To many of us she is just Ina. We know she dotes on her husband, Jeffrey, as if she's a newlywed. (She's not.) We know she loves Paris, Thanksgiving, farmers markets and entertaining. We've seen her kitchen in the Hamptons (gorgeous) and what her garden looks like in summer (scary gorgeous).
She is Ina Rosenberg Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa. With no formal training, she is at the top of the food celebrity heap, with bestselling cookbooks, successful Food Network shows and a whole lot of famous friends. On Nov. 2, Garten, 68, comes to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts to discuss her life, her cooking and her newest book, Cooking for Jeffrey: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which releases Oct. 25. In advance of her visit, we caught up with her by phone to talk about her past, her present and exactly why her recipes are so darn good.
How did you get from working as a nuclear energy budget analyst for the White House during the Ford and Carter administrations to running the Barefoot Contessa? What made you pull the trigger in 1978 and buy that specialty foods store in the Hamptons that was advertised in the New York Times?
When I look at the ad now I think, "What about that ad appealed to me?" If was the first time I'd gone to that business opportunities section in the Times. I had just turned 30, I loved to cook and I needed to do something on my own. I said to Jeffrey, "I need to do something else; what I'm doing just isn't me." And he said, "Pick something fun and you'll be really good at it." At that point we had been married 10 years.
Were you surprised when your first book became a bestseller? Did it change your direction in any way?
I ran the store almost 20 years and decided I needed to do something else. My managers bought it from me and I built an office upstairs and thought, "What am I going to do with myself?" I liked being in the food business but I didn't want to run a food store anymore. People had said I should write a cookbook, and I never thought I'd be interested in it. I wrote a proposal and was shocked that it was accepted. I wrote the book I wanted to read. At that time, cookbooks had 350 recipes. I thought, you need 75 well-edited recipes.
Are your books so good because the recipes are great to begin with or because they get tested into perfect submission?
Both. From my experience in the specialty food store (I knew that) people eat different food at home than they do in a restaurant. You want very simple, straightforward food that is easy to cook. You don't have six people doing prep for you. There are a couple of things I think I'm good at, one is knowing what people want to eat. Also that I do test a recipe over and over, some as many as 25 times. I have a tester who does things that would never occur to me. She's not a professional and sometimes I will literally watch her cook. I remember watching her make a lentil salad that called for an onion stuck with cloves. I heard her giggling, I look over and she's got cloves of garlic stuck to the onion with skewers. I didn't realize people would confuse cloves with garlic cloves. Now I always write "dried cloves."
The single weirdest thing about you is how everybody, all different kinds of people from serious cooks to noncooks, love you. Why is that?
Beats me. I think I'm basically happy doing what I'm doing and that translates to people. I remember being in New York and seeing a wealthy lady in fur who said, "I love your cookbooks," and then a block away a truck driver leans out his window and yells, "I love your show."
How has your role at the Food Network changed as food television itself has evolved?
I tend not to look at what people are doing around me. Every day I do the best I can. And I tend not to pay attention to trends in food. Maybe that's one reason what I do resonates with people. It's been 14 or 15 years now.
You have focused quite a bit on entertaining. Does this feel like tilting at windmills as most people entertain less frequently?
I think I'm an advocate for cooking at home. You eat better, the quality of food is better. And if you cook, everybody shows up. No one has ever said to me, "No, I don't want a home-cooked meal." I think millennials are in fact cooking more. My generation of women were doctors and lawyers and their children are sometimes staying home and focusing on living a good life. I think cooking is coming back.
How has your cooking changed over the years?
I think my recipes have gotten healthier. I use more whole grains than I did 20 years ago. But everybody does. We know more and we have access to more. Twenty years ago you couldn't buy great bread, but you can now.
Do you have a favorite book of your own, and what are your favorite cookbooks that you didn't write?
My favorite book is always the one I just worked on. Cooking for Jeffrey is very personal and I think there are a lot of recipes in the book that are really doable. For other people's books, I tend to like specialty food store books, like those of Sarah Leah Chase in Nantucket or Johanne Killeen, who owns Al Forno in Providence, R.I. Oh, and Bobby Flay's brunch book is great.
Your relationship with Jeffrey is so central to your appeal. Do you think cooking for him has been part of your marital success?
I think that's why I wrote this most recent book. The reason I cook is because he appreciates it so much. I didn't cook a thing before we got married. We had no idea that I'd learn to cook. He knows it's not easy.
Does Jeffrey cook?
He makes really good coffee, which I desperately need in the morning.
What do you want people to take away from this new book?
That if you cook for someone you love, it feels good for you and for them. It's been an extraordinary thing in my life. When you cook things for people, they want to take care of you back. What I've gotten back is so much bigger.
What can your audience expect when you come to the Straz Center?
It depends on the interviewer, but we will cover a lot of topics: how I went from my early career to writing cookbooks, what motivates me, what I think about entertaining. It will be a lot about business. A lot of people want to own their own business and are afraid to jump. I'm really lucky I married a guy who ended up being the dean of the business school at Yale.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.