How the Barefoot Contessa became one of America’s best loved cooks

Arts

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now we visit one of the most successful, prolific women in America, the creative force behind the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and TV shows.

William Brangham recently went to see Ina Garten at her home on Long Island, New York, and has this look at her life and career.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Can I have another bite?

INA GARTEN, Best-selling Cookbook Author: You can have as much as you like.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is the best job.

(LAUGHTER)

INA GARTEN: Isn't it? This is what I get to do for a living. Isn't it unbelievable?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It's fantastic.

Ina Garten is one of the most famous and beloved cooks in America today. Better known as the Barefoot Contessa, she sits atop a culinary empire built on her bestselling cookbooks, with millions of copies sold, a string of hit TV shows.

INA GARTEN: Just because it's a weeknight dinner doesn't mean it has to be boring.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And a legion of devoted fans.

INA GARTEN: This is my little secret garden.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We visited Garten at her home and headquarters in East Hampton, New York. We talked in the huge barn she had built next to her House that's now her office, test kitchen and TV studio, all in one.

INA GARTEN: This is where the show is shot, and this is where we test recipes. And every morning, I walk across the lawn and I meet the two people, Barbara and Lidey, who work with me. And we just go, OK, what are we going to do today?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That's the extent of your commute?

INA GARTEN: That's my commute.

(LAUGHTER)

INA GARTEN: It's like 100 yards, I think, maybe less, maybe 50.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Pretty amazing.

INA GARTEN: It's pretty amazing.

I usually just put it right in the middle.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Garten's career began 40 years ago. But, at first, she gave no hint as to how she'd evolve. In the 1970s, newly married to husband Jeffrey, Garten was a budget analyst in Washington, D.C.,

INA GARTEN: I was working at OMB, Office of Management and Budget.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the federal government?

INA GARTEN: Yes, for Ford and Carter. And I worked on nuclear energy policy. How's that for precedent for the food business?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It makes no sense whatsoever.

(LAUGHTER)

INA GARTEN: I ran from it.

And by the late '70s, I thought, I have been working here for four years, and nothing has happened. And I just didn't feel like I had any impact on anything. And I hit 30, and I thought, I want to do what I want to do. And I thought, I want to be in the food business.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One day, she saw an ad for a specialty food store for sale in the Hamptons, the exclusive beach destination for New Yorkers.

INA GARTEN: I went home and I told Jeffrey about it, and he said, pick something you love to do. If you love doing it, you will be really good at it. And so I made her a very low offer, the woman who was selling it, thinking, well, we will come back. We will negotiate. We drove back to Washington.

I was in my office the next day and the phone rang. And she said, thank you very much. I accept your offer. And I just remember going, oh (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What have I gotten myself into?

INA GARTEN: What have I done?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And that was it?

INA GARTEN: That was it. Two months later, I was behind the counter of a specialty foods store, trying to figure it out.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The store she bought was called the Barefoot Contessa. That was the nickname of the prior owner.

It was 1978, and this was Garten's very first job in the food industry.

So, had you been a cook before?

INA GARTEN: No.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Not at all?

INA GARTEN: I'd never worked in a store. I never worked in a restaurant. I mean, I cooked at home, but that's not really the same thing. I taught myself how to cook when I worked in Washington using Julia Child's cookbooks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And you have had no training beyond that?

INA GARTEN: No. No.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That's amazing.

INA GARTEN: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The store was a smash, and later moved to a bigger location in East Hampton.

After 18 years, she sold the store and tried her hand at a new venture. In 1999, the Barefoot Contessa cookbook was published, and it quickly became a bestseller. Nine additional books have followed, each a bestseller. All contain her trademark simple and accessible recipes.

INA GARTEN: I think that I had a very clear vision when I started writing cookbooks what I wanted it to be, and that you would open the book, that you would look at the photograph and go, that looks delicious. And then you would look at the recipe and say, I can actually make that and I can make it with ingredients I can find in the grocery store.

I don't think that's changed at all.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Having taught yourself how to cook, does that inform the recipes that end up in your book, because you're thinking of them not from a professionally trained mind, but someone who did this on her own?

INA GARTEN: That's really smart.

Actually, when I first started writing cookbooks, I remember thinking to myself, what makes me think I can write a cookbook? There are these great chefs who are really trained. And, as I started, I realized, actually, what is my lack is actually exactly right, because I can connect with — cooking's hard for me. I never worked on…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Cooking is hard for you?

INA GARTEN: It is so hard for me. Anybody that works with me will tell you. It's so hard for me. And that's why my recipes are really simple, because I want to be able to do them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Soon, executives at the Food Network came calling, and calling, and calling.

I understand you were reluctant at first to do television?

INA GARTEN: Reluctant is the understatement.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Really?

INA GARTEN: I just said no over and over and over again.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why?

INA GARTEN: I just didn't think I'd be good on TV. I just couldn't imagine why anybody would watch it.

And Food Network, fortunately, kept coming back again and again. And they said, just try it. And I thought, well, I will just do 13 shows, and then they will leave me alone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And that was how many shows later?

INA GARTEN: And, happily, that was 15 years later.

(LAUGHTER)

INA GARTEN: I'm still doing it.

I'm going to show you my recipes and my techniques.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Barefoot Contessa series is now 13 seasons' strong.

INA GARTEN: You too can cook like a pro.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Her latest version, "Cook Like a Pro," shows tips and techniques aimed at helping viewers become more comfortable in the kitchen.

INA GARTEN: Everything you need to know, from trussing the bird to carving it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What do you know of your audience? Who is watching it?

INA GARTEN: You know, there's this moment in time when I really got a vision of who the audience was. I was walking up Madison Avenue, and there was a woman in a big fur coat. And she said, "Oh, darling, love your cookbooks."

And I thought, that's very nice. Then I kept going.

About a half-a-block later, a truck driver pulled over and said, "Hey, baby, love your show."

(LAUGHTER)

INA GARTEN: And I thought, that's food.

I think my cookbook audience might be slightly different from my TV audience, but I think they're people that are interested in food, and that's everybody.

You're doing a beautiful job, I have to tell you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You're just saying that.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: During our visit, Garten showed us a few simple recipes. You can see her demonstrate them on our Web site.

Meanwhile, she says her days are now spent testing new recipes for her upcoming 11th cookbook. It's due in the fall of next year.

INA GARTEN: I love what I'm doing. I'm really happy doing it, and I hope I can do It forever. And I'm having a ball.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ina Garten, so great to talk to you. Thank you very much.

INA GARTEN: Well, it was so much fun to talk to you too, William.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Online, one NewsHour staffer shares what Ina Garten taught her about life, love, and dijon vinaigrette. That's at pbs.org/newshour.

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