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Interview with TV Chef Ina Garten

F&W talks to Ina Garten, host of Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa.

What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"I owned a store [Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton, NY] for a long time, and in 1996, I decided I wanted to do something new. A friend convinced me that you don’t figure out what you want to do while doing something else—you just have to stop. It’s very scary to do, but I had done it before, so I figured why not? [In 1978, Garten left a job in the White House Office of Management and Budget.] I built myself an office over the store, which I had sold to two employees. I had a year with nothing to do. Out of sheer desperation for something to do, I thought I would write a cookbook. I just had no idea it would be such an interesting thing to do. My first cookbook [The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, 1999] took off, so I did a couple more books, and the Food Network came to me to see if I was interested in a show. I said the only reasonable thing I could, ’Absolutely not!’ And they very kindly kept coming back every six months asking me if I would reconsider it."

How long did it take them to convince you?
"About a year-and-a-half."

What finally convinced you?
"I had seen a show done by this particular production company, and I thought it was really interesting. And unbeknownst to me, the Food Network went to London, hired the producer, and said, ’Now will you do the show?’ I thought that was pretty impressive. I talked to the producer on the phone for an hour about how we could work together, and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, that didn’t feel like work. So afterward, I decided to try doing around 13 shows. I never thought I’d write a cookbook, let alone do a TV show."

Why were you so against doing a show in the first place?
"I have a very quiet life in East Hampton, and I love it the way it is. I don’t have any designs on being famous or public. I couldn’t imagine I’d be able to do it. Four-and-a-half years later, I still can’t imagine."

How are you different from other TV chefs?
"Food Network started out with major chefs, and that was really wonderful, but people didn’t connect with them as much. Whereas my experience was with a specialty-food store, and I made things people wanted to eat at home."

What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air?
"There was one the other day from my newest cookbook, called Barefoot Contessa at Home—a pumpkin mousse parfait. People were sticking their tongues into the parfait glasses. I think that gets high marks. In my new book, there’s the most fabulous chocolate cake I’ve ever made. I recently made it on film and everyone was just, like, face down in the chocolate cake. It’s moist but very light. I make it with buttermilk and coffee. And the frosting is incredibly easy."

How about savory recipes?
"There’s a beef stew that’s wonderful—Parker’s Beef Stew. It’s marinated in red wine, and someone told me it’s one of the more popular recipes on the Food Network Web site. I like to take something that’s classic and turn up the volume: The red wine really gets into the meat, and it’s made with sun-dried tomatoes and all kinds of vegetables, and it’s intensely flavored. Plus, I like to serve it over grilled bread so it absorbs the sauce. I also just love rack of lamb with orzo and roasted vegetables. It’s so simple but great for entertaining. I like things that have a lot of texture. The rack of lamb has a rosemary crust and mustard, and it’s so easy but special. The orzo has feta cheese that contrasts with the roasted vegetables, which are caramelized and sweet, and there’s also fresh basil."

Why do your recipes work so well for home cooks?
"I think I’m like an idiot savant about flavor. I just want something really, really flavorful, and I just keep going and going and testing things over and over again until I hear that sort of ping in my head that says, ’That’s the flavor I’m looking for.’ I start out with an exact flavor and texture in my head, and I just keep going until I get there. I’m not sure that most people would notice the difference between the 15th attempt and the 17th attempt, but I do. I keep going until it’s exactly what I’m looking for. Sometimes I hit it on the first shot, but that’s rare. Another thing I do, other people might as well, is work on a recipe until I hit it and then hand it to an assistant who is a good home cook and give her no other instructions. I watch her make it, so I not only know how I cook it; I know how someone else will do it. Sometimes she even makes it twice or three times. So by the time we’re through, I know it will work for someone who is at least a decent home cook."

What are some of your worst TV experiences?
"I don’t think I’ll be carving a duck again anytime soon. It’s hard. I had to do it for a show, and we may have carved a few ducks that day."

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