When Ina Garten — the unflagging icon of home cooking and good Hamptons living — publishes a new cookbook, big things happen. Best-seller charts get topped, sometimes two years in a row. New shows get made. New recipes become repertoire in homes around the country. This process is already under way for her latest book Cooking for Jeffrey, which lands on shelves tomorrow, and the accompanying show, which made its Food Network debut on October 16. In the days prior to the book's publication, Cooking for Jeffrey was the #2 seller in Amazon’s cookbook category, and today (as of this article's publishing time) is listed at #3 — all on the strength of pre-sales alone. But to Garten, this success still feels personal. "My career has been about cooking for Jeffrey," she says.
To her many fans, Jeffrey Garten needs no introduction. He’s Ina’s husband, a frequent guest on the show, and a known character in her books. In this latest cookbook, Jeffrey is very much an inspiration. Many of the recipe headers note Jeffrey’s adoration of specific dishes or ingredients, or put the recipe in context of an experience Ina shared with him. "Cooking is more gratifying and, frankly, more fun when I’m cooking for people I love," Ina writes in the introduction, "and for more than 40 years my most constant and appreciative audience has been my sweet husband, Jeffrey."
With the eagerly-awaited book hitting shelves tomorrow, and a new special Barefoot in Washington premiering in November, here’s what Ina has to say about being in the business of cooking at home, making the cookbook, and, of course, her husband:
Which came first: The idea to do the book or the idea to do the show?
The book. I've been working on the book for several years. My feeling about the shows is, certain people can learn something about cooking from reading a recipe, but I think there are a lot of people that like to see it demonstrated. So the shows really demonstrate the cookbooks to make them more accessible. That's always the order of things, that the book comes out first, and then I do the show.
So Jeffrey has always felt like part of the show, and has always had a role in your books, but how did he first react to learning that you really wanted to make him the focus of the next book?
I can't even remember telling him, I think I just did it. He's just a good sport, as you can tell. The focus on the book is kind of like a love letter to him. My career is really built on cooking for him. Since we were first married, he always loved what I made, so it encourages me to do it more. That's really what Cooking for Jeffrey is about. Not specifically that every recipe in this book is — although I have cooked [them for] Jeffrey before. It's really more about that my career has been about cooking for Jeffrey.
Do you ever worry about giving too much of yourself or your personal life to your fans? Where do you draw that line?
I don't really draw the line. I think my life is pretty straightforward. I don't think there are any dark corners. We have a really good time, and I'm happy to share that with people.
You're very much an obsessed-over figure in the food world, have there ever been any moments where you've just been weirded out by the intensity of the fandom?
People are very nice to me, so I don't think it's anything that worries me. I hope I never do anything that jumps the shark, as they say. When I was filming in Washington, we were waiting for traffic to go so we could start filming, and nobody was moving. I looked up and realized everyone had their iPhone up. I was like, "Oooh, that's weird!" I don't think of myself as that public a person, so when people recognize me, I'm always a little surprised.
Even still. I'll be fine. As long as they're not throwing things at me, they're okay. People just grab me in the street. I went to Ireland, and actually some people were hurling themselves at us, so that got a little crazy.
What do you see as more challenging, getting a new cookbook off the ground, or getting the new show done? What are those differences?
The cookbook's really a two-year project. I never sit down to write a cookbook. Everyday, I come to work and meet the two people who work for me, Barbara [Libath] and Lidey [Heuck], and I'll just say, "Okay, it's summer, I feel like making a salad. I want to work on this recipe." They get me the ingredients, and they get me all set up. Sometimes we cook them together. That's a very slow, but steady, process over a period of two years.
Once the book is done, then I get together with my producer from London. We always do this on the phone, and we just figure out what shows we want to do based on the book. Usually I've done the work by then. It's only a matter of figuring out, "Well, it's Jeffrey's birthday, so we'll do a birthday party. It's the holidays, so let's do a holiday cocktail. In the summer, let's go to the beach." It's using the recipes