(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Sonia Rao · FEATURES, FOOD · Oct 26, 2018 - 4:26 PM
NEW YORK - Ina Garten leans against a pristine marble countertop in her Upper East Side apartment, dressed in one of her trademark blue-collared shirts. She reaches over to pluck a vanilla bean from a glass jar filled with brown liquid, once vodka and now vanilla extract. The bean had lived in the jar for at least six months, so the soaked seeds can be squeezed right out.
"I have one in East Hampton, actually, that's been going on 35 years - just sits on the counter," she says. "I started this one for New York."
Garten, 70, is precisely the sort of person to maintain a batch of vanilla extract for half her lifetime, careful to replace each bean she uses. But she is also the sort who assures those watching her Food Network series "Barefoot Contessa" that, should they not share her commitment to homemade ingredients, "store-bought is fine" - a mantra that has birthed a thousand memes.
The TV host and prolific cookbook author's brand is a unique meld of aspirational and accessible, contributing to a diverse fan base: rich women in fur coats who appreciate her show, truck drivers who profess a love of her books as they drive by and, more recently, the 1.6 million people who follow her on Instagram.
Lidey Heuck, Garten's 27-year-old assistant, persuaded her boss to join Instagram four years ago. She says around 40 percent of those followers are younger than the East Hampton vanilla extract - among them, millennials who crave the human connection a shared meal can provide, who find that Garten's recipes take the stress out of preparing one. They admire her graceful demeanor and storybook lifestyle, complete with a doting husband, Jeffrey, and a third residence in Paris. Garten is the woman they turn to when they, as her latest cookbook is titled, want to learn how to "Cook Like a Pro."
"I've always found something very alluring about the world she creates and how she brings people together," Heuck says. "Obviously it's about the food, but it's also about the occasion."
Garten and her team are based in East Hampton but spend two days a week testing recipes in the New York apartment, which Garten has dressed in luxurious rugs, sturdy wood furniture and floor-to-ceiling artwork. Coffee-table books on history and design appear throughout the space. The only cookbooks visible are the 11 Garten wrote herself.
On this mid-October afternoon, Garten makes her friend Daniel Rose's pear clafouti, a baked French dessert whose batter makes it half flan, half pancake. She stands in front of the pricey Lacanche range she coveted for years and praises each ingredient added to the concoction - pear brandy enhances the fruit's natural flavor and grated star anise has a delightful aroma.
Garten pours the batter into copper gratin dishes she purchased in Paris right after Rose, chef-owner of New York's Le Coucou, served her a clafouti in one. If you take something simple and put it in a fancy dish, she says, it instantly feels like a professional dessert. How easy is that?
Once when the Gartens were traveling through the London airport, the man stamping their passports paused and said, "Oh, it's you." Ina thought they were going to be arrested. But the man continued, "My wife always says to me, 'Why can't you be more like Jeffrey?' "
Garten is vaguely aware of people's fascination with her marriage, much of which stems from the traveling Yale professor's random dinnertime appearances at the end of "Barefoot Contessa" episodes. She brings up the "30 Rock" scene in which Matt Damon, playing Tina Fey's pilot boyfriend, bursts into tears after Fey says they can make their long-distance relationship work, like Ina and Jeffrey: "I can't live like this anymore," he sobs. "I'm not like Jeffrey Garten. I'm not as strong as that guy!"
Nevertheless, Garten is surprised to hear of a humorous New York magazine piece titled "I Wish I Was Married to Ina Garten," published in 2016 around the same time as "Cooking for Jeffrey," a book of recipes he loves most. "They want to be Jeffrey?" Garten says incredulously. "That's a riot." With clafouti in the oven and the studious Jeffrey away at a library, Garten asks Heuck to read the piece aloud.
The writer wants to be Jeffrey "minus the boring jobs: cared for and well fed, without having to do any of the actual work." She mentions being "transfixed" by Ina, who has prepared sophisticated feasts on camera since 2002 with ingredients plucked from the expansive garden behind her house in the Hamptons, purchased from local shops or received as gifts from her array of wealthy friends. Garten laughs throughout Heuck's reading, which stops short of a paragraph about the Gartens' sex life.
Garten is also somewhat aware of the "store-bought is fine" memery and says she finds it flattering: "People are attracted to what I do because it's fun. If people want to take that to some fun extreme, knock yourself out."
