What do yellowcake (a type of processed uranium) and yellow cake (the kind you can eat) have in common? Ina Garten.
Back during the Carter Administration, the beloved Emmy award-winning star of television’s "Barefoot Contessa" served as a nuclear-energy policy analyst.
What Garten enjoyed best about her D.C. life wasn’t wielding power, though; it was throwing parties. That’s what led her to leave the Beltway in the late 1970s and become the driving force behind Barefoot Contessa, the Hamptons’ iconic (if now defunct) gourmet food shop.
She oversaw her empire of comfort food gone chic for almost 20 years before moving on to write the bestselling The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook in 1999. She’s gone on to write seven others, has been filming her Food Network show since 2002 (and in her own kitchen), and, as ever on Friday nights, welcomes home her husband, Jeffrey, with the roast chicken he loves.
Garten has it down to an art. Or is it science?
“I’ve always been interested in science,” says Garten. “My basic interest in science brought me to both enriched uranium and lemon cake. I find one more much more satisfying, and you can share it with people. Enriched uranium? Not so much.”
You’ve said publishing The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook was among the most exciting moments of your life. Considering you were the nuclear-policy analyst for the White House, that’s setting the bar kind of high. What made it such a thrill for you?
I thought writing a book would be a solitary experience. When I did it, I worked with an extraordinary team of people. I loved working with the publisher. I was involved in every single detail, from the size of the font to the color palette. I will never forget the moment when the editor handed the first book to me. That was one of the high points of my life.
And seven books on?
It still is.
What gave you the idea for your new book, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof?
It’s very easy to get recipes anywhere, but you have no idea whose taste and style it is. One thing I’ve felt strongly about is that I want to make sure if it’s my recipe, it comes out exactly as you expect it to, the way I want it to every time.
Did you ever have a recipe that got away?
They never make it into a book. Very often I’ll be working on a recipe, I start with a flavor, a texture, and I’ll start cooking, and at some point it gets too complicated. I toss it and move right on.
I work on a recipe over and over and over again — maybe 25 times. Then I print out a recipe and just hand my assistant a piece of paper. She doesn’t have a picture; she just has the printed word, the way someone would have when using the book.
She does things I never would have thought of doing. We still laugh — for a lentil salad, I say, take a turnip and stick it with cloves. She had some skewers, and I was thinking, what are the skewers for? Then she got some garlic cloves and stuck them on the end of the skewers. I changed it to dried cloves, so no one would make the same mistake. I really learn by watching someone make a recipe.
What makes a recipe cookbook-worthy for you?
My test is, is it absolutely delicious? Do I want to make it for dinner tomorrow? Is it easy enough that I can make it, or is it too complicated to make simply at home? Do you need a piece of equipment that people wouldn’t normally have?
I’ve always wanted to build a wood-burning oven; it seems so romantic. But no one has one. It’s such an indulgence. I couldn’t use it for my work or write about it.
My stove has only one oven. It’s a great discipline for me. I learned you have to be really careful about the menu, and creative. If there’s two things I want to put in the oven for a dinner party, they cook at the same temperature, or one is meat that has to rest for 15 minutes, like a filet of beef. It’s not complicated; it just takes planning.
Have you ever had any dinner parties that were disasters?
Hasn’t everybody? The first one was a brunch. I invited 20 people, and I made an omelet for everyone. It took me a year to get over it and try again.
We refine for what works for us. For me, it’s a six-people dinner party in the kitchen, where I can cook and serve and never leave the party. At a long narrow table, half the guests are out of your reach. At a round table, you can connect with everybody. We each develop our own style, and that feels comfortable to me.
You do make entertaining look effortless. What advice do you have for those who find entertaining more of a struggle?
Serve a cocktail like the sidecar in Foolproof, or a whiskey sour, or some special homemade cocktail — it sets a party on the right note.
Make things that make people feel welcome. When the food is weird, people are drawn to the food, not to each other, and people are upset. When the food is familiar, people relax and have a good time, and that’s when you connect with people.
I know most of my friends and what they like. I write one menu everybody can eat; I don’t have to make lobster for one, the other one with the chicken, and someone doesn’t like nuts.
Dinner’s always simpler than people expect. It’s nothing fancy with lots of sauces; it’s a big pot of something, like a seafood stew. With vegetarians, I’ll make a main meat dish, but one of the side dishes will be meatless and substantial enough that that’ll be a good dinner.
What makes a good dinner for you?
Hmm, what does it for me? Homey, earthy things that are just delicious. Probably turkey meatloaf, smashed potatoes and roasted carrots, and raspberry crumble bars. Doesn’t it do it for everyone? It’s old-fashioned and tastes better than you expect because it’s traditional things, but they’re done with a modern twist.
Tell me about the twist.
Our tastes have changed — or our ingredients have changed. When I go back and try a recipe from 20 years ago, it tastes boring. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it in the store if it was boring.
I understand more than I did then — things need an edge, a splash of vinegar or wine, or a squeeze of lemon. It can’t just be nice and delicious; it has to have something more. It needs something sharp.
In 1978, you went from nuclear-energy policy analyst to taking over Barefoot Contessa, the Hamptons‘ gourmet food store. Interesting career choice. What made you do it?
What I loved to do in Washington was entertain. I had a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and every weekend, I gave a dinner party. I wanted to go into the food business because I thought it would be like having a big party every day. It would be gorgeous, with good music, and there’d be friends, as opposed to me in my office in Washington where I sat at my desk and wrote issue papers.
And the reality?
In 1978, women were working, they had families, they had jobs, they had children. And something had to give. People started to buy prepared food to take home. It was a very small industry. There were no food stores like E.A.T. or Dean and DeLuca. I don’t think Eli’s Bread had started.
You couldn’t buy a homemade fresh baguette. The notion of brownies from scratch, especially at a food store — no one did that. It was very exciting. I was at the beginning of something that was going to grow exponentially over the next 30 years.
And now you’re a bestselling cookbook author, not to mention an Emmy-award winning cooking-show star who didn’t want to do television. How did you make your peace with it?
You’re assuming I have made peace with it. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I thought I was terrible at it. Food Network kept coming back and making me a better offer, and I said, no, no, no. I’m not negotiating; I just don’t want to do it.
Then I saw a British show I thought was really great and found out who produced it. I got this call: “We’re coming to East Hampton next week, can you do 13 shows?” Whoa. That was 10 years ago, and I’m still with the same producer [Sarah Purnell], whom I adore.
I just do what I do. I’m not an actress; I’m just who I am. I feel I’m talking to my producer. I don’t find the camera thing stressful. It doesn’t change who I am; it feels very natural to me.
People have asked me if Jeffrey’s my TV husband. I’m not Meryl Streep; I’m not an actress. That’s why we keep the shows as real as possible; it’s the only way I could do it. It is real.
Much of the pleasure of your show comes from the real pleasure your husband takes in all your creations. Is that part of what keeps you in the kitchen?
It’s a really important part of it. He’s the most wonderful audience. He thinks everything I make is wonderful. I made him tea once, and he said, “This is the best tea I’ve ever had.” I said, “Jeffrey, it’s hot water and a tea bag.” I’m absolutely sure the appeal is he is so appreciative. A household needs someone who cooks and someone who really appreciates it.
So cooking just for yourself —
Has zero appeal — none. I would never cook dinner for myself. It’s about the people. If you cook, people come. That’s what I find satisfying. That’s what I get from the cooking. That’s what I love.