Valerie Bertinelli: Cooking up a new career

By Bill Brioux

Want to know what 60 looks like on TV today? Take a good look at Valerie Bertinelli.

The former teen star was just 15-years old when she began a nine-season stint on One Day at a Time (1975 – 1984). She played wisecracking Barbara, youngest daughter of Bonnie Franklin’s single mom Ann Romano, on the Norman Lear sitcom. Pat Harrington, Jr., and Mackenzie Phillips also starred.

That series went off the air 35 years ago. During its run, in real life, Bertinelli got married while still just 20 to rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen. On the professional side, she became a bit of movie-of-the-week queen; in real life, the look-a-like yet unlikely pair were cast as a good-girl, bad boy duo in dozens of tabloids. The pair hung in and had a son, “Wolfie” (now 28), in 1991.

There was more TV series work, including a two-season stint on the wholesome drama Touched by an Angel. She and Van Halen, who struggled with addiction, eventually did split and the actress had a tough time keeping her weight in check. That led to her becoming a spokesperson for the diet and nutrition company Jenny Craig. Bertinelli lost 50 pounds, started running marathons and eventually chronicled her experience in her best-selling 2008 autobiography, “Losing It: And Gaining my Life Back One Pound at a Time”.

Her reward came by way of a career re-birth in the cable sitcom Hot in Cleveland, starring opposite TV comedy veterans Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and the great Betty White.

“Hot in Cleveland was the easiest job in the world and I’m still p—‘d off that TV LAND cancelled us,” she told critics last February in Pasadena, Calif., at a Food Network press conference. “I think it was stupidest thing they ever did.”

Bertinelli loved working with her three veteran co-stars. “Off set we would have dinner all together all the time. We still text each other.”

Since that show went out of production in 2015, however, she’s been busier than ever hosting a variety of food competition and cooking shows seen on Food Network Canada.

“It’s crazy,” says Bertinelli of her recent shout outs from fans. “I don’t get Barbara Cooper (her One Day at a Time character) anymore.  I don’t even get Melanie Moretti anymore (from Hot in Cleveland). I get, like, ‘Oh, I saw your show. You make it look so easy to make such and such.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.  I’m really a Food Network personality now.’”

The Wilmington, Delaware, native has jumped into the role with both forks. Besides hosting, she’s an executive producer of Valerie’s Home Cooking. She says she now gets to learn about food every day, hanging out in the ‘crash’ kitchen (where recipes are tested before broadcast) and picking up tips and advice from other Food Network stars such as Bobby Flay. 

“I get to work with an amazing group of people, culinary experts who really know what they’re doing,” she says, comparing her role now to when she acted opposite her well-seasoned Hot in Cleveland co-stars Malick, Leeves and White. 

“You learn from the people you’re surrounded by, and the thing about Food Network is they have the absolute best culinary production team in the background.” 

After four years and as many shows, including Kids Baking Championship with cake artist Duff Goldman and, starting this spring, the kitchen competition series Family Food Showdown, Bertinelli has become something of an apron icon. So much so, in fact, that the acting offers have stopped coming, “and I’m okay with that,” she says.

Besides, she adds, there are fewer and fewer TV roles being offered to 60-year-old women. No matter, says Bertinelli: “I’ve been cooking longer than I’ve been acting.”

She started tackling her own recipes back when she was a pre-teen in her mother’s kitchen. Bertinelli’s mother, Nancy, who has appeared on Valerie’s Home Cooking, has an Irish/English background. At first, she wasn’t crazy about her daughter’s spin on lasagna, especially after Valerie substituted a béchamel sauce instead of a layer of ricotta. Daughter won her over in the end, however. “She liked it when she tasted it.”

Bertinelli says her mother learned to cook from “my Noni” – her father’s Italian mother. “Once you learn how to cook Italian,” she says, “I guess you just can’t go back.”

While she loved “hanging out in the kitchen and watching my mom,” other family members helped Bertinelli earn her apron. “I would sit in my Aunt Adeline’s basement and watch my Noni make capeletti em brodo and gnocchi and her fried bread,” she says.

Food Network president Courtney White says Bertinelli is the perfect choice to be the face of her network. “Family Food Showdown, Kids Baking and Valerie’s Home Cooking all are about sort of the warmth and the bringing the family together that food can offer,” says White. “She’s the perfect person to invite everybody to that table because it’s just who she is.”

It’s a good fit for the host, too, who says the channel was always on in her home, “even before I became part of the Food Network family.”

Bertinelli admits, however, that she’s no Julia Child and that she does have her limits in the kitchen. “I probably can’t cook anything that I don’t want to eat, and there are a few things I really don’t want to eat.”

One thing she knows she hates is uni, the edible part of a Sea Urchin. She was supposed to eat some of it in a movie she did back in the ‘80s. “We did about 18 takes and I was like, ‘I can’t. Don’t make me do another take.’”

All Bertinelli can do is to continue to be herself on television – a move that has paid off pretty well so far.

“If you followed my acting career at all,” she says, “you’ll know that I pretty much play a different version of me in everything.

“I’m not one of the great actresses of the world,” she admits, “so it was always just basically me.”

Being herself on television clearly is working for her fellow Academy members. In May, Bertinelli won her first ever Emmy Award as 2019’s Outstanding Culinary host for Valerie’s Home Cooking.

It works for Bertinelli, too. “Being me on camera is — I forget the cameras are there. I’ve been in front of the camera since I was 12-years old, so they kind of fade away immediately. And it’s just me hanging out cooking and they have to remind me to, you know, look at the camera and talk to your audience because I get so involved.”