Dream Chaser: Food Network’s Sunny Anderson On Being A Jane Of All Trades

It’s hard to argue with destiny. Sometimes the universe sets you on a path that you’ve only discussed with yourself internally, just to see it eventually come into fruition after a little bit of elbow grease. Food guru Sunny Anderson’s life is full of these moments. The multitalented army brat has flowed seamlessly throughout a wide variety of industries, but they all fall under one simple career mission: to communicate what she loves.

Anderson just so happens to have many loves. Before her current spot on Food Network’s Cooking For Real and role as co-host on The Kitchen, she started off as an Air Force journalist assigned to radio instead of her initial desire of writing the evening news. After continuing with radio in several smaller U.S. markets, she became a radio host at Hot 97 in New York. Then, she moved her way to cheffing it up on screen full-time and penning the New York Times bestselling cookbook, Sunny’s Kitchen: Easy Food for Real Life.

That may seem like a scatterbrained career path to some, but for Sunny, it was just a blessing of being able to monetize all the things she genuinely loved. “You have to be careful with what you love because it can turn into a career,” she tells VIBE. “I literally was only cooking because I loved it. And then it turned into career.”

There’s power in fearlessly chasing the desires of the heart, no matter how risky of a pursuit it may be. But you know the old saying: no risk, no reward. “I can always go backwards,” she says, “but in order to go back, you have to go forward! There’s nothing back there unless you go forward.”

Here, Sunny holds little back as she talks about “supporting her fears with knowledge,” finding the strength to say “no” to small scale opportunities and her steadfast pursuit of goals.

On industry transitions not equating to career changes:
A lot of times people ask me about my career changes and to me its the easiest thing to explain. This isn’t a career change. I never really made a career change. My career has always been communicating what I’m interested in to the masses. There are so many things I love in life and it’s not a career change if all you’re doing is communicating what you love.

Advice to people scared to switch it up after stability:
I’m always being me, so it’s never been difficult for me to move on. A lot of times people have trouble with moving on because they are comfortable and they do know they’re doing well and they do know this is a good job, why leave it? So here’s what I’d say to that. If you do think you’re at the top of your game and you know everything and you’re doing well and you’re excellent, okay then. Go do something else. If it doesn’t work out, you can go right back to that excellent shit because you said you were good at it, right? So then can you support your fears with your knowledge? Just give it a try. This is the only time I’ll be conscious in this body and in this skin, so if I can get to New York at 26 at Hot 97, which I felt was the top of radio, then do you stop? No you don’t stop. Another thing I like to tell people is are you breathing? Your heart’s pumping right? Guess what, your brain did that. Did you think about it? Did you make it happen? Okay, so when your brain tells you you might have an idea of something to do, this thing is so powerful it is pumping blood and air through you. So if you have a dream or thoughts in your head, do you mean to tell me that you’re going to ignore that? It’s making you breathe right now! So imagine if the idea that it gave you makes you breathe as well? I’m breathing, I’m listening to what feels right. No one’s going to take a chance on you if you don’t take a chance on yourself. And like I said, I can always go back. I feel confident not cocky but confident that I can call up many radio stations and say listen, I’d like to come back and I think I can find myself a place. There’s comfort in the knowledge of that.

The key to being authentic on camera:
First of all, I don’t have an embarrassment gene. I got that from my parents. I can be embarrassed for others but for me, it’s just a crazy story to tell. You know like when girls take a picture and before they put it on social media they check and make sure they like it. I don’t even care, because I feel like there are a thousand images of myself out there and a thousand moments I’m going to be on TV. I really can’t care about what people want. If I’m making everybody happy, I’ll make nobody happy. Everybody has a different idea of what they think I should be. Well guess what? I know who I am, so to me it’s never been difficult. Ever since I stepped off Emeril’s stage that first time, the producers said to me I’m a natural and I look like I’m having a good time when I’m on camera. I didn’t even know where the camera was. You’re supposed to know which camera because the red light turns on but I just went into a zone. I don’t think twice. I just open my mouth. If you’re yourself, whatever comes out, that’s you. Sometimes I surprise myself, but I’m always okay with it.

On redefining mentorship:
I don’t think I view mentors in the same way that a lot of people do. I think people view mentors as “I see what you’re doing and I’d like to emulate that. Can you help or can you show me how to get there?” I’ve never gone to anyone in that way, but what I have realized in my career is the invisible mentor – the person that does want to teach me something and I didn’t ask. What I invite people to do is if you’re looking for a mentor or finding a mentor in the position that you want, find the mentor that hires the person in the position that you want. They are the ones that can tell you how to get that job. Usually people that get the job really don’t tell you how to get it. And there’s more than one path to get there. If someone were to come with me and say ‘Sunny I want to get on Food Network can you help me? ‘ I don’t know because it was crap shoot when I did it and I went broke for two years. I don’t know if I can help you out. I know it seems like I could, but I don’t know how I got here. I mean, I know I put in the work. But instead at looking at me for a mentor, look for the person that hires me. Go get the producer because they know who they are looking for. I have no idea what they are looking for. I was just being me.