This high-profile life isn't the one Garten expected to lead. She was born in 1948 and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, where her surgeon father stationed his practice. Her mother encouraged her to stay out of the kitchen and focus on her schoolwork instead. At 15, Ina Rosenberg met Jeffrey Garten while visiting her older brother at Dartmouth. The couple married in 1968.
"It's in December," she says of their 50th anniversary. "It's crazy. It's something your grandparents do, not you."
Garten began to cook when she and Jeffrey eventually moved to Washington in 1972, following a four-month camping trip in France. He primarily worked for the State Department, and she analyzed nuclear energy policy for the Office of Management and Budget during the day and experimented with Julia Child recipes by night.
Her culinary leanings took over and, unsatisfied with her job, she purchased a specialty food store in the Hamptons after seeing it listed in The New York Times. The Gartens never had children, and Ina instead spent 18 years running the store with the knowledge she gained from spending time with its previous owner, Diana Stratta, to whom she says she owes everything: "I think she feels that I took her child and raised it and gave it an international reputation," Garten says of Stratta. "I'm forever grateful that she started it."
The store's name? Barefoot Contessa, after the 1954 Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner movie. Garten hated the name at first but eventually embraced it for its embodiment of all things elegant and earthy. And the year?
"1978, of course," she says. "Do you remember your birthday? That's a year I'll never forget."
Despite her stature among food celebrities, Garten never attended culinary school or worked in a bustling restaurant kitchen. She has a minor outburst while photographed during the clafouti-making process, announcing that she can bake only in near silence. She learned to cook alone with Child's oeuvre serving as a guide, a favor Garten has since passed on to the voracious consumers of her written and televised work.
To this day, Garten identifies primarily as a cookbook author. She finds it "terrifying" to work in front of a camera and turned down multiple offers from Food Network while others, as she recalls then-exec Eileen Opatut telling her, sent the network hams.
Opatut eventually wore her down, and they struck a deal in 2001 - a decision Garten does not regret in the slightest. How else would she have had opportunities like "Barefoot in Washington," a special for which she got to have tea with then-first lady Michelle Obama? Garten more than once describes the experience as "one of the greatest days of my life." (Anything explicitly political is taken off the record.)
"When Mrs. Obama said she liked my work, that was, like, 'Really?,' " Garten says. "She's just somebody I admire enormously. She took on a role she never expected to, and she did it brilliantly."
The "Barefoot Contessa" team films for just six weeks each year - three in the spring, three in the fall - and yet thanks to the ubiquity of reruns, the mention of Garten's name generally elicits the image of how she appears on television, smiling in her spacious East Hampton kitchen. Heuck was first acquainted with Garten by watching the show.
So was Trent Pheifer, 33, who documents his attempts to make each of Garten's recipes on his blog Store Bought Is Fine. He kicked off the "Julie and Julia"-esque experience three years ago after a particularly bad batch of cauliflower alfredo, courtesy of a Pinterest recipe. Garten, he realized, had never failed him.
"Her recipes tend to be foolproof," Pheifer says. "I know that if it's a simple recipe, it's going to be amazing. If it's a complicated recipe and I'm in the kitchen for most of the day, it's going to be worth the effort."
Garten meticulously crafts each recipe so even the most inexperienced of cooks can make them - perhaps the only skill set that transferred over from her budget analyst job. The clafouti, featured in both "Cook Like a Pro" and her 2004 book "Barefoot in Paris," includes a tip on how to make sure the Bartlett pears are perfectly ripe. Throughout the process, the book stays open to the recipe because she ensured that its spine was designed in a way that prevents the pages from folding back together.
The timer goes off. Garten pulls the dessert out of the oven and grates lime zest on top - "I'm always looking for something that has an edge," she says - before eating a large spoonful. She briefly closes her eyes, particularly content with how the pear brandy connects the batter to the fruit.
Garten can find value in almost any ingredient. But there must be something she dislikes, right? Has anything ever wronged our beloved Barefoot Contessa?
"Cilantro, period," she says. "One thing. I just can't eat it."
Featured Image: Ina Garten, an American author and host of the Food Network program "Barefoot Contessa" at home in New York on October 16, 2018. Photo for The Washington Post by Jesse Dittmar