Sunny Anderson affectionately refers to fall as “eating season.” And what better way to celebrate than around a meal? “For me, it kicks off with Halloween and then it’s really uphill from there,” says the 45-year-old Food Network personality and co-host of The Kitchen. With its rich colors and flavors, autumn means tailgating fare, football season and Thanksgiving—all of Anderson’s favorite things. (Her holiday special Turkey Day Sunny’s Way premieres Nov. 14 on Food Network and features chefs, designers, family and friends helping to celebrate.)
Throughout the pandemic, Anderson and her Kitchen co-stars have been filming “family style” shows from home, so viewers can catch them in their natural elements—for Sunny, that’s inventing creative snacks and meals at home in New Jersey while keeping her rescue pups from stealing her culinary masterpieces. (Her dog, Gary Gumbo, was recently the culprit when a chicken sandwich went missing.)
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She’s fine-tuned her approachable culinary style over the years, merging influences from her world travels as a daughter in an Army family and broadcast experience from her time in the Air Force—yes, like Good Morning, Vietnam.
With her look-on-the-bright-side personality, Anderson is also a fervent advocate for the enjoyment of food, no matter your health challenges. She’s shared her journey with ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease that can cause inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract, something she was diagnosed with during her time in the military in Korea. “There are a lot of people like me who know there’s no cure, but we’ve been able to manage it somehow,” she says, and has kept the disease in remission for 20 years.
Anderson spoke with us about staying healthy and keeping her delight in food, her tips for using restaurant leftovers and why her stance on cravings is to always give in.
You radiate self-confidence on The Kitchen (and in the kitchen!). How do you handle such a dynamic career in food television?
The secret to my confidence is that I don’t care. I’m really lucky that I [grew up] before the internet existed, so I didn’t find my worth in it. I didn’t find my personality in it. And I didn’t find who I am in it. I found that within my home and my nucleus and my experiences. So when I step out online, I’m just comfortable being me. In this position, the internet is like our storefront. And there’s no lack of people who will come to your storefront and be nasty. I’m more annoyed that people think that I could be hobbled by words. But when someone says something really nice to me, I take that completely to heart.
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What’s your goal as a chef on TV?
I strive to make my cooking great for the beginner but also for someone who knows how to cook and is looking for new ideas or new ways to get something done. I’m always looking to simplify things. I try my best to show people easier ways to get things done in the kitchen, and if the grocery store is selling it, someone’s buying it. So, I love a good store bought shortcut.
You’re a big fan of the season we’re in. What does fall look like for you?
Comfort. I’m wearing my sweats. I’m in my hoodies, and I’m eating things that feel really comforting to me. It’s casseroles, it’s roasting. I find myself having fall food and experiences during the summer, but I very seldom seek out summertime food during the fall.
Can you tell us a little about your journey into the world of professional cooking?
As soon as I left home, I realized how much I loved to cook, but I knew it was something I wanted to do for a living when I started cooking for my friends. I was a radio DJ at Hot 97 in New York, and people would ask me, “Can you cook something for this studio session or press day?” At the heart of anyone who likes to cook is the need to share it, and the idea that people were willing to pay me for it really blew my mind. I was just trying to make my friends happy without going into debt, so I opened a catering company.
Has the pandemic taught you anything about your eating or cooking habits?
The pandemic has reinforced my love for cooking at home. It can be expensive to eat out. It’s also just so extra—the water, the grabbing of the bread, the chips. Sometimes, I’m just impatient. So for me, cooking at home is cheaper, quicker and I don’t have to get dressed up. Plus, if I do it right, I’ve got leftovers.
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What are some kitchen tips or shortcuts you have for us?
I’m a big fan of turning takeout leftovers into meals. You can turn a Caesar salad into a wrap. I take chicken from a salad and turn it into enchiladas. Then I have leftover fillings from the enchiladas that I defrost and turn into chimichangas. When I go to a restaurant and get a steak, I order it closer to rare knowing that I’ll save some for when I get home and remake it the next morning for steak and eggs. When I recook it, it’ll be medium if I do it right.
Also, potatoes in a bag. In the microwave. Get them from the produce section and zap them for 4-5 minutes. Then put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes, and save yourself a good half hour.
What’s something you enjoy making homemade?
I recently made my own Italian herb mix, and it’s very easy to do in the oven. I had an abundance of fresh oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary. I put those on a parchment-lined baking sheet, added some garlic and lemon peel that I sliced thinly. Then I turned the oven down to the lowest possible setting, which is usually about 150–170°F, and left the door cracked. Within an hour, you’ve got a ton of dried herbs to make your blend, and I added red pepper flakes at the end. To me, this blend makes your cooking much more fragrant and delicious.
Do you have a sweet tooth or constant craving?
I have a midnight snack on the regular. I give in to all cravings. On my last breath, I don’t think I’m going to be mad that I ate a piece of cake— I’ll be mad that I didn’t eat a piece of cake.
What are some twists on food trends you’ve been making?
My centaur toast! I put some walnuts and coconut in the pan together with cinnamon and sugar until the coconut is toasty. Then I sprinkle that over a piece of toast with chocolate hazelnut spread smeared on it. The only rule for making it: it has to be brown (like a centaur). Not bright or colorful like “unicorn toast.”
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And tell us about this s’mores dip you made the other night!
It was the most fabulous thing. It’s just an excuse to eat a ton of chocolate. I think that day I used a chocolate hazelnut dip, then mixed in this white chocolate cashew butter. And then I added nuts like pecans and walnuts—and some chocolate-stuffed marshmallows. Mix it all together, and it was tasty and delicious. Get extra credit if you have cinnamon graham crackers.
You’ve talked about dealing and managing ulcerative colitis throughout your adult life. What have you learned throughout the experience?
Not to let a diagnosis make you feel like your enjoyment of food is over. I’m the person who truly gets excited about food. It’s my happy place. And when you get a diagnosis that has to do with your health and food—like diabetes, ulcerative colitis, etc.—you wonder how you’ll eat. But it’s possible. There are so many ways to make recipes work for you.
If you have a gut issue, the good news is that most recipes can be modified. I didn’t have the internet when I was diagnosed. Now there are forums and groups and pages you can follow that specialize in different dietary restrictions. There’s always a way to find comfort and still feel like a human if you’re a person who loves food.
What does your go-to self-care routine look like?
Time alone. Sometimes I’ll wake up early and walk outside by myself to get some air and be thankful for the day. When I finish gardening, I realize I just spent four or five hours not thinking about anything. And listen, the cliché of a bubble bath is not bad!
You haven’t gotten a traditional football season this year. What does that look like for you?
I love going to games. I have season tickets for the Giants, but when we aren’t there, it’s all about game day food like chili, pizza, nachos for days, hotdogs, hamburgers, finger food. Something really simple for fall cooking is putting a pork butt into a slow cooker with a two-liter of coke and letting that rock on low for like eight hours. Then making pulled pork burgers or really anything out of that. Sometimes, I’ll even do pork over my macaroni and cheese casserole. I love game day food and game day eating.
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