Ina Garten, Food Network star and New York Times best-selling author, welcomed the world into her home 14 years ago when she began her cooking show, The Barefoot Contessa. Her simple yet elegant recipes and warm, friendly demeanor launched her to super-stardom. Last month, she began a publicity tour of her new cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $35), and included Fort Lauderdale on her list of cities. Last Thursday, she graced the stage of The Broward Center for the Performing Arts and told heartfelt and enchanting stories of her journey to TV, as well as answered questions from avid fans.
Just two chairs, a simple rug and coffee table were on the stage as hundreds of excited attendees filled the theater seats. When the evening’s moderator introduced Garten, everyone launched out of their seats with delighted squeals to great her and give a standing ovation even before she uttered one word.
Garten started out telling the story of how she met her husband Jeffrey—the food-loving gentleman who got addicted to Ina’s brownies, and her smile, 48 years ago. Not only is Jeffrey the one who encouraged her to start a career in food, but he’s also the continued inspiration for her cooking. Garten had commented in an interview with Vanity Fair that her greatest regret in life was not marrying Jeffrey sooner.
The Barefoot Contessa was just 16 when she met him at the Dartmouth College library. After Jeffrey sent her a letter and picture of himself, he asked her to meet him at a bar in Connecticut for their first date. But Garten forgot that at just 16, she still needed a fake ID to get inside. Although their initial meeting didn’t go as planned, their relationship took off anyway. Garten said, while women were burning bras in the 70s, she was baking brownies for her sweetheart.
Garten shared memories of their wedding. She talked about the stunning cake and how it started to snow during the wedding ceremony.
“It was magical,” she said, then paused and gave her signature chuckle, "Of course, then all the guests had to plow their way out of the snow.”
Right after the wedding, the couple flew to Belgium for just $99 and lived on bread, cheese, and other local produce in markets as they traveled through Europe. They lived at a campsite for a dollar a day for about four months.
“I learned during that time how important it is to have quality ingredients, in season,” Garten said. “I came back from the trip and immediately bought Julia Child’s, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
During that time, Garten was working as a Nuclear Energy Budget Analyst at the Whitehouse by day and cooking coq au vin by night. But in April 1978, everything changed. Garten realized, “Nuclear Energy Policy just isn’t me.” She quit her job and found a charming ad in the paper of a gourmet food shop for sale. Interested in the business, the Gartens took a trip there and made an impromptu offer on the store—not thinking the seller would actually accept such a low-ball. But the next morning when the owner accepted it, Garten recalled thinking, “Oh shit! Now I have to actually run this store.”
Even though, Garten was a bit surprised by the news, she jumped right into the Hamptons food business She remembers running completely out of food in the summer and sending poor Jeffrey to the local bakery to buy everything, so she could restock the store.
Garten learned over those years what people really want. “I realized people want simple, home comfort food,” she said.
After learning from her mistakes in a small store, Garten was ready to take on a bigger challenge—The Barefoot Contessa. Garten was a huge success and she created warm memories through the process of building it. But after 18 years she was tired and needed another change. Unsure of what to do next, she took the advice of a friend and completely stopped everything she was doing—which was a lot—for a full nine months. Still wanting to remain in the culinary field, Garten decided to try her hand at writing a cook book.
“I never thought I would write a book, but I thought at least I’ll have something to do!” she said.
Of course, the day her publisher told her they accepted her draft, she again thought, “Oh shit! Now I have to actually write this thing,” she said, then laughed.
The rest is history: Garten’s books soared to the top of The New York Time’s "Best-seller" list. After multiple attempts by the Food Network to put her incredible skills on television, Garten finally accepted.
“It’s been 14 years and I still get nervous on set,” she said.
Garten told the story of how she was having trouble carving a duck on the set once and said, "Something that rhymes with duck,” during the shoot.
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Amidst the funny and heartwarming stories of Garten’s beginnings, the author and TV star also shared some fun tidbits about herself, like how she’s addicted to Instagram and admires Taylor Swift for her good business sense.
Then the moderator opened up the floor for questions from the audience. Each person began with, “I just love you!” Some asked for tips on what to do with leftover herbs while others wanted to know if she could come over for dinner that night. Garten just smiled at those requests and said “Sure, that would be lovely!” — even though, she knew she most likely wouldn’t be entering any fan’s home anytime soon. She answered every question with a chuckle and a graceful smile.
Garten ended her conversation saying that she is happy with the return of cooking at home, especially how millennials are putting food back on the table for their families: “Because when you cook, everybody shows up and that’s how you create community.”
Broward Center for the Performing Arts is located at 201 SW 5th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. Visit browardcenter.org.