by Brandy Baker/The Detroit News
When celebrity cook Rachael Ray comes to town, she certainly packs a punch … or two.
The effervescent TV host, who gained famed with Food Network’s “30 Minute Meals” and made “EVOO” part of the lexicon, brought her syndicated talk show to Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym this week where she surprised participants in the Youth Program with a newly-renovated kitchen, visits from champions Evander Holyfield and Laila Ali and a check for $25,000 to help support the program that uses boxing as a tool to help kids excel academically and build confidence and character.
“We’re trying to give them an hour of air time because we think what they’re doing is remarkable, and we want other people to copy it,” said Ray, sporting a “Detroit Hustles Harder” hoodie as she typed out recipes on a laptop between takes, “We’re here to celebrate the kids and to share their story.”
One hundred percent of the students in the youth boxing program graduate high school, and 98 percent go on to college.
Monday afternoon, as cameras and crews crowded into the gym’s new gleaming red-and-white $80,000 kitchen, Ray taught a small group of kids how to make “Pilgrim Monte Cristo Sandwiches,” a twist on the French croque-monsieur that replaces the ham with turkey and drizzles a cranberry maple sauce over its top.
“Between LG and Lowe’s, they really macked out that room and it’s now a beautiful learning center and sitting area,” said Ray of the transformed space that used to be a “snack room” housing just a fridge and microwave, but now features a full set of appliances, plus lots of cookware donated from Ray’s “Cucina” line.
The TV host, who gained fame with the Food Network program “30 Minute Meals” and made “EVOO” part of the lexicon, landed in Detroit this week to film a special episode of her daytime talk show spotlighting the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program. Brandy Baker
One of the lucky few to snag some on-camera time in the new kitchen with Ray was Jauan Smith, 13, who sampled the gooey, salty-sweet sandwich.
“It was real good,” said Smith, but admitted the dish included too many ingredients to make by himself. “It was definitely something I would look forward to eating again.”
Following the demo, three toque-topped staffers from The Art Institute of Michigan’s culinary department were whisked on air for another reveal — instructors from the school will visit the gym to give the young boxers four free cooking lessons that stress healthy eating.
“Nutrition is so much a part of a good education and being physically fit and having the energy to perform physically and mentally all comes from the quality of food that you’re enjoying,” Ray said.
The two-day taping of this special episode of the Rachael Ray show ended with young fighters and their families digging into a full holiday meal prepared by 2 Unique Caterers & Event Planners, a Royal Oak “scratch house” that emphasizes restaurant-quality cooking with local, sustainable, organic ingredients.
“It was a whimsical day filled with fun, food and flavors,” said Kelli Lewton-Secondino, chef and owner of 2 Unique, who served 100 children and 30 adults.
“I felt proud to serve these kids really good food … organic and made from scratch,” said Lewton-Secondino, who followed Ray’s flavor profiles while adding her own touches and sizing up the recipes to feed a crowd.
Golden bows and greenery cascaded from punching bags dotting the gym, which was dressed for the occasion with long banquet tables decorated in harvest colors and glowing with gold chargers, china, roses and candles.
Lewton-Secondino and five 2 Unique staffers individually plated the sumptuous spread for each child as they lined up at a bountiful display anchored by a whole turkey glistening with maple glaze and garnished with grilled autumnal fruits.
As guests ate, a beaming Ray had a couple more delights to present. Diners erupted when she introduced five-time Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield and Laila Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
“My heart stopped,” said Smith of seeing Ali, “That was a real shocker.”
Finally, the audience broke into applause as Ray presented Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program founder Khali Sweeney with a gift of $25,000 from ConAgra Foods to end the evening.
So, how was the food? “It was awesome! The turkey was on fleek,” said an excited Gregory Montgomery, 10, after helping himself to a second plate.
Urban Dictionary defines the slang term as “the quality of being perfect, or on point.”
On fleek, indeed.
Catch it: The Rachael Ray show shot at Detroit’s Downtown Boxing gym will air at 2 p.m. Wednesday on WDIV-TV (Channel 4).
More online: To see a video, go to detroitnews.com/food.