“Technology and I are not the best of friends,” Ina Garten told me with a laugh when I called her last week.
I had accidentally hung up on her just four seconds into our conversation, and she wasn’t sure which of us was to blame.
“It used to be you could just answer the telephone, and now you have to do a million things!” Garten added, still laughing. I laughed too, but I also couldn’t help thinking how perfectly her response epitomized what so many people, myself included, love about her.
The celebrity TV cook is better known as “The Barefoot Contessa,” originally the name of a specialty foods store she bought in the Hamptons in 1978 and ran for 18 years before selling it to two of her employees. She embodies a particularly irresistible mix of humor, humility, confidence and just the slightest touch of self deprecation ― a combo that makes her feel like she’s one of your oldest, dearest friends instead of just another affable stranger talking at you from the other side of your television screen.
It’s exactly that familiarity and authenticity ― and the trust they inspire ― that has made the self-taught cook one of the most popular stars on the Food Network and regularly catapults her cookbooks to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.
With our little communication glitch behind us, Garten, who is currently promoting her 11th cookbook, Cook Like a Pro, agreed to let me interrogate her about everything from the one recipe she can’t quite seem to master to helming her own Instagram account to her thoughts on the late Anthony Bourdain.
Which recipe in Cook Like a Pro took you the longest to master?
I can’t say that one was more difficult than the others, but, for example, I made the red wine-braised short ribs many times with different cuts of short ribs from different stores. I had my assistant make them so I could see if she had any problems with the recipe and then I made them for friends for dinner to see if people liked it. I go through a whole process — I probably make most recipes at least 10 times and sometimes even 20 before it goes into a book. I really like when somebody can take a recipe and it comes out perfectly every time. We try it on a gas stove, we try it on an electric stove — I just never know what kind of conditions people have in their homes, so I try everything.
Do you have any recipes that you just can’t seem to get quite right?
There’s one that I’ve been working on for six years and it hasn’t made it into a book yet: Boston cream pie. It’s a really traditional recipe, but I want to give it more flavor. And getting the balance of the texture of the cake with the flavor of the cake with the pastry cream in the middle and then getting the chocolate right — sometimes one flavor overpowers another. Sometimes the cake is too dense. Or the filling might run out. There are so many different things that have to go right for it to be good, and I’m close but I’m not there yet. Maybe for the next book? I tried to do it for this book but I couldn’t get it just right.
Do you have any rituals or traditions when you finish writing a cookbook?
I heard a writer — I think it was Bob Woodward — say, “It’s not that I ever finish a book, I just stop working on it” [laughs]. I think that’s what I do too. I always want to do about 85 recipes for each book and I want some in each category — summer recipes, spring recipes, winter, fall — and I want to get a range of ingredients. Sometimes I find myself with five recipes that involve butternut squash because I love it. So then I’ll leave a few for the next book. There’s always a balancing act that I try and hit. Some things are healthier, some things are more celebratory — there’s a range.
The theme song for your Food Network show has become iconic in its own right. Where did it come from?
I sent the person who was writing the theme song some music that I like and it came from that. At the time — and even now — I was listening to a series of mixes put out by a hotel in Paris called Hôtel Costes. The music is Moroccan, it’s American, it’s French — it’s all kinds of different music, and the writer took the feeling of that music and wrote the theme song.
Is it really true you’ve never watched your own cooking show?
I sometimes watch it for content but it’s just painful! [Laughs] It’s just painful. I couldn’t even tell you what I’m most self-critical about — it’s everything! [Laughs] I just keep thinking, What were you thinking when you said that? or, You forgot to say this! [Laughs]
Wait ― does that mean you don’t use a script?
One-hundred percent of the dialogue is improvised. None of it is scripted. We work out when things go in the oven, so the food stylist can have things ready for me ― that kind of thing has to be scripted. But nothing I say is scripted.
Do you ever watch other cooking shows?
I don’t, actually. I’ve seen other cooking shows but I don’t watch them.
Not even “The Great British Bake Off”?!