The beauty in pairing patience with persistence:
For the last couple of years or so, I’ve wanted more out of my position at the network. It’s that glass ceiling that I was talking about at radio. Financially you get paid more on primetime, but to me it’s more of a promotion. Hey, you did awesome for us on daytime now we’re going to give you a promotion. It’s less of the money and more of the feeling like I’ve done a good job. And I know I have, so promote me! I’ve been pitching primetime show ideas and I’ve been telling them I want a primetime show. More recently, I’ve been actually telling them no on other things. They’d come to me to do a one off on a primetime show. No, I don’t want to be your salt and pepper. I want to be your meat. I don’t want to be the seasoning. I can’t tell you how hard it’s been for the last couple of years every time you get a show call from the network and it’s not primetime to tell them no because you’re afraid you’re not going to get invited to that primetime party ever again and then now you’re not going to get invited to the daytime party. For a very long time, I made the difficult decision to tell people offering me a perfectly find job no because I knew what I wanted. Don’t call her because she ain’t gon’ take that. And last night [knocks on wood], I got a call for a primetime show.

It’s so hard in business to stand up for what you really want and turn down perfectly fine positions and perfectly fine money when you know what you feel like you deserve. I will tell someone no until I’m blue in the face for things that I know aren’t for me just so I can have that one moment in the sun. I’m very happy because you really do have to be willing to wait for what you want and in a real way meaning you don’t even take what’s not for you. I’ll starve because I know what I want. At least they’re giving me a chance, and that’s all I ask in life.

Don’t be too scared of failure or brokeness to chase a dream:
I had a job at this radio station doing sales and I came up with this term. I call it the 8:59:59 job. If you’re at an 8:59:59 job you might want to leave it. You pull up and you sit in that car in the parking lot until 8:59:59, then you walk upstairs at 9 o’clock and you deal with the day. Then you leave at 5 o’clock on the dot. If you’re doing that, this ain’t it. There’s gotta be something you can do that can make you happier. It might not make you money, but happiness is soul money. When I was doing that sales job I thought, this ain’t it. That let me know that this is what a lot of people feel. A lot of people feel this but they don’t know what it is. It’s where you’re not supposed to be. If you can deal with a little bit of anxiety and the fear of the unknown of the future and a little struggle to go chase down what it is, you might end up in a better place.

My musical tastes:
I love Rapsody. I think her appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s [album] solidified it for me. I love Jamla [Records]. I got 9th Wonda to score one of my seasons on Food Network, which was difficult but I made them do it. I’m just in love with the fact that this artist is getting so much love. In addition to that, I’m from Texas so I’m a Scarface head. It’s been a long time since Public Enemy, ‘Pac and a little bit of Eminem had me stuck but that whole Kendrick album had me stuck. I can’t cook to ‘em but I’ll eat to ‘em.

My personal favorite meal:
Grandma’s red velvet cake for appetizer, my dad would make his turkey, my mom would make mac and cheese, and my grandma would make greens with pork. We’d still end the meal with my grandma’s squash pie.

An ideal compromise meal that’s great for the body and soul:
Chicken is king if you just want to feel comfortable and good about yourself. Fish is king. There is a recipe I have for butterflied chicken. You cut it, you butterfly it and use this orange glaze that I do. What I love about it is, is here you got the lean chicken and then you have a little bit of sweet because there is some glaze. So then you don’t feel too bad. And I usually serve it with asparagus and potatoes. Potatoes have lots of great vitamins in them and with asparagus, obviously everything green is good for you. And the chicken is not bad. It’s a lean meat and there’s just a little bit of sugar with the glaze. It’s better than doing barbecue chicken where it’s like 360 degrees surrounded in sugar coated goodness.

Why I list my heart’s desires:
You should make mini lists of goals in your life. It’s smart because it’s a numbers game. The cool thing about goals is if you have a whole lot of them and chances are you get one, it will embolden you to chase the others because that feeling is so amazing. Accomplishing is so amazing and you just want to do it again. People that are one-track-minded… I don’t know how you live that. I have a lot of things I want to get done. If you have other things that can make you happy and they keep on happening, you can’t just have a couple of things; have a lot on your list to get done. Then you’ll never feel like a failure. I haven’t gotten everything that I wanted, but it’s ok. I didn’t get to write the evening news in the military like I wanted. But at the end of the day things turned out alright. Relax and know that there is a plan and you are not in charge. Just do what feels right.

The definition of a boss:
Being a boss means making a decision, feeling good about it and trusting your gut even if your employees or employer doesn’t see it your way and taking care of yourself. No apologies to yourself for making mistakes. Just brush it off and move on.

Photo Credit: Sunny Anderson’s New York Times’ Bestseller ‘Sunny’s Kitchen: Easy Food for Real Life’

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