Ina Garten Knows Exactly What She Wants

Talking to the chef and TV personality, who just released her 11th cookbook.

Ina Garten. Photo: Jennifer Livingston/Trunk Archive
Ina Garten. Photo: Jennifer Livingston/Trunk Archive

The vanilla brioche pudding from Ina Garten’s new cookbook, Cook Like a Procontains eight egg yolks and four cups of half-and-half. I’m cooking it next to Garten in her East Hampton kitchen, the one you might recognize from her Food Network show. “Velvet Elvis” by Kacey Musgraves is playing on her speakers and she’s telling me I’m cutting too much crust off the bread. This doesn’t feel real.

And it’s not — well, not exactly. The brioche is real, and the music is real, but this isn’t really where she lives. “Oh, this is my office. That’s my house,” Garten says, pointing out the bay window of the kitchen, which looks out onto a rolling green hill that leads to her actual house. It’s a very, very nice office.

As we wait for the brioche pudding to bake, we sit in her library (her office’s library) and Garten tells me she designed the whole building. She was inspired by Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as Belgian design — “I spent a lot of time in Belgium,” she says. It’s easy to assume Ina Garten is simply living a charmed life; that she’s just some kind of “goals” meme, puttering around the Hamptons and baking things. But the more I talk to her, the more I realize how deliberate everything is. This is a woman who personally designed every element of her own fake house. She knows what she needs to do, and she does not waver.

For example, when I ask Garten if Food Network always wanted her show shot in her home, as opposed to a studio, she says, “I don’t know what they wanted. I never even asked. I tend to do what I want to do when I think it’s right, and I think if you create your house somewhere else, it always feels like you created your house somewhere else.”

The Ina Garten origin story is a testament to trusting your gut. In 1973, Garten was working in the White House, at the Office of Management and Budget. She liked the work, but it didn’t feel especially meaningful. One day she saw an ad in the New York Times for a specialty food store for sale in the Hamptons. She had never been to Long Island before, but had a feeling that this was her opportunity to try something new.

“Pick something you love to do. If you love it, you’ll be really good at it. And don’t worry about whether you make money. Just do it,” Jeffrey, her husband, told her. So they drove up to West Hampton from D.C. Garten walked into the 400-square-foot store, where the two employees were baking cookies, and said, “I want to be here.” Jeffrey, who was working for the secretary of State, quit his job and moved to New York with her.

“Compromise: It’s a beautiful thing!” I say, to which Garten laughs and responds, “I don’t compromise that much, though, do I?”

I ask her what the story is behind her newest book, Cook Like a Pro, and where the name came from. It started with an email from a reader asking, confusingly, how to cut cauliflower so that it wouldn’t get all over the kitchen. All over the kitchen? Ina asked herself. And then she got it: “Oh, I bet if you cut it through the top of the cauliflower, those little florets would go all over.” That method would never occur to someone with 30 years of professional kitchen experience: “I would turn it over, cut out the core, and pull the florets apart.” The exchange made her realize she knows tons of little tricks and tips that could help people cooking at home. In the book, every recipe has a pro tip to make cooking easier.

With 11 books and about 85 recipes in each, Garten has written close to a thousand recipes — how does she still find inspiration for new ones? “Traveling a lot.” She just got back from Paris. “There’s a relaxed feeling there. Their works supports their life. Here we get so focused on work that we forget to have a life.”

She also finds inspiration in going to restaurants, reading cookbooks, going to friend’s houses. “I went to a friend’s house and she made a frittata with squash blossoms on the top, and I thought that was so great.”

Sometimes, she’s just being nostalgic. “Do you remember date nut bread that you used to serve — well, you’re too young to remember this — with cream cheese? It came out of a can. And I thought it would be great to have a recipe in my new book with a date nut cake.” She holds on to the feeling and the memory, and she puts it into her work.

It helps, too, that cooking doesn’t come naturally to her: “I actually find cooking really hard. I don’t find it easy. Jeffrey had this theory that if I found it easy it wouldn’t be interesting. The ingredients are different, or you don’t have the right dish size, or you make meringue on a humid day so it doesn’t come out the same. There are so many variables that I find it really challenging.”

In 1999, when Garten wrote her first book, the internet was just starting to take off. If you wanted to promote a cookbook, you just talked to the newspaper, or to magazines. But now, people want to interact. Garten touches every single social-media post of hers that goes up, in tandem with her 20-something assistant Lidey Heuck.

And the fans appreciate it. Garten’s Food Network show, Barefoot Contessa, is on in 40 countries. She can’t even walk around Paris without people recognizing her. (Jeffrey has become famous, too, as her sidekick — she wrote a cookbook named after him.) She tells me a story about how once she was walking up Madison Avenue in New York and a woman in a big fur coat stopped her and exclaimed, “Oh darling, I love your cookbook!” A block later, a truck driver pulled over and yelled, “Hey babe! I love your show.”

Thinking about the tight winding roads of the Hamptons, and the hedges, and the separate office, I have to ask if she considers herself a private person. “Yeah,” she tells me after a pause. Does she think privacy is underrated? “I think I am a very private person.” She goes on to say that young people believe that to be famous is to be happy. “I think that’s an elusive goal, to say the least. I have absolutely zero interest in being famous. I think it’s nice that people like my work, and that I’m giving them the tools to do something for themselves. But part of that process unfortunately is that people know who I am.”

She is, however, more than willing to let the whole world meet her friends. Her neighbors often appear in episodes, and she’s described Taylor Swift as having “amazing talent and heart.” Has she found that success alters her friendships? “I think a lot of people are looking for someone who loves them, but I like to surround myself with people who I have love for. It’s soul-satisfying.”

Jeffrey is a constant in her life. “I’m sure every relationship has ups and downs—” I begin.

“Mine doesn’t,” Garten interrupts me. “It doesn’t. If you really value each other, and take care of each other, and allow each one to have the freedom to do what they want to do, within boundaries, there’s no reason to why it should be difficult.”

She’s equally passionate about her relationships with the people who work for her, like Hueck. “It’s everything. It’s more important than what you do, that you wake up in the morning and you look forward to seeing the people that you work with.”

Speaking of Lidey, she’s back with take-out Greek food from a place down the road called John Papa’s. After we all eat salad and soup together I ask her what, over five years of working with Ina, has surprised her the most about the job. “What you don’t get a sense of from the outside is how clear Ina’s vision is for her books, and for what she does,” she says.

Ina laughs and asks if she should leave the room, but Lidey wants the opposite: She looks at Ina and speaks directly to her. “You know exactly from the bottom of your heart just what the answer is about what you’re doing, and you don’t waver in things, which explains why it’s such a successful business.”

Ina agrees. “One thing I like to do is ask everyone their opinion, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who makes the decision. It’s about trusting yourself, and saying, This isn’t the final thing I’m going to do, but it’s the next step I’m going to take. That’s all I ever do: think about the next step. I don’t figure out what the end game is, I just figure out what I want to do tomorrow. And I do it as well as I possibly can do it, and let the results work out for themselves.”

Ina Garten Knows Exactly What She Wants