Sunday, December 3, 2023

How Ina Garten, ‘Barefoot Contessa,’ Became the Leading Comfort Food Supplier

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An hour before the start of my Zoom interview with American food writer and TV presenter Ina Garten, an email arrives from her PR: “Ina’s electricity has gone down. Can we push back until tomorrow? Even a domestic goddess can be rendered powerless by a utility company.

But then, Garten’s purely lethal credentials have always been his USP. During his TV show, Contessa barefoot, may be the winner of multiple Emmys and James Beard Awards (with her bestselling cookbooks), her enduring popularity is due to her – and her food – unfussy, no-garnish accessibility.

She doesn’t make mousse or “oyster ice cream,” is all about using shortcuts and store-bought ingredients, and thinks entertainment should be as simple as possible.

“You know, when I invite people [over], sometimes I’ll just go grab a pizza from a local Italian and make a big Caesar salad, ”she tells me when we actually meet on Zoom the next day. (She arrived on screen, on time, like on TV: blue shirt, brown hair, big smile.) “I actually think people have less fun if you made an extremely complicated meal. , because you are exhausted and it makes them uncomfortable.

“ I still had to work on the book and the television shows ”: in full consultation with the public, Garten was also busy with her last cookbook © Jean-Pierre Uys

It is two days after the American elections. Garten is a former Washington insider: after studying for an MBA, she worked in the White House in her twenties under the direction of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter “on nuclear energy policy, of all things.” The election was on her mind when she concocted his latest cookbook Modern comfort food, published in October. “I knew the election was going to be controversial, but it was really nasty, oh my God,” she said. “I think it’s going to come out okay, but I don’t allow myself to celebrate anything. Either you believe in our system or you don’t. ”

Professionally, Garten, 72, had had enough of Washington when he was 30. “There was one thing I was working on. . . and we continued to take it out of the budget, and Congress would reintroduce it, and then we would take it out, and they would reintroduce it, ”she said. “After about four years I was like, ‘I’m done.’ By this time, she had learned to cook and discovered that food was her second greatest passion in life. (Her husband Jeffrey, a dean emeritus of the Yale School of Management whom she met at age 15 and married at age 20, is, as all Ina fans know, her first.)

Then she saw a real estate ad, by chance, in the New York Times for a specialty food store in Westhampton, Long Island called Barefoot Contessa. She drove there, made an offer, and became its new owner the next day. Thus began a long and lucrative career in food. After the store – which she moved to East Hampton, where the Gartens now live, and which operated for 20 years – came the cookbooks and, from 2002, the TV shows (named after the store) . A recent estimate put his net worth at around $ 60 million.

During that long and agonizing year, however, Garten has taken on a new culinary role – that of chief comfort food supplier. In March, as much of the United States went into lockdown, emails from fans poured into cabinets full of panicked purchases they didn’t know what to do with. In response, she posted a photo of her (pristine) pantry on Instagram (2.9 million+ subscribers), captioned: “I know a lot of you are very anxious. . . I’m too. The only thing we CAN do, however, is cook for the people we love. . . Tell me what’s in your pantry and I’ll think of some recipes you can make! The response, she says, has been “overwhelming”.

Quentin Bacon

Garten with Jeffrey, her husband over 50 © Quentin Bacon

For two months, Garten went to work, cook, post, advise and reassure. “Everyone seems to have lentils in their pantry and not enough recipes to use them all,” read a first post that shared an updated recipe for Stewed Tomatoes and Lentils. The following tips suggested everything from Bolognese of the Week (“You can even sauté mushrooms instead of beef”) to Chicken Noodle Ramen Soup. “Make Irish soda bread!” No yeast OR kneading required! Read another.

“At first I wasn’t sure if I could be the person who could answer all of their questions, but as I got in I realized I could,” she says. “It made me feel very connected with people and it gave me order and purpose every day.”

She finally had to relax: “I still had to work on the book and the TV shows, so in mid-May I was in bed with the blankets over my head, saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” She allowed herself. the occasional takeout – and found a way to hang out with friends. “I bought outdoor furniture and radiators so we could invite people over, and it made all the difference in the world.”

Talking about patio heaters – “I’ll be responsible again when this moment is over” – brings us to the environment. What does she think of the damage caused by the food industry thanks to intensive farming and complex supply chains? “More and more, I try to base my menus on what’s in season and what’s going on,” she replies. “You get better ingredients if they haven’t been shipped from far – and a fresher baguette if you buy from a local bakery.”

Garten pictured at her home in the Eastern Hamptons in November © Valerie Chiang

Does she think she could live on a plant-based diet, I ask her with slight trepidation. Could she ever turn Jeffrey – whose love for any dish his wife cooks, but especially Friday night dinners with chicken, is frequently captured on camera – into a vegetarian? “I don’t think so,” she laughs. “But I have to say that we’re going towards less red meat than before, so that’s good.”

the hotel industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and Garten has friends who run restaurants. “It’s nothing short of devastating,” she said. “Since there is no national policy, it is impossible to have an organized response. I think the places that survive are the ones that have really shifted gears very quickly by sending food. But I don’t know what the financial impact is on them.

But then, hasn’t catering always been a tough old business? Don’t you need to be a “hard muffin,” as she once said, to survive? “Did I really say that?” Oh my God, ”she said, tilted slightly. “But… You know I don’t think I’m tough, I think I’m clear. I’m very focused… I kind of have this philosophy that you’re either on my train or you’re leaving. . If you have the same standards as me, I want you to shut down. But if you are lazy and you don’t understand what I’m doing, then I don’t want you to be near me.

And with that, our conversation draws to a close. It’s Friday, after all, and there’s probably a chicken in the fridge that needs his attention. We say goodbye and I imagine him busying himself in his kitchen, testing out recipes, posting ideas on Instagram and cooking a simple but heartwarming dinner for Jeffrey – despite the power cuts.

“Modern Comfort Food” is published by Random House, £ 25. The last season of “Barefoot Contessa” airs on Food Network

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