When I read a notice that Ina Garten, aka Barefoot Contessa, was on tour and stopping in Atlanta for an appearance, I knew it was time for a road trip with my friend, Carole, from Winston-Salem.
We’re both fans of Ina’s program on the Food Network and her cookbooks, so we set off on our pilgrimage to “The Big Peach” for her live show at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in northwest Atlanta.
Opened in 2007, the Cobb Energy Centre is stunning. The lobby boasts 10 exquisite chandeliers designed exclusively for the venue by Andromeda International of Venice, Italy. Each intricately crafted light sculpture is fashioned from 150 individual pieces of hand-blown Murano glass and richly colored in gold and silver. Our usher told us that each chandelier is about 12 feet high and three feet in diameter, and weighs about 600 pounds.
True aficionados like us — and the many hundreds of others in attendance — were already familiar with some of the details of her backstory. Former White House budget analyst. Bought and sold a small specialty food store in the Hamptons, the acclaimed Barefoot Contessa, and found both a new career and a new moniker. Publishes cookbooks. Hosts a cooking show on the Food Network that’s shot in her home. Married to Jeffrey, who loves everything she makes and has his own legion of fans.
The format of the show was an onstage interview with Belinda Skelton, host of Atlanta Living on News/Talk WSB 95.5 FM and AM 750, lobbing questions, followed by Q&A with the audience. Ina responded in the same down-to-earth, comforting style that she projects on TV. Come to think of it, those are the same descriptors I use for her recipes. With her ready laughter and easy charm, it almost felt like Ina was chatting with friends in her kitchen as she stirred a pot of her savory Roasted Tomato Basil Soup, or whipped up a batch of her double chocolate — aptly named — Outrageous Brownies.
Ina is clearly a woman with a passion for food. She generously dispensed helpful cooking tips, colorful stories about her life, and even insightful career advice.
Here are some of the highlights:
- When first married, Ina and Jeffrey went camping in Europe. The owner of a campsite served them coq au vin, which Ina had never eaten before. “It was the perfect thing in the perfect place,” she said. “There are tastes you never forget and it changes you.” She admired Julia Child, bought her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and simplified the recipes.
- Eager for a career change, Jeffrey urged Ina “to pick something you’d love to do and not worry about making money.” She read an ad in The New York Times for a specialty food store in the Hamptons that was for sale. They drove up to the little shop and saw the staff baking cookies, and Ina knew this is what she wanted to do, even though she’d never operated a business. She made a “very low offer” (her description). The seller accepted and agreed to stay on for a month to help transition. Ina took over the store on Thursday of Memorial Day week and sold $85 worth of goods, prompting Jeffrey to say the business would never make it. At close of business the next day, there was nothing left on the shelves. Ina stayed up all night baking and cooking. Jeffrey went to the bakery in the next town and bought everything, which they sold, and then repeated the process the next day.
- Steven Spielberg and Lauren Bacall, among other Hollywood elite, became regular customers, and Ina treated them with the same deference as other customers. “It’s not how you treat celebrities, but how you treat the people sitting next to them that’s important,” Ina said, citing restaurateur Danny Meyer of New York City’s Union Square Café.
- After two decades, she sold Barefoot Contessa. People asked her to write a book, but she had no interest because she thought it too solitary a venture. She finally did write a book proposal after all, and found she enjoyed it.
- Ina takes two years to write a cookbook. She’ll have an idea for a recipe and make it as many times as it takes until the flavor and texture of the finished product match the concept in her head. She prints the recipe for her assistant to make, and then tweaks the instructions to be more specific. She invites friends over to road test the food. Her guiding premise: “I want you to look at a recipe and think you can do it, and look at the photo and think it looks good, and then read the recipe and think ‘I can actually do that.’ “ The photography and design also are important creative elements, for she wants her books to be beautiful.
- Ina’s recipes are simple and delicious, with good quality ingredients found in grocery stores and farmers markets.
- While Ina doesn’t consider herself an adventurous eater in the vein of say, Anthony Bourdain, she does eat basically everything except cilantro.
- Not a gadget person, Ina said she “can’t live without knives and half-sheet pans.” She also likes her Kitchen Aid mixer, Cuisinart food processor, and rasp to grate garlic and lemons.
- When the Food Network approached her about hosting a TV show, she turned them down, thinking she couldn’t do it. Undaunted, they kept coming back with bigger offers. She told them she liked the look of Nigella Lawson’s cooking show. Unbeknownst to Ina, the Food Network hired Lawson’s producer and crew and brought them in as the proposed creative team. They filmed 13 shows in Ina’s kitchen, for authenticity’s sake, to “see how it goes.” That was 11 years ago. It’s become like a close-knit family – two producers have married two cameramen. They film for 6-8 weeks at a stretch, now in a barn that Ina built next door.
- Her favorite gift for a hostess? Fran’s salted caramels.
- Going to Ina’s for dinner? Take her orange tulips.
- She prefers simple floral arrangements, with either one kind of flower or flowers in one color. She likes them in small, simple vases down the middle of the table.
- Some of her favorite cookbooks? Loaves and Fishes, Cold-Weather Cooking, and those from specialty food shops.
- She lists her favorite ingredients on Pinterest.
- She measures everything, uses an oven thermometer, and loves to garden.
- Her advice for an aspiring chef: “Jump in the pond. Don’t sit on the side. Splash around and figure out what you want to do.”
- She started a line of Barefoot Contessa Sauté Dinners because “sometimes you need to cook, and sometimes you need dinner on the table.”
- Learn the basics. “Everyone,” she said, “needs to know how to make a roast chicken.”
What’s next for Ina? Eight cookbooks and an Emmy Award later, she’s hard at work on book nine.
I need to make some room on my bookshelf.