Oh! I do love “The Great British Bake Off” — it’s really fun.
So many celebrity chefs end up judging reality cooking competitions or having 14 other things going on in addition to their primary cooking show, but you’ve never done that. Surely you must get a ton of offers…
I’m asked to do a lot of things — like a lot of things. The truth is I love writing cookbooks and I love doing them really well. If I did a million other things, I couldn’t do that and I wouldn’t find those other things as satisfying. Basically what I do is I write cookbooks and twice a year for about a month at a time I do the TV show, but that’s about all I do. I know a lot of people in my business have restaurants and products at Target and all of that ― and I admire that they can do it. But I just feel I can’t do what I do — and do it really well — without spending the kind of time I do on it. And I still want to have time left over to have a life! That’s kind of the point, right? [Laughs]
How do you feel about being famous?
I don’t think anybody has ever been made happy by being famous. I had a TV director once say to me, “You’re the only star I’ve ever met who didn’t want to be famous.” I love doing what I do. I’m really happy that people appreciate it, but being well-known doesn’t really mean anything to me. When I’m walking down the street and somebody says, “I love your cookbook!” that’s really nice. When you’re young you think, If only I were famous I’d be happy, but I don’t think it’s a goal worth striving for.
I get the feeling you handle your own Instagram account.
I do! I have a young woman, Lidey [Heuck], who works for me and she’ll say, “You haven’t posted in a while, you might want to think about posting something.” Or she’ll offer me some ideas about what I might want to post, like, “Take some photos while you’re in Paris,” but that’s about it. I really think everything has to come from me.
You have over 1.6 million followers on Instagram but you’re only following 96 people. What does it take to get a follow from you?
[Laughs] It’s very rare that I add someone new. Their page has to appeal to me in some way. I like to follow people who garden. I follow somebody who is a great photographer, Miguel Flores-Vianna. I follow friends so I can see what they’re up to.
Your husband, Jeffrey, has an account, but he’s posted exactly zero times.
[Laughs] Isn’t that funny? He wanted to be able to see what I was posting. But my favorite part is that he has no posts and he has like 2,000 followers but he only follows one person. Now who could that be? [Laughs]
You’ll celebrate your 50th wedding anniversary in December. Let me in on one secret to the success of your marriage.
I remember Larry King once had an interview with Tony Robbins, and Larry, who I think has been married like 20 times [laughs], asked Tony, “What’s the one key to a happy marriage?” And I thought, That’s a crazy question ― it’s not just one thing! And Tony Robbins said, “Each person needs to feel that they’re the most important thing in the other person’s life.” And I thought, Whoaaaaaaa! That’s exactly right! That’s the one thing! And I always feel that way about Jeffery and I know he feels that way about me.
Is there anything that Jeffrey cooks for you?
He makes really good coffee! [Laughs] In fact, we did an Instagram post that we’re going to share in December. Jeffrey’s going to show people how to make coffee! [Laughs]
A friend of mine recently told me that she did some web research and she couldn’t find a single photo of you where you’re not wearing a button-down shirt. Care to solve this mystery?
I don’t like wearing an apron when I’m working, so I find a denim shirt or a corduroy shirt and I buy 25 of them. It’s like a uniform and I don’t have to worry about it. They can all just go into the washing machine. At night I get dressed up — I don’t wear a denim shirt at night — but when I’m working, I always wear like a brown corduroy shirt or a blue denim shirt.
Do you do your own grocery shopping?
Because I’m always busy testing recipes, I generally have someone shop for me, and they’re really good at it. Every once in a while I find it’s important for me to go to the grocery store just to see what’s there and I’ll find it’s time for figs or I’ll discover something like, Look! You can buy honeynut squash in the grocery store now. It’s important to stay connected with what’s there, but it’s just too time consuming. I need to stick with cooking.
You and Taylor Swift are both huge fans of each other and you’ve spent a little time cooking together. What do you two talk about?
Boyfriends. Businesses. Friends. Life. She’s very smart and very interesting and she loves her friends. She wise beyond her years to say the least. Just extraordinary.
