Ina Garten took a short break from testing recipes for chocolate cake with mocha frosting to talk about her life and times.
I test a recipe 25 times easily, and I change one variable each time just to see the impact it has, said the star of the Food Networks Barefoot Contessa cooking show. Its what I love to do, though its tempting to change six things and come up with something entirely different.
The alchemy is for her ninth cookbook, Barefoot Contessa: Make It Ahead, due in October, just in time for the start of the holiday gift-giving season. Its the question we get asked most frequently from our viewers: Can I make it ahead? Can I make Christmas cookies in July and freeze them?
The recipes were getting a workout in the barn next to Gartens house in East Hampton, on New Yorks Long Island. The barn is really an elegant structure and is also where her show is filmed. It was described in Home Beautiful as inspired by the simple country buildings of Belgium and designed by architect Frank Greenwald.
I filmed for six years in my house, so I had a crew there for eight weeks at a time. Can you imagine? she said. I either had to stop it or build something, and there was a piece of property next door that I bought. Now we do everything in the barn.
Unlike the calm and soothing persona she presents on Barefoot Contessa, Garten on the phone talks in fast-forward. Summing up her remarkable career arc, she said with a laugh, Ive always been happy to jump off a cliff and figure it out on the way down.
Luckily, a parachute popped open. Barefoot Contessa has aired for 12 years, landing Garten two Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding lifestyle/culinary host, and a recent nomination for a James Beard Broadcast Award for outstanding personality/host. Thats what happens when your TV show draws 1 million-plus viewers per episode and your cookbooks sell 8.8 million copies worldwide. Her last cookbook was Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof (Clarkson Potter, $35, 272 pages), published in October 2012 on her schedule of a new book every two years.
Initially, she went nuclear
Ina Rosenberg, now 66, was majoring in economics at Syracuse University when she left to marry Jeffrey Garten, now the chairman of a global consulting firm. Four years later, in 1972, they settled in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an aide in the White House while earning an MBA in business from George Washington University. Eventually, she ended up as the nuclear energy policy analyst for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
When I got to be 30 I thought, This isnt me, she recalled. When I wasnt working, I taught myself how to cook using Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and would have dinner parties. I liked my evenings more than my days.
When I saw an ad for a specialty-foods store for sale (in 1978), I realized I wanted to do what I loved, and not what I thought was a serious job, Garten said. The business I bought (in Westhampton Beach) was called the Barefoot Contessa (after the 1954 Ava Gardner-Humphrey Bogart drama) and I just kept the name, though the movie is very dark. Later, I (expanded it and) moved it to East Hampton. So instead of enriched uranium, I ended up with chocolate cake. It was a good career change, but it was all serendipity and blind luck. I just went toward what I wanted to do and a lot of things evolved.
After selling the store two decades later, Garten published her debut cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa, which became a surprise best-seller. Soon the Food Network came calling.
They wanted me to do a show, and I said absolutely not, Garten said. They kept coming after me with bigger offers, and I kept saying, Im not negotiating. I didnt think it was something I could do. If youre young and gorgeous and always imagined yourself on TV, thats one thing. But I certainly wasnt.
Garten finally relented when Food Network executives tracked down a producer in London whom Gartner admired and persuaded her to come to the United States. They called me one day and said, (The team) will be in East Hampton in two weeks, will you do just 13 shows? I thought if I tried it, theyd leave me alone. Happily, it worked out. Im into making things from my books, and (the set) feels very comfortable and safe.
Most Barefoot Contessa episodes end with Garten gathering a group at the table to eat the meal she has just assembled. Theyre my friends in real life, people I have dinner parties with, she said. I was always reticent to ask them because I thought attending an onscreen dinner was an extraordinary favor, but they actually enjoy doing it.
Garten is embarrassed to say I dont have time to watch any Food Network shows, but counts Food Network co-stars Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentis among her friends. They and Alton Brown joined her on a Thanksgiving special last year, giving demonstrations and answering questions from home cooks around the nation. It was live, and it was crazy, but Thanksgiving is my favorite meal, she said.
How does her cooking style compare to theirs? Im not a trained restaurant chef, so Im not somebody who has made demi-glace, she said. My experience was 20 years in a specialty-food store, where people would buy simple, comforting foods to take home. Thats what I love to make.
That style shows up in her Barefoot Contessa sauté dinners for two, a nine-dish line of frozen meals that can be ready in minutes (see our taste test) Were coming out with oven dinners, too, like meatloaf, and side dishes like Parmesan mashed potatoes and creamy polenta, she said. The slow food movement is great, but people need to make dinner in half an hour.
Gartens assistants in the barn were ready to test the next recipe twice-baked sweet potatoes so we had to get a move on with some quick questions and answers. Such as:
The five ingredients always in her home kitchen are California olive oil, garlic, kosher salt, Dijon mustard and fresh thyme from her garden. Her favorite meals to cook at home for herself and her husband are turkey meatloaf, mustard-glazed roasted chicken, and rack of lamb.
Go-to cocktail? Whiskey sours. If Ive had a hard day, they solve most of lifes problems.
Guilty pleasure? You mean like vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream? Its forbidden in our house.
Three tips for home cooks? One, you dont need a million pieces of equipment in order to cook. Two, if you buy really good ingredients in season, you dont need to do much to make them taste good. And you dont have to make everything for a dinner party. You can buy a wonderful dessert at a bakery.
Two things about Ina Garten nobody knows? I used to fly airplanes for fun, and I love construction projects and design, for better or worse.
We sort of already knew those ...
You did? she asked, sounding surprised. Well, I have some secrets.
And shell keep those to herself for now.
SACRAMENTO SPEAKERS SERIES
Ina Garten will appear for the Sacramento Speakers Series at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento. A limited supply of general-admission tickets are $35 each at www.sacramentospeakers.com and (916) 388-1100. Tickets will not be sold at the event. Doors will open at 7 p.m. Pre-autographed copies of her cookbooks will be for sale. Visit her at www.barefootcontessa.com
Call The Bees Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.