Sunny Anderson Talks Comfort Food, Live Cooking, And Changing Holiday Traditions - Exclusive Interview

For millions of people around the globe, chef Sunny Anderson has become a fixture of daily life. From her co-hosting gig on Food Network's beloved show "The Kitchen" to her appearances on "Chopped," her celebrated cookbook "Sunny's Kitchen" and even back to her many years on the radio, people have long counted on Anderson to be around on an everyday basis. But ironically, it was precisely the transient nature of Sunny Anderson's childhood and young adult life that led her to a love of food. A "military brat" who then ended up joining the Air Force herself, Anderson was always on the move in her youth, never in one place for more than a year or so. This itinerant lifestyle exposed her to cuisines from all around the world.

Thus, Sunny Anderson can call everything from German Jaegerschnitzel to Korean kimchi to Tex-Mex to Popeye's red beans and rice a comfort food. Her global life has led to a palate that welcomes all sorts of flavors, and that, in turn, has led the chef to try her hand at all sorts of cooking. With all that said, Anderson will always have a soft spot for foods that are easy, cozy, and not that pricey. As the winter holidays approach, she sat down to talk to Mashed about making holiday meal planning cost-effective and low-stress, the need to drop the stigma of re-gifting, and German sausages.

Sunny Anderson didn't start cooking until she left home

How and when did cooking become a major part of your life?

I think cooking became a major part of my life when I left the house at 18, joined the Air Force, and realized I was going to have to cook for myself. It was a lot of phone calls home asking my mom where to get items in the grocery store, how to do simple things. You would think you'd know her cooking so much growing up that I would know what was going on, but she really never let me into domain in the kitchen. It was a lot of just watching from afar.

As you learned on the fly while entering adulthood, was it all self-taught along with those calls home, or did you have any major culinary influences as you began working more with food in your own life?

For me, in this space, it was a lot of self-taught. It was just a trial and error in the kitchen, getting direction from my mom and my grandma, and traveling and eating foods. In the Air Force, I constantly moved and was on the road doing radio news stories. Every city or state or country I was in, I was trying to eat the local food and then recreate that at home. And it all culminated with a catering company in New York when I was in radio there. And here I am.

Sunny Anderson's global tastes

As you were traveling so often, what became your favorite cuisine, or a few of your favorite cuisines, from around the globe?

Oh gosh, I would have to say I love German food because it's meat and potatoes and it holds a special place in my heart. We lived there for three years. From the Jaegerschnitzel to obviously bratwurst. And all of the things that come between, like Kartoffel, which is like a potato cake. I love German food, and now that I'm an adult, I love German beer.

I also love Korean food. I love the funky, fermented flavor that it has. And surprisingly tart, tangy, and spicy. They really know how to balance out a meal. I guess those would be my two favorites. Everything is like a child, you hate to say one because the other one will get jealous, because Tex-Mex is pretty much right there after all those.

How Sunny Anderson made the jump to a career in food

Was there a specific moment where you thought, "Wait a minute, maybe my career could take a different turn and get into food?"

Yes. It was after I was in the Air Force, I got out the Air Force in 1997, and I was in radio broadcasting and doing news, on the slide I was DJ at a radio station. I kept doing that when I got out of the Air Force and ended up in New York. And when I started cooking for myself in New York and then bringing that food into to my coworkers, they liked it. I thought: "OK, well, that's cool, but they're your friends and they're your coworkers." But then when they started to buy this food from me, then I thought: "OK, well people are spending money on the food." That made me really feel emboldened to do it more, so that's why I started my catering company, and it made me feel: "Well, if people like what I'm making and will pay for it, maybe I can do something more with this." 

That's really what excited me about doing Food Network and being on TV: I was able to de facto cater for way more people. I was able to share those simple recipes and simple routes to getting to all of these different flavors that I love [with viewers]. And hopefully people will try them in their own kitchen. I left my catering company about a year after I left radio, and a couple years after that I got to Food Network.

Why Sunny Anderson loves cooking on TV

What is the most fun you've had cooking on TV?

