For my first profile in “Follow the Light,” I decided to feature Ina Garten. Her down-to-earth, bubbly personality and positive approach to life have made her a beacon of light for me since I first saw her in the Food Network’s cooking show The Barefoot Contessa in 2002.
Whenever I watched an episode, I found myself gravitating to the way she shared her joy, not only in creating recipes but also in how she’d prepare them. Her gentle nature and kindness came through with each dish she’d prepare. I could tell that she loved cooking these special meals for her husband, Jeffrey, or for dear friends. Wonderful conversations always accompanied the sharing of her meals. Good food, good friendships, and lots of love were ingredients in the experience.
Ina’s mantra was, “Risks are worth taking, and failure is not an option.” As I adjusted to my new life in Oregon with my sons, I found myself using her mantra to approach the challenges I faced. She’d often say that she prepared each of her recipes at least 20 times before sharing them in a cookbook, to make sure they wouldn’t disappoint anyone who would make them.
I can vouch that her recipes never fail and always are crowd pleasers! I have all 11 of her recipe books – each of which contain many of my go-to dishes that my family and friends have savored. I’m happy to announce that Ina’s 12th recipe book, Modern Comfort Food, will be available in October of 2020! You can purchase a signed copy at https://barefootcontessa.com/cookbooks/modern-comfort-food. (I have no financial interest in this – I just love her cookbooks and want to share them.)
I became curious about Ina’s story. What had her life’s journey been like for her to have become such a positive influencer, so accomplished, and a such beacon of light for me? The more I read about her, the more I discovered that she shared many qualities of other people I had come to admire in my life: risk taking, perseverance, open-mindedness, resilience, kindness, humility, gentleness, intelligence, a great sense of humor, and many more.
She’s come a long way: from a young woman who used her aptitude for science to experiment with recipes, to eventually becoming the beloved author of numerous Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and, in 2002, the host of one of the Food Network’s most popular cooking shows, with a million viewers per episode.
Ina met the love of her life, Jeffrey Garten, when she was only 15 years old, while he was attending Dartmouth College. They got married when she was 20. She became a military wife, while Jeffrey served in Vietnam for four years.
When he returned from active duty, they traveled to Paris and satisfied their adventurous spirits by spending four months camping, sampling the fresh produce at open-air markets and savoring how the ingredients were used to create fabulous French cuisine. This trip would be the inspiration for Ina to cultivate and refine her culinary skills.
The Washington, DC years
She and Jeffrey then moved to Washington, DC in 1972, where she attended George Washington University and earned an MBA. After spending time as a government aide, she advanced in her career and became a budget analyst in the Office of Management and Budget. She was responsible for crafting the nuclear energy budget and policy papers on nuclear centrifuge plants during the Ford and Carter administrations.
During this time, the Gartens began doing a great deal of entertaining, which allowed Ina to hone her culinary skills. She discovered that she was truly in her element, creating menus that showcased the dishes she had created over the years.
The Barefoot Contessa
In 1978, when the pressures of government work became overwhelming, she began flipping houses and became quite good at it. All the while, though, she yearned to somehow put her culinary skills to use.
One day, while browsing real-estate listings, she came across a specialty-foods store for sale in Westhampton Beach, NY, called the Barefoot Contessa – named after a 1954 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien. Ina had earned enough money flipping houses to buy it, and Jeffrey encouraged her to do so. And so she did.
Over the years, she expanded the original 400-square-foot floor plan to over 3,000 square feet. She brought on additional chefs and bakers and worked with them to incorporate her recipes into the items she sold. She featured specialized delicacies that included fresh local produce, imported cheeses, caviar, lobster Cobb salad, and freshly baked goods. Because of her culinary influence, as well as the quality and uniqueness of the items she introduced, the store grew in popularity.
Success and then closing
In 1999, Ina began putting together all the recipes that made her store so successful and published The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. It sold well over 100,000 copies during the first year.
Over time, the Barefoot Contessa became a landmark in East Hampton. In 2003, film director Nancy Meyers decided to use it in one of my absolute favorite movies, Something’s Gotta Give, starring Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Keanu Reeves.
Sadly, when the property lease expired in 2004, the Barefoot Contessa permanently closed its doors. This, however, did not prevent Ina from moving forward with her passion. She continued to promote and publish her Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, while remaining as the host of The Barefoot Contessa cooking show on the Food Network.
A dream-come-true for me!
I’d long dreamed that, one day, I’d have the opportunity to see Ina Garten in person. Guess what? Ask and ye shall receive! In late November of 2018, she traveled to Seattle to promote her latest cookbook, Cooking Like a Pro. The event was held at Benaroya Hall to a sold-out audience of 2,500 people, where she was interviewed by a dear friend of hers in the center of the stage.
Just knowing that I was actually experiencing a dream-come-true is still hard for me to put into words. I was filled with indescribable joy as I listened to her share her life’s journey with humility and humor. At the end of the event, I picked up my pre-ordered, signed copy of her new cookbook. This was the icing on the cake, and I know I was beaming from ear to ear. It will remain one of my most treasured experiences!
Still a light
Ina Garten continues to be a light in my life. She is a role model for me because of the many positive qualities I find in her. I feel we are kindred spirits, as well. We once were young women with hopes and dreams and were willing to take risks to make them come true. We’ve been resilient, and we’ve always viewed life as a glass half full. When faced with challenges, she persevered and worked hard to keep her eye on the prize – being able to find ways to fulfill her passion for cooking, especially for the people close to her.
I love her great sense of humor and beautiful smile – I’ve never seen her without one. When she cooks, she’s in her element, and you can tell she enjoys every moment! She continues to publish her fabulous cookbooks and host her cooking show. As she says, “Cooking is one of the great gifts you can give to those you love.”
P.S.: My husband, Bruce, and I are huge fans of Ina and Jeffrey. Unbeknownst to us, I think we’ve been channeling them.