yes, I totally did,' and they said, 'Good, because it looked amazing, and I think you might have the ability to do this.' I was at a point in my radio career where I was reaching the end of my contract, [and] I was trying to figure out what's next. So I immediately got the producer's information and started having conversations with her about what I could do to get closer and closer to the goal of having a cooking show. Any time she had free to go to lunch, I would ask her out. Once or twice a month. And we'd meet up. I'd just let her know that I was really serious: If she thought I did a good job without trying hard, just see what happens when I try hard and I have all the things in my realm to try and get the job done.

Did you have an agent?
No. I had a lawyer that I dealt with for my radio career that dealt with my contracts. She believed in me so much and thought that I was going to get a show -- and this was back in '05 -- that she took me in to meet not only her agent, but Emeril Lagasse's agent, as well. They gave me a verbal agreement -- 'If anything comes of it, we'll represent you or help you out.' I was too small for them to even sign me and waste real time on. That's the name of the game with agents: You either are very small, working hard to get one, or you are very big and you already have one. It's really hard to get one-on-one time with an agent when you're working to get on the map. But once you put in some effort here and there and [have] done some footwork and gotten a little bit of notoriety in whatever field you're trying to do, that's when it's a good time to reach out to an agent and say, 'Hey, look, this is what I've done thus far, with the smallest of connections, without a team. Would you like to be a part of my team?' Because keep in mind, the agents work for you, and a lot of people go into the mentality thinking it's the other way around.

"There are a lot of people that are going to ask you in broadcasting to compromise who you are, and you've got to figure out if it's worth it or not. Nine times out of 10, it so isn't."

What personal branding advice would you give to someone who's pursuing a broadcast career?
You must be yourself, because if the cameras start rolling and you become some other person, then the camera won't lie and it will pick up on everything. The goal was and always is -- even in radio, if I had an interview with a program director and they were trying to figure out if I was perfect for their market -- I was unapologetically me. If I didn't know something, I was okay with it and told them, 'Hey, I can learn it, no big deal.' Many times, programmers were concerned with my accent, because I kind of take on where I live due to my upbringing and moving around a lot, and it was always, 'Well can you change your accent?' There are a lot of people that are going to ask you in broadcasting to compromise who you are, and you've got to figure out if it's worth it or not. Nine times out of 10, it so isn't. I mean, I've been asked to change my name.

From Sunny?
Can you believe it? I was like, 'Really?' Because Sunny's my real name, and it also happens to sound like it's my fake name. So it's kind of tragic to me to change my fake-sounding real name to a fake name. I fought that, and won that fight, but there have been so many things. People telling you to dress a certain way, or speak a certain way, or whatever. You've just got to be yourself.

The foodie culture has been surging lately. It seems everyone is an expert or a gourmet. What steps could a home cook or food lover take to break into a public or media career?
The best way is just to be open to the process of what you love. And people have to know that you're open to it. You can't just say to yourself, I want to do A, B, and C. You've got to let people know that you want to do it. And then they might know someone that knows someone that knows someone. You'll never be in that conversation until people know what your intent in life is. There are so many people out there that will truly just give you the lift up because they want to see you succeed. Then the key is keeping the job. Not being afraid to work for free... There are so many avenues. If you're a foodie and you want to get into it, there are grocery stores that have classes that normal people can teach, if you have something to offer. If you just really love what you love, you'll find a way and not let money and the idea of famin' to claim get in the way. That's what really muddies it up -- when you're just out there to make a dollar and to be seen -- that just is a hot mess.

"I'm constantly watching myself -- kind of like a football player -- I'm trying to just get better every time."

There's a lot of pressure in radio to be ratings-driven and always thinking about numbers. Is it the same way for you on TV or can you just do your thing?
In television, it's a little bit more smoke and mirrors. I don't get my ratings as regularly. They come out every week, but I do get reports when I'm exceptionally doing well. So the stress isn't there so much as on a daily or weekly basis, but it is there to the point where I know that if my ratings aren't performing for the network, I won't have a job. I'm more obsessed with getting better. This is my infancy: I've only been doing this for a year and some change now. I'm constantly watching myself -- kind of like a football player -- I'm watching my tape and I'm trying to just get better every time. Sometimes I watch myself and I'll say something that's not as harsh as my face looks -- like I'll say I don't really like chocolate ice cream but my face looks like I hate chocolate ice cream. Which, by the way, I really don't, I love it.

How much do you interact with your TV audience?
With the immediacy of radio and picking up that phone -- being able to talk with someone that agrees or disagrees with what you just said, or wants to win some tickets, or wants to discuss gossipy information -- I missed it when I left radio. So now I blog. It kind of fills in the blanks for me. I try to get out to as many events as possible, and I encourage people to come and say hi to me. I like meeting people that are foodies, not just because they're watching my show but because it's another chance for me to go off into a tangent about whatever food issue we want to talk about at the moment. Makes me feel not so lonely in my foodie world.


Blake Gernstetter is mediabistro.com's associate editor.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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