Sandra Lee Serves Up a New Magazine and Novel; Hoda Kotb Celebrates Book Number Two with Today Show Gang

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Every time I think it can’t get anyone more Fellini-esque at 55th and Fifth, another Wednesday at Michael’s proves me wrong. All that was missing today was a lion tamer and clown shot out of a cannon. There were so many ‘acts’ going on simultaneously I hardly knew where to look.

While I dined with Food Network star Sandra Lee (and tried my best to hear her over the roar of the crowd even though we were sitting next to each other), there was an intimate party of 20 for Hoda Kotb being thrown by her Today show co-host Kathie Lee Gifford.  The gals were celebrating the release of Hoda’s new book, Ten Years Later: Six People Who Faced Adversity and Transformed Their Lives (Simon & Schuster).  Hoda and Kathie Lee, who spend more time together than most married couples, looked fresher than springtime in Crayola colored (sleeveless!) dresses and were the first to arrive for the noontime fete. Minutes later, the back corner of the front room was jammed with members of the Today show, as well as plenty of well-dressed gals who were there to toast Hoda. The gang was really whooping it up and, of course, a camera man was there to capture it all for posterity or, more likely, for tomorrow’s fourth hour of Today.

I arrived a few minutes before noon to meet Sandra Lee and she came right in the door behind me. After spending just a few minutes with her, it’s easy to see why the creator of the phenomenally successful Semi-Homemade brand is one of the Food Network’s biggest stars. She’s the in-the-know girlfriend who everyone wishes they had.  Within minutes, we were trading tips on our favorite places to shop for bargains. For cake decorating, hers is New York Cake & Baking  on 22nd and Sixth for the most divine sugar roses — “You can get a whole batch for under $10!”

Diane Clehane and Sandra Lee

She arrived laden with proofs for the next issue of her new magazine with TV Guide Magazine named — what else? — Sandra Lee. They’ve already published a Christmas issue, and the January/February “Love” issue is out now. EIC Sandra is in the midst of editing the Easter issue and told me she was trying to explain to a male staffer earlier today why birds’ nests made from shredded coconut should be dyed green instead of brown. It’s all in the details. As the faithful viewers of Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee (now in its 15th season!) know, no one does holidays like her. (“I am working on my latest Cher incarnation. Every Halloween I have to do Cher!”) The Emmy winner covers it all  from the recipes to the cocktails to her trademark ‘tablescapes’ (my personal favorite) to help viewers enjoy entertaining at home without the heavy-handed pretense, over the top expense or work intensive preparation that no one has time for anyway. When I asked her where he love of holidays came from she told me, “When I was a child we didn’t celebrate holidays so when I was 18, that was it. It was Halloween, Christmas and Easter every day.”

It was Sandra’s memoir, Made From Scratch, published in 2007, that made me want to know more about her. The book chronicles her hardscrabble background as the child of an absent teenage mother. Sandra was raised by her beloved grandmother, who she was taken from when her mother returned years later. It was ‘Grandma Lorraine’ who instilled in Sandra a love of baking and homemaking, but couldn’t shield Sandra from the harsh realities of her childhood. While still a teenager, Sandra was forced to live on her own and she later moved to Los Angeles when she was 21. A few short years later, she’d become a millionaire in the crafts business only to lose it all by the time she was 30. Semi-Homemade was born out of all her many experiences good and bad. She’s been on a roll ever since.

Her new venture with TV Guide Magazine is the latest in a growing empire that includes 25 bestselling books, a lifestyle product line and, of course, her Food Network shows. Jack Kliger, the magazine’s acting CEO who joined us for lunch, described the venture as “the perfect marriage,” adding “We were looking to introduce food in a bigger way into the magazine, and Sandy is the perfect demographic for TV Guide.” Sandra and Jack first worked together 11 years ago during Jack’s days as CEO of Hachette where they produced special issues under the Woman’s Day umbrella. When her contract with the magazine was up for renewal, Sandra went to Jack for advice and they decided to team up again. “When Sandy tried to find a publisher, I told her, “You are the brand and we know how to publish products where we don’t own the brand. It’s not competitive to TV Guide; we can use the infrastructure while expanding into the food category.” Sandra is also writing a column on food and entertaining for TV Guide, “In The Kitchen.”

