If you've never seen an episode of "The Barefoot Contessa," watch one as soon as possible. You don't like cooking shows? Don't let that stop you. The dishes featured on "The Barefoot Contessa" certainly look delectable -- fun, flavor-packed, and achievable at home -- but the show is as much about Ina Garten, the contessa herself, as it is about the food. The shows are filmed in Garten's own kitchen in a converted barn on her spacious estate in East Hampton, N.Y., and she treats the viewer like a competent but underskilled apprentice, bantering light-heartedly as she walks us through each dish. It's alluring, even entrancing: instruction disguised as entertainment, all presented with Garten's sophisticated yet down-to-earth charm.
A nuclear job
Much of that charm comes from Garten's unpretentious approach to cooking. Unlike many celebrity chefs, who treat cooking like some mystical and convoluted ritual, Garten approaches each dish with the nonchalance of someone who could be doing something else. That's because she could be. Between 1974 and 1978, Garten worked in the Office of Management and Budget at the White House; starting in 1976, she was responsible for the budget of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and for part of the Department of Energy's. How Garten went from analyzing nuclear policy to overseeing her own cooking empire is one of the unlikelier stories of American reinvention.
Garten was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent most of her childhood in Stamford, Conn. At 15, she met her future husband, Jeffrey Garten, whom she married six years later. The two moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., during Jeffrey's military service, then to Washington, D.C., where Jeffrey worked for Henry Kissinger.
On the show, Jeffrey -- a fan favorite -- serves as both a test subject and a comic foil to his wife's endless experimentation. A professor at Yale's business school, Jeffrey spends most of the week in New Haven, Conn.; many of Ina's dishes are prepared to serve upon his return to East Hampton. Jeffrey doesn't seem to be overly interested in Garten's endeavors, but he's hugely supportive, lavishing praise upon her dishes and encouraging her boldest undertakings.
He's played a similar role through their nearly 45-year relationship. Jeffrey helped Ina get her job at the White House by asking Kissinger, his boss, to pass around her resume. (Ina had studied economics at Dartmouth and earned an MBA at George Washington University.) She quickly landed a job at the Office of Management and Budget, crunching the numbers on special projects and advising President Gerald Ford on whether to add them to budget legislation. Garten's interests were primarily scientific, and after two years, she migrated to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where she was responsible for the budget of the entire commission as well as part of the Department of Energy's. There, Garten worked with accountants and nuclear physicists to make nuclear energy safe and affordable. Her work coincided with the 1970s energy crisis, when the entire country was searching for an alternative to the increasingly scarce gasoline supply.
"It was pretty heavy stuff for a 25-year-old," Garten says now. "I had no nuclear background, but I was always interested in science. And it was a time when energy was a real issue. The work felt extremely important."
But Garten eventually fled government work for the same reason so many have since: gridlock. "I was working on exciting projects," she says, "but it was like Groundhog Day. One project was $20 billion, and we were trying to get it out of the budget" -- that is, cancel the project due to its exorbitant expense. Yet "every time we'd send it back to the Hill, the senator from the affected district would put it back in the budget. I did this for four years. It may be $20 billion, and it may be going to the president -- but nothing's happening."
A new career
One morning, at the height of her frustration, Garten was reading The New York Times when she came across a section she'd never even seen before called "Business Opportunities." In it she saw an ad for a specialty food store in East Hampton called the Barefoot Contessa. Although she'd never visited the Hamptons, Garten had become a master of the Washington dinner party; she had also made some extra money buying, renovating and reselling houses. Inspired, Ina told Jeffrey about the ad, and the two of them soon visited the store, making an offer on the spot. The owner accepted. Now, instead of analyzing multi-billion-dollar nuclear projects, she was managing a 400-square-foot food store.
"After the first weekend, I really thought this was the stupidest thing I ever did," Garten says. "But Jeffrey told me, 'Look, if you could do it in the first week, you'd be bored the second week.' He was right. If I'm not scared to death, it's not worth doing."
The Barefoot Contessa was a huge success, allowing Garten to expand the franchise further into East and West Hampton. After overseeing the franchise for 20 years, Garten grew restless, sold her store, and searched for a new passion. The quest took a year. "I had nothing to do," Garten admits, "which was scarier than anything else." Finally, she put together a proposal for a recipe book, easily finding a publisher. The book, called "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," which first appeared in 1999, was an unexpected hit, eventually selling over a million copies. A second book followed, then a third and a fourth; Garten is now working on book eight or nine -- by her own admission, she can't quite keep track of them all.
In 2000, after the success of her cookbooks, Garten got an offer from the Food Network. She turned it down. After a year and a half of persistence, the network talked Garten into a 13-episode contract for "The Barefoot Contessa" -- and Garten hasn't stopped filming since. The premise of the show is the same as Garten's cookbooks: high-quality cooking made easy and convenient, featuring delicious but straightforward recipes that are accessible to laypeople. In some episodes, Garten invites a friend over to eat her food, a perk of the show's naturalistic setting that resolves the awkward conundrum of many cooking shows -- who eats the food once it's done?
For the more intricate recipes, Garten's ease seems a little exaggerated, and some of it is an illusion; Garten told me about one recipe that took several dozen takes to master. Still, as a host, Garten is so unruffled and enthusiastic that she can make even the most complex procedures seem easy, or at least manageable.
There's no stress involved -- and why should there be? After you've overseen the budget of a nuclear facility, cooking a smoked salmon frittata must be a walk in the park.