Last night my girlfriends and I went to see Ina Garten speak at SMU. I have always loved the chef’s show, Barefoot Contessa, so I jumped at the chance to snag tickets when we learned that she would be in Dallas. The only two words I can think of to describe how I felt as I listened to her speak are in rapt. I was totally captivated by her, this incredible powerhouse of a woman who is so completely intelligent, humble, talented, hardworking, and hilarious. I loved learning about her background (I had no clue that she was formerly a White House nuclear policy analyst?!), her sweet marriage to her husband, Jeffrey, the way she likes to spend her day (with coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, a morning walk to the beach, a day full of filming/cooking/editing, an afternoon yoga class, and dinner with friends), and her favorite recipes from her newest cookbook, Make It Ahead (the marinated feta and the chocolate cake with mocha frosting).
One of the things that struck me most is how hard Ina works. I didn’t realize that she owned her specialty foods shop, Barefoot Contessa (which was already called that when she purchased the store – I had always wondered about the meaning behind the name), for 18 years before deciding to try her hand at writing cookbooks and then, fortuitously, ending up in the world of television. She told us the tale of how her love affair with food began, and I have to recount it here because I found the story to be so fascinating. While traveling and camping throughout Europe on her honeymoon, Ina said that she learned that beautifully simple foods are the most pleasurable ones to enjoy. She and her husband, Jeffrey, were on a strict budget of $5 per day – if they spent $6 one day, they could only spend $4 the next. Though they experienced some cold temperatures at the beginning of their trip, they decided against purchasing a $35 camping heater because it meant they would have to cut their trip a week short. So instead of eating in expensive restaurants, they spent lots of time shopping in the affordable local markets, selecting freshly baked breads, oozing slices of Brie, and decadent peaches to eat as they picnicked in fields and on park benches. Those experiences taught her about the inherent beauty in simply prepared, local, fresh foods. This set the tone for how she cooked when they returned back in D.C., where she increasingly grew weary of her job at the White House. She found so much more joy in throwing dinner parties for her loved ones on the weekends than advising on nuclear policies during the week.
One day she read an ad in The New York Times about a specialty food shop that was for sale in the Hamptons. After discussing it with Jeffrey, the couple decided to put in a low bid on the store. The very next day, the shop owner called Ina and told her that her offer was accepted. She was shocked (I think she said her exact reaction was, pardon my French, “Oh, shit,” which sent the audience into a fit of laughter), and she realized that her life was about to change in ways she couldn’t imagine.
Ina bought Barefoot Contessa in March, when the Hamptons were devoid of visitors. For weeks, as she worked alongside the former shop owner, there was little cash in the register at the end of each day. They hardly made any sales, causing her to wonder what she had gotten herself into. She officially took over the store on Memorial Day Weekend, at the height of New Yorkers flocking to the Hamptons for respite from the city for the summer, and suddenly everything changed. On the Friday of that weekend, Barefoot Contessa sold every food item on the store’s shelves. Every single one. Blown away, Ina asked the shop owner how they would ever be able to replenish their stock by the time the store reopened in the morning. Pointedly, the shop owner told her they would be staying up all night, baking and cooking and stirring and sautéing as they recreated all of the treats they put in the store’s display cases, and that’s what they did. Early on Saturday morning, after the women had cooked as much as they possibly could, Jeffrey went to the next town over and bought every muffin, pastry, and croissant at a local bakery, cramming all of the sweets into his Fiat and bringing them back to Barefoot Contessa to resell. Ina laughed as she recounted the tale, mentioning that she hopes she never runs into the family who ran that bakery. What she learned, though, is that in order to really and truly purse your wonderfully scary dreams, those amazing jobs or career paths that terrify you, you have to “jump off a cliff and learn how to fly on your way down,” just like she did when she bought Barefoot Contessa. I love that sentiment – it’s so brave and bold and beautiful, just like Ina.
I can’t wait to dig into my copy of Make It Ahead (which came with a signed bookplate, so special!), and then I’ll have to start a collection of all of Ina’s cookbooks! Do you recommend any of her books in particular? She is my new favorite person, I think. I would love to meet her someday!