In such a crowded field of foodies, how does Sandra explain her success? “I tell [the viewers and readers] everything,” she explains. “We test everything and I share everything. When you are combining store bought ingredients, it is an exact science. It has to come out perfectly.” And, in Sandra’s world, it does even if it wasn’t what she planned for herself. “I wanted to be in the music business. This was not my plan; it was God’s plan for me. It was a hobby, not a business.”

But it’s sure turned into one. “I never wanted to be ‘talent,” she said with a laugh. “I used to hire talent, but you can’t make someone else get up at 4 am and decorate cupcakes. I have to do that myself. I’m in control.” Indeed. Tapping into the hotter than hot food and entertaining category in television and other media (“The Food Network is the new MTV,” says Sandra), her new magazine is poised for a strong 2013 with tablet and e-reader companions to the print edition.

Later this year, she’ll also publish her first novel, The Recipe Box (Hyperion) “It’s a ‘big story’ chronicling the struggles of a single mom who “knows what’s really important,” Sandra told me. “It’s the story of a mother, daughter and grandmother and takes place in Wisconsin.” In some ways, Sandra explains, the novel is a loving tribute to her own grandmother (the fictional character shares the same name) and is something of a hat tip to Wisconsin, the place at the center of Sandra’s happiest childhood memories.

After Sandra departed for Westchester to do a photo shoot for the magazine, Jack and I chatted about her tireless energy and positive, empowering message to readers and viewers that life is meant to be enjoyed and even the most complicated entertaining projects can be simplified but still dazzle and delight. “Sandy is customer-driven,” explains Jack. “She understands all aspects of the business model, but she wants to make sure that the customer is getting what they need. That’s the most important thing to her, and I think that’s what’s made her so successful.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Rick Kaplan, who is launching Fuse News on MGS’s Fuse next month with British ‘It Girl’ Alexa Chung and Matt Babel as co-hosts, and some other hipsters we didn’t recognize.

2.  Former New York City Council President Andrew Stein

3. ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong and David Zinczenko. A little birdie told me that some big announcements regarding David’s future plans are just weeks away.

4. Warner Music’s Rob Wiesenthal

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. All of ‘The Imber Gang’ present and accounted for: Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Jeff Greenfield, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer

7.  DuJour‘s Jason Binn

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and a red-headed gal we didn’t get to meet

9.  Clear Channel’s Suzanne Grimes and Wendy Goldberg

10. Judy Price

11. Fox 5’s Rosanna Scotto, looking fabulously tan and rocking a black leather skirt, with her former colleague Dave Price. They stopped by our table to say hello and Rosanna, also part of a famous culinary clan, promised to trade Valentine’s Day recipes with Sandra.

12. Sandra Lee, Jack Kliger, Janice Orefice DehnTV Guide Magazine’s senior marketing advisor, and yours truly

14.  Former HBO head Michael Fuchs

15. Marketing man and political commentator Robert Zimmerman with the Times‘ Michael Barbaro

16. Act One: UBS’ Areyeh Bourkoff; Second seating: Barry Frey and Collider Media president Brent Gaskamp

17. Peter Price

18. Long time no see! Patriarch Partners’ Randy Jones

19. Wednesday Martin (Loved those iridescent pants!), who introduced me to her pal, Elizabeth Gordon, owner of the online bakery Betsy & Claude Baking Co. and author of a new cookbook which sounds like a godsend to parents everywhere: The Complete Allergy-Free Comfort Foods Cookbook (Lyons Press). So if you have someone in your house who has an allergy to dairy, nuts, soy, eggs or gluten — and who doesn’t these days? — pick up a copy. Our gluten-free house is thrilled!

20. Star Jones and Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater Foundation. Star tells me she’s off to Washington, D.C this weekend to speak  at the National Day of Service as part of the inaugural activities. Star has long been a tireless advocate for heart health awareness and will speak out on how we can fight the disease. She joins an illustrious list of the day’s participants that include Chelsea Clinton. Congrats!

21. Bienstock’s Richard Leibner

22.  vbeaute’s founder, stylista Julie Macklowe

23 and 24. Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford joined by Al Roker (who, we’re told, arrived by bicycle), Savannah Guthrie, Meredith Vieira, Huffington Post’s Rob Shuter and Peggy Siegal, among many others.

25. Producer Beverly Camhe with Sir Frank Lowe.  Runor has it Bev’s long awaited documentary on Bernie Madoff should be ready any day now.

26.  Jane Hartley and Judy Berg

27.  The dashing Chuck Pfeiffer

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