August 21, 2017
Lee, Emeril Lagasse, Rosanna Scotto, and Lucy Cabrera, then president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, at the World’s Largest Bake Sale at Grand Central Terminal
Lee volunteers with Easter Seals, giving a cooking lesson to children with special needs
Lee joined girls from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program at the Dynamic Women in Business Conference at Harvard
A participant in the Food Bank for New York City’s public school nutrition education program, CookShop
Silk organza dress, Rochas ($4,428). Barneys New York, 660 Madison Ave., 212-826-8900. Wool sweater with embroidered detail, Miu Miu ($745). 11 E. 57th St., 212-641-2980. Lady fan shoes, L’Wren Scott ($880). Barneys New York, SEE ABOVE
|Prunello bolero ($1,600) and Eglantine dress (2,700), Dior. 21 E. 57th St., 212-931-2950. Multicolor pearl cluster earrings, Yvel ($4,334). Halo bracelet, Caleo ($7,100). Fivestory, 18 E. 69th St., 212-288-1338|
I was introduced to Sandra Lee long before she became a Food Network star and the girlfriend of the current governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. We met in Los Angeles over dinner at the home of mutual friends about a dozen years ago. Soon after, we had lunch at Mr. Chow in LA.
There are three things that I remember distinctly: It was a very early lunch and the restaurant felt slightly deserted; she ordered for both of us with a great deal of authority and an intimate knowledge of Chinese cuisine, which still eludes me; and she painted an incredibly vivid picture of what she wanted to do next in her life. It was a case study in what they teach in visualization exercises: imagine exactly what you want to create down to every last detail so you can see it, feel it, smell it—and in Sandra’s case, taste it. Now every time she publishes a new cookbook (she has produced more than 20) or I look at her food magazine (Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade), or watch one of her shows (Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Cooking and Sandra’s Money Saving Meals), I think to myself, “But, of course, that’s exactly what she said she was going to do.”
The other time I had a similar experience was when I was on the small Hawaiian island of Lanai in 1985 with David Murdock, the chairman of Castle & Cooke, which owned the island. At the time, it was nothing but pineapples, but as we walked around, he described to me in similarly vivid detail exactly what he wanted it to look like, right down to the names of the hotels he was going to build. “Here is where we’ll put the Manele Bay Hotel, there we’ll build The Lodge at Koele.” The next time I was on Lanai a few years later, everything was precisely as he had described.
An Early Influence
The ability to turn a dream into a blueprint, and the blueprint into reality—whether the reality is a multimedia lifestyle business, a fully developed Hawaiian island, or any kind of start-up—has always fascinated me. In New York, at the beginning of December, many years after that first lunch, I asked Sandra who in her life was most responsible for that ability, and she answered that, without question, it was her grandmother Lorraine, who raised her after her mother left when she was two years old. “Lorraine was a cafeteria worker, and she also cleaned houses for a living,” she said. “She was on her feet all day, she clipped coupons, and she was indomitable—watching her was an education. She taught me, not by anything she said, but by how she lived, how to stand strong in the face of challenges and adversity, how not only to survive, but to thrive.”
Children did not figure in the blueprint of the life that Sandra had described all those years ago, but now, at 45, she’s close to Governor Cuomo’s three girls—Cara, Mariah, and Michaela—whom she describes as “my semihomemade” daughters. I remember how much fun she was with my younger daughter, Isabella, who was 11 at the time they met. Isabella had found Sandra’s first cookbook, Semi-Homemade, in our kitchen in 2002 and started cooking from it. When I mentioned this to Sandra at the time, she invited us to dinner at her home, with Isabella as her special guest. It was just the three of us, and Sandra had really gone to town. Isabella, who had grown up with a mother who could at most cook brown rice with no seasoning, was seriously impressed. Today, at 20, she is still cooking from Semi-Homemade.
When I ask Sandra if she wants to have her own children someday, she says, “I don’t even think about that, with the 300 million kids that go to bed hungry every day.” And she’s putting her energy where her thoughts are. In 2001 she helped found the Los Angeles chapter of the US Fund for UNICEF, working to get food, water, and medicine to young girls in African schools, and now she works with the fund in New York, where one in six children live in homes without enough food on the table. When Hurricane Katrina hit, she became involved in hunger-related relief efforts in the US. In 2005 she was appointed the national spokeswoman for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign—which provides breakfast and lunch programs to schoolchildren, backpacks filled with food for the weekends and holidays, and support for the Kids Café program, which offers food during the summertime when school is not in session—and in 2011 she chaired the Race to Deliver fundraiser for God’s Love We Deliver.
“I started to look inward at our own country, and I saw that what you see in Third World countries is happening here in the United States too,” she says. “If you research hunger in America, you see that lower- and middle-income families need help to make ends meet all the time, not just when the chips are down. And the chips are really down now.” The governor seemed to share Sandra’s sense of urgency when, in his January State of the State address, he made childhood hunger and food stamps a “mission for 2012.”
Since she’s made her name helping millions create great homes and great meals with minimal effort, I ask Sandra about her own home life. She tells me that just the day before, she had finished redoing the Westchester home she shares with Andrew Cuomo and his girls. She redid the entire house, inside and out, and like so much of her life, this project is being turned into a before-and-after book. “It’s a metaphor for life,” she says. “A look at how you can be born into one kind of life and then build a completely different life for yourself. This is the most stable, happy, and solid I have ever been. Andrew is happy, and the girls are happy, and that’s the foundation we’ve created, from which we can go out and make things better for others too.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JILL LOTENBERG (BIG BROTHERS)