Sunny Anderson has always been surrounded by great food but growing up, she wasn’t the one cooking it.
“My mom and dad were big cooks and they both came from farm families,” Anderson tells Fox News. “You know it’s funny, a lot of people think I cooked a lot growing up because of what I do, but the truth is they wouldn’t let me cook very much!
"It was very territorial but they taught me and I learned from watching everything that went on in the kitchen.”
Today, the Food Network star has built a career on her unique style of comfort food that combines flavors from around the globe—flavors inspired by her world travels and time serving in the United States Air Force.
Joining the service just after high school changed her life, Anderson says, for the better. Being exposed to a world of new cuisine plus the chance to hone her broadcasting skills as a military radio host in Seoul, South Korea helped propel Anderson's career as an on-air personality back home.
As we get into summer grilling season, Fox News spoke with the celebrity chef about her time overseas, how her family's taste for diverse foods influenced her own cooking style and her opinion on chefs integrating different cultures into their own menus (hint: she thinks it's just fine).
Fox News: The summer is a big time for food. Any favorite memories of cooking with family growing up?
Sunny Anderson: Being in my neighborhood, growing up in Brooklyn, the summertime was always a big time for everyone coming together. Whether it was enjoying some iced tea or agua frescas, it was all about sitting outside.
Now the big thing was putting a pig on a spit. All of our relatives would come over and since we moved pretty much every year, it was so great to have all the relatives back in one place to enjoy that summer cookout.
And, of course, you know you had to have that sweet tea. Growing up, we always had the classic Lipton iced tea. To me, that’s summertime but now they have different flavors like lemon and mango and it’s fun to play around.
Fox News: Any tips you learned growing up that you use today?
Sunny Anderson: My dad was a big briner from early on, he always brined before it was the hot thing to do. He used a big cooler and we’d brine in there.
Now, I do that too—you can even use tea to impart more flavor in your brine— I brine before [cooking] chicken and pork chops. That’s a big thing I learned from my dad.
In general, from both my parents, I learned that cooking was just about being fun and creative…no rules! Both of my parents traveled the world and were always trying new things... and encouraging us to try new things. I didn’t realize how lucky I was growing up until I went to my friends’ houses, tried the food and it was same thing all the time! We had variety, we had spices, we had a lot of different influences.
Fox News: Why did you decide to join the Air Force after high school?
Sunny Anderson: My dad was in the Army [Anderson’s father was a radiologist in the Army] so it was kinda like the family business. I am a daddy’s girl and I think, like a lot of girls, wanted to be just like my father.
Growing up, I always loved words and writing. In high school I was writing evening news at the local station—and a lot of people don’t know this but joining the military isn’t just about one thing so I knew that if I was doing work as a child that was on par with an adult, why shouldn’t I just keep doing that?
The military was a direct route, they trained me in broadcasting and I would have had to spend a lot longer in a traditional school. But I learned quickly in that environment. When I was 18, I was already working in a professional setting.
A lot of people think, “Oh, you’re in the Air Force? You did a lot of flying.” But it’s so much more than that. They give you the opportunity to pursue multiple careers paths.
Fox News: You spent a lot of time overseas while serving, especially in South Korea. Did that influence your cooking style later?
Sunny Anderson: Heck ya! Getting all these flavors from around the world really opened my eyes and my palate at a pretty young age. In so many of my recipes, I still use a lot of the spices they use over there and it really adds something unique.
A lot of people think there’s just a lot of rice but in South Korea, the food is all meat and vegetables which is very, very popular today obviously. I certainly learned a lot about preparing different types of meat—you know grilling is really an art over there and their fried chicken, I mean, there is just nothing like it!
Something that I really appreciate is their desserts, too. I love the desserts too because unlike American desserts that can be super, super sweet, they focus on letting other flavors come through.
Fox News: There are so many global influences now in American food culture. What do you think of chefs using techniques and ingredients from different places?
Sunny Anderson: I think it’s a good thing. Everyone’s grandma makes the best mac and cheese. Everyone’s own abuelita makes the best mofongo. But the beauty of food is that if you taste something, and you love it, you can try to recreate it again in a new way.
I personally love so many different types of food but I’ve learned to make it with some tweaks, whether it’s because you don’t have the same type of spice or you’re cooking it a different way. So I know I’m not gonna make some of the people who want that authentic dish happy but I hope it makes the people I serve happy knowing that I made it with love and respect for that original dish.
Now you see things like gochujang [a spicy, fermented red chili paste that originated in Korea] available nationwide and I’m thinking right on! More people will get a chance experience diverse flavors and I just think that’s a great thing.
Fox News: You have some signature dishes people love but do you ever get sick of cooking any one item?
Sunny Anderson: Nah! It’s like when you see a singer and they’re known for a certain song, I like the singer to say, "Of course, I’ll sing this song forever!" And I'll be making my signature macaroni and cheese in the same nine by 13-inch pan forever! It makes people happy and brings people joy.
Plus, that’s the dish that really got me confident in my own cooking. My mom used to make mac and cheese growing up but she would never give me whole, exact recipe so I had to develop my own. Now that I have a version friends and family love, it’s such a great feeling. Again, paying tribute to where you came from but making that dish your own.
This interview has been edited for length.