Up until a few weeks ago, Taylor hadn’t ever spoken about her political beliefs. As far as I can tell, you’ve never publicly talked about your thoughts on politics in America either. Is that a conscious decision you’ve made or is it simply that no one has ever asked you about it?
I worked in a Republican administration and I worked in a Democratic administration, and I talk about entertaining and I talk about cooking, and I think the more we cook and entertain, the more we stay connected with our friends no matter what their politics are. So, no, I don’t talk about politics. I don’t know if people know what my political beliefs are or not, but I just think it’s kind of like people’s diets: You worry about your diet and I’ll worry about mine. That’s how I feel about politics.
You’ve spent some time with Michelle Obama. What do you admire the most about her?
I admire that becoming the first lady was a surprise to her — it wasn’t something that she chose. She grew into it and she was an extraordinary example for women everywhere. My generation thought we had to act like men to be taken seriously, and Mrs. Obama is very feminine and very beautiful and very smart and very serious — and very fun. She’s all of those things at once. I admire that she can be both feminine and strong at the same time. She’s just lovely.
You’ve spoken before about how difficult it was for you in the ’70s as both a woman in politics and a woman who was trying to launch a new career. How do you feel about what it’s like to be a woman in 2018?
I think it’s gotten better, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near where it needs to go. In the ’70s, when I looked at the organizations that I was in, I would think to myself, Could I ― or did I want to ― be the head of this organization? and the answer was always no. I don’t like being in a situation where there’s a man in charge — or a woman in charge — who gets to choose if I get to succeed or not. So when I turned 30, I decided I need to set up my own organization where it was only my wits that determined if I would succeed or not. I don’t like working in a big organization. I like working with a few people that I really love and I have the power to do that. That’s what I did and I’m very happy that it worked out. It was a chance I was willing to take and it paid off. I think it’s hard for women — they have obstacles that the men in charge don’t even understand what they are.
Anthony Bourdain had some particularly unflattering words for several of your Food Network compatriots, but when talking about you, he once said, “What she cooks on TV is legit and instructive. If you do as Ina does, chances are you are going to get a good product. … I got real respect for her.” Did you two ever hang out?
I actually never met him and I’m very sad that I didn’t, but he was incredibly nice to me and I’m very grateful for that. It’s so sad what happened. I loved his joie de vivre. I loved that he loved to go to a foreign place and eat whatever they were eating, and that he would go into people’s kitchens and see what mom was making at home or what grandma or dad was cooking at home. He was very curious. I really admired his enthusiasm.
What’s something ― either professionally or personally ― that’s still on your list of things to do?
Professionally, if I get to keep doing what I’m doing right now for a long time, I’d be very happy. Personally, I have always had this idea that I’d love to go the antarctic, but you have to get there first! [Laughs] It’s a nightmare trying to get there, and that’s what has stopped me every time I’ve considered it, but I’d love to go and see the penguins! [Laughs]
How about we finish up with a few rapid-fire questions? First up: aside from Taylor Swift’s albums, what music can’t you get enough of right now?
The “Hamilton” soundtrack. It’s the best!
What are you watching on TV these days?
Jeffrey and I love watching foreign series. Right now we’re in the middle of one called “Thicker Than Water.” It’s a Swedish series and it’s really good.
What’s a junk food you can’t resist?
Would you consider vanilla Häagen-Dazs to be junk food? It’s all real ingredients but it’s not so good for you — it’s a treat!
That totally counts. What’s a food that you crave when you’re drunk?
Well… What if I told you I’m never drunk? [Laughs] Seriously ― one glass of wine and I can barely drink a second glass! [Laughs]
For these last six questions, I’m going to give you two different options and you have to choose which one you prefer. Just go with your gut.
That’s tough! Shake Shack, probably.
Good vanilla. I love good vanilla.
Finally, choose one of your two signature catchphrases: “How bad can that be?” or “How easy is that?”
I say “How easy is that” a lot, so I have to go with that one. [Laughs]
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.