Oh gosh, I think some of the most fun times I've had cooking on TV are when the mistakes happen. I distinctly remember one time cooking with Rachael Ray on her show and I did the most rookie move — I don't even know why but sometimes you're just in the moment — and I put the wooden handle of a spoon down into the blender to clear something out and just the coordination of not pulling the spoon out fast enough before I hit start again, it exploded all over the set. And everything was normal, we just kept going and laughed at it. I love those moments. But then I also love moments when like Susan Lucci comes on and I get to slap her, and do some fun acting. There's just so many moments. Also, I love when they scare me, even though it's in the moment scary. And in the moment I'm annoyed that I got got again, I look back on it and I say to myself: "Well, that was a good time."

I'm really having a fun time, not just sharing food, but tips, ideas, and lifestyles. It's a 360 thing. I didn't think about that before I got to Food Network, but it's just quite like radio where you want to share what you're into and what you're doing to relate to people, but also let them know other ways or other avenues to get to the end of whatever task it is in line.

What are some of your greatest challenges when cooking on TV?

I think the greatest challenge when I'm cooking on TV is [the fact that] this is not my home range. These are not my pans. The best thing I have on set are the wooden spoons that I actually do use at home, so they make me feel a little bit more comforted. But sometimes you put a pan on, and you want to sauté something low and it's just searing, it's going way too high and you have to talk and adjust at the same time. I think that's one of the biggest challenges. But I say that searching for that challenge, it really almost never happens. And a lot of times when it does happen, you can just quickly adjust like you would in your home kitchen.

I think that's the biggest thing, that I'm actually really comfortable in a weird way. I never expected it because on radio, you can have a face for radio, you wear the same outfit every day, you know what I mean? No one's looking at you, no one cares. And it's just all about how you can relate verbally. So to get on and to have to actually move around and speak and smile and not burn yourself or cut yourself. You would think that there's a lot going on there. But I think that it's quite like when I was on radio, when I go on I know I'm not going to curse. You know what I mean? And you don't have to tell yourself that, you just don't curse. And it's the same thing with going on TV. You just know what you've got to do. You get there and you do it. And it just works. I'm thankful for that because I know a lot of people have to work at it, but I'm thankful for being able to just walk on and be myself.

Sunny's ideas for saving some money around holiday meals

What are some less expensive options for people who want to have a great centerpiece for that holiday meal, but maybe don't want to spend $40-$50 on a huge turkey?

That's the price range that's happening out there, especially for a family that wants to not only eat, but have leftovers! And the supply chain, what I've been saying, is "chaining or unchaining." I've been suggesting this holiday season to not forget that tiny little bird called the Cornish game hen. It's festive, easy to cook, way less time in your oven when you're roasting, and because they're smaller, a lot more room is in your oven when you're roasting, so you can actually get things done a lot faster, which means you have more time to hang out and chill and talk to your family and friends. That's actually why I'm excited to team up with Straight Talk Wireless because their whole idea this holiday season is giving people more time to spend with their family and more jingle in their pocket, too, save them some money.

What are some ideas for some easy and affordable side dishes?

Well, what I think is a really easy and affordable side dish is raiding your pantry. I feel like we all have beans and maybe even canned corn, you can make a really easy bean and corn salad, for example. I feel we always need something that feels a little bit light around the holidays to [go with] that holiday meal. You might just drain the beans and drain the corn, toss them together with some salsa or some pico de gallo, and you've got a nice a salad there. Add on some cilantro or some lettuce and you're good to go.

What are some of your must-have holiday side dishes and your family's favorites?

I have to have macaroni and cheese, so much so when I was dating a guy one time and I was invited over to his family for Thanksgiving, I just asked what they were having and they didn't have mac and cheese. I was like, "Well, I'll be bringing that." I need greens. I love collared greens or turnip greens. Let's see ... stuffing? I'll be okay without it, but then I'd need something else like mashed potatoes or something starchy. And sweet potatoes, any way you make them, I don't care. I feel like every year I do something new and develop a new recipe. I don't really care too much for the turkey, but I'll make it. But I need the sides. I have to have a whole dinner of sides.

Sunny on de-stigmatizing re-gifting

What is one of your favorite gifts you like to give? Whether it is a food thing you always make or a purchased gift?

Well, I love giving books and I love giving books that I've actually already read. As long as I haven't messed up the spine or anything like that, I love giving books. I think that we should make regifting okay because I think that there's too much waste in the world and chances are you've got something around that you're done with that someone would like, or something around that you've never even touched or used, that someone would actually go into using right away. I like to call it repurposing instead of re-gifting.

And I think one of the easiest repurposing is looking into your cabinet and realizing if you have like 15 coffee cups or ten coffee cups, when are you going to have nine people over for coffee? So I love taking one of my coffee cups and filling it with the hot chocolate packets and maybe some marshmallows and a candy cane. You wrap that up and send it to your friend. And now you guys, when you're talking on the phone or Zooming or whatever, you're sipping coffee from the same cup and it's a little bit of togetherness. But I think it's a good idea to repurpose and re-gift because it also declutters.

Sunny's tips for affordable holiday decor

What are some of your decorating tips or hacks, and what are some holiday decor taboos to avoid?

Well, some of my decorating tips and hacks would have to be keep it simple. It doesn't have to cost lots of money. Everything you see here that I've done behind me is under $5 at the Dollar Store, even this cute little cane here. Think about going to dollar stores, but then also every time I watch one of these design shows, they always talk about bringing the outside indoors. If you've got a flower bush — I have a hydrangea outside that has beautiful dried flowers — you can bring those in and put them in a vase. You can bring in pine cones and put them in a bowl for a lovely centerpiece with maybe some Christmas ornaments. 

You don't really have to spend money. You can probably just look around your place and pull some things together. Even leaves, even colorful, fall leaves are beautiful in a glass base or a bowl if you put in some of those battery-powered lights. So just have fun with it and repurpose things in your house, you don't have to spend money.

Sunny Anderson's ultimate comfort foods and the ingredient she can't live without

What is your ultimate comfort food?

Oh gosh, my ultimate comfort food? I think it would have to be something that I don't cook because that's comforting when you've got the night off! I think it would be spaetzle 00:13:32 and Jaegerschnitzel at a German restaurant like [Zum Stammtisch] in Queens. That would be so comforting. But I think if it were something that I make, I've already mentioned that it would have to be macaroni and cheese. I think anything in a bowl — and most people think about macaroni and cheese in a plate, you can understand, I'll put in a bowl and just eat it. It warms you up. It makes you feel so cozy. And then also it brings you back to your youth, which is probably why I think Jaegerschnitzel and spaetzle are comforting because it reminds me of my youth. It's a close tie between not cooking and eating something German out or cooking and making macaroni and cheese at home.

Is there a single one ingredient that you can't live without, you always have to have in your kitchen?

The one ingredient I cannot live without in my kitchen is bacon. I feel like I get a little ... When people's battery goes low on their phone or something like that and they start feeling awkward. I get awkward when I can't find bacon in my freezer because it starts in the freezer and then you pull it up into the refrigerator. And then when you use the refrigerator, you go to the freezer, and if you look in the freezer, there's nothing, stress.

The chef Sunny Anderon wishes could cook her dinner

Who is one chef you would love to have cook for you?

Yeah... you know? Bobby Flay. I want Bobby Flay to cook for me. But you know what? I want to make the menu. I want his crispy rice. I want his scrambled eggs. I want his chocolate chip cookies. I want specific things from him, and then I'll just let him freestyle. I would love it. And I've been begging him, which is so rude, for him to invite me over for dinner for years. And finally he did when he moved to LA, which is, to me, a non-invite! It's like a destination wedding. I don't know if he'll ever cook for me specifically, but I'm lucky enough to go on Beat Bobby Flay and do some shows here and there where he's cooking and I'll get some food, but it's not a full meal.

Yes, please. Bobby Flay, one day, cook for me!

Sunny Anderson's abiding love for fast food

Do you have any so-called "guilty pleasure" fast food eats?

Yes! Yes. I love Dunkin' Donuts. I love the croissant with the bacon, egg, and cheese. They have these little bagel bites with cream cheese in the center. I love the everything bagel one. They have now little mini pancakes, I love that.

I love Taco Bell because I used to work here in high school. And I think anywhere you worked in high school, you can't get out of your system. Same thing with Sonic. I worked there in high school and I love their onion rings. I could go on. Popeyes! I love the red beans and rice. I like to order them half beans, half rice. And if you're lucky enough to be in a Popeye's market with dirty rice, you've got to try it. And I love the spicy chicken sandwich. I still haven't tried the nuggets, yet.

Oh, and Applebee's just had a commercial where they have flaming hot boneless nuggets. I've got to go try those because I love the flaming hot anything. I love fast food. It's a treat to do it because I cook so much. So whenever I allow myself to go out and do something bad, you know what I mean? I love it.

Check out StraightTalk.com for some potential savings this season and follow Sunny Anderson on Instagram all year round.