When her home burned to the ground last year, Rachael Ray suffered an enormous loss, but seeing it rebuilt, she tells PEOPLE, was sometimes just as painful.
"The entire property was gone. There was nothing," she says in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday, of her Lake Luzerne, NY, property after the devastating August 2020 blaze. "It was literally a hole in the ground. It was considered a 100% loss. And they cleared away the entire, everything. Took it all."
Ray, 53, and her husband, John Cusimano, 54, were able to move into their guest house next door, but that meant they watched the aftermath of the fire unfold first hand. "These huge machines, just taking literally our lives away," she recalls. "I would watch, every single day, past the window, while I was doing interviews, just for weeks, just them carting it all. 'Bye-bye.'"
Rachael Ray Show Instagram; Taylor Hill/WireImage Rachael Ray's home
The cooking show host, who is one of PEOPLE's 50 Food Faves, has shared much of the heartbreak with her fans over the last year, but, she says, one of the hardest parts of losing the house came much later.
Rachael Ray Show Instagram
Ray thought it would be a comfort to see the property completely rebuilt as she remembered it, but, she says, "Do you know, it's the opposite? I'm telling you, it really weirded me out. It was harder to walk in when they first finished rebuilding."
"The first time I walked in and just saw all of those white walls, I was a basket case," she recalls. "Because when you look at the walls you see everything that was there in front of you like you're watching a movie. Like vividly. And that was weird and hard. I could just not separate reality from... what was my life."
"It was easier to just see it gone than to look," says Ray, whose upcoming memoir-meets-cookbook This Must Be the Place, chronicles the ups and downs she had during the first year of the pandemic.
Before the fire, Ray had moved production of her show to the house amid Covid, something she recalls was unexpectedly emotional for her because the home had always been her private refuge out of the spotlight.
"Honestly, the hardest hurdle was that first one. It seemed the highest to me. In some ways, it was harder than the house burning down," she says. "But in the end, it became the greatest gift because it's gotten us through."
Rachael Ray Show/YouTube
The hardships of the last year have also brought her closer to her neighbors — and her fans. "I feel that the connection that we made with people during this time, the loss of [our dog] Isaboo, the loss of our home, it meant so much to me. I became obsessed with our connection to the community that has tried to love and support us."
She adds, "I read as many letters as I can every week. I handwrite the responses. I send out... I don't know, fifty or so some weeks. Some weeks, a little less."