Ina Garten appears to live the quiet, beach-side life we all dream of having. In reality, though, her unconventional path to success (she started out as a nuclear budget analyst in the White House, FYI) was built on incredibly hard work, a vigilant passion for cooking, and the support of her beloved husband, Jeffrey.
As part of the promotional tour for her latest cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey — casually the top-selling cookbook of 2016, even though it only came out in October — I sat down with the Barefoot Contessa for an on-stage interview at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater.
Given the nearly 2,000 people who paid good money for a mere chance to lay eyes on the culinary guru, my main takeaway from the event was that Garten, for all of her modesty, has some serious star power.
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Over the course of an hour, we touched on everything from her 48-year marriage, her fascinating career trajectory, and, obviously, her favorite karaoke song. Here are the top 10 highlights from the show, and if you happen to be in New York, Chicago or Milwaukee, don’t pass up your chance to see her in action at the final stops of the tour.
She met Jeffrey when she was 15…and was going on a date with his roommate.
“My parents and I went to visit my brother at college. We were just walking around campus and Jeffrey was in the library studying with his roommate. He said to his roommate ‘Hey, look at that girl!’ And it turns out I knew his roommate. I actually had a date with his roommate that night! I used to play tennis with him. Jeffrey sent me a letter about 3 months later with a picture. I remember running through the house saying ‘Mom! Mom! This guy’s really cute.’ And he showed up at my doorstep like 6 months later and took me out on a date. It was a really bad date, though.”
She really felt the constraints of being a woman in politics — and in general — in the 1970s.
“I knew I was never going to get ahead in this organization, and I think in the ’70s women really didn’t have those opportunities. One thing I used to do when I was in Washington was buy old houses and renovate them. I went to the bank to take out a loan and they said ‘Well we can’t count your salary. We can only count Jeffrey’s.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Well you’re just going to get pregnant and quit.’ That was the ‘70s. I remember going home and tearing up all the credit cards in Jeffrey’s name and taking out credit cards in my name. Because I didn’t exist. So it was a really different time.”
She doesn’t care about being a celebrity.
“I think when you’re in your 20s or 30s you think, ‘If only I was famous I’d be happy.’ That’s an illusion. I don’t think being famous ever makes anyone happy. But I think at this point in my life I love that people enjoy my work. Cookbooks give people the tools to do something for themselves, and it makes them feel good. So I love that. I love when people stop me and say ‘I made your tomato tart, and everybody loved it.’”
She still gets stressed about cooking and entertaining.
“I’m the most anxious cook. People always say ‘People must be so nervous to invite you to dinner,’ but it’s actually just the opposite. I’m nervous when I invite people to my house because I think they expect something spectacular. And, you know, sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s good but not great.”
She’s social media savvy.
“I actually think it’s stunning; I mean, I really was very late to it. My publisher said, ‘You really have to do Facebook’ and I was like ‘Please, I have enough to do.’ But you can’t really criticize something until you just jump into it. Immediately I thought it was very interesting because people comment on things, and people have great ideas. I read a lot of the comments. And now I’m obsessed with Instagram. I love watching what other people are doing.”
She has some very cool celebrity friends.
On Taylor Swift: “Who doesn’t like Taylor Swift? She showed up for a photo shoot at the barn and we were all just like ‘Oh my God.’ Before the shoot my publicist asked her people, ‘What does Taylor like to make?’ and they said ‘roast beef, date nut bread and mustard-roasted fish.’ And my publicist said ‘That sounds like an 82-year-old.’ We ended up making pavlova with meringue, whipped cream and berries. It just reminded me of Taylor because it was so gorgeous. And we made the mustard-roasted fish. It was so much fun. She sent everyone on staff gifts afterwards. The thing about Taylor is she runs her own business and she makes all of her own decisions; she is so smart and so deliberate, she really cares about how people respond to her message. She’s beyond authentic.”
On Michelle Obama: “It was one of the highlights of my life. I did a one-hour special in Washington where I cooked with the White House chef and had a conversation with Mrs. Obama. She’s smart and gorgeous and warm and authentic. Just amazing. I’ll miss her greatly.”
On Tina Fey: “I just adore her. She wrote Jeffrey and me into an episode of 30 Rock. I think Matt Damon was her boyfriend and she said ‘Let’s be more like Ina and Jeffrey’ and he said ‘I can’t be like Jeffrey!’ She’s unbelievably smart and she’s absolutely the funniest person I’ve ever met. She’s got one funny thing in her head and 6 more lined up.”
WATCH: Ina Garten and Michelle Obama on Barefoot Contessa
She has a favorite fast food, but she does not mess with Chinese takeout.
On fast food: “I love Shake Shack. It’s so good. I love their fried chicken sandwich.”
On takeout: “I had really bad Chinese takeout once and almost died. And I’ve never had Chinese take-out since then. I used to love it!”
She doesn’t karaoke, but if she did, she’s got her song cued up.
“Nobody’s ever heard me sing. If I had to, I’d choose ‘It’s Raining Men’.”
There’s one ingredient she just won’t use.
“Cilantro. I can’t stand it.”
She already has another cookbook in the works.
“This past weekend [was the last time I cooked for Jeffrey] — I’m working on another book, so I was recipe testing. He loved it, but he likes everything, so he’s a terrible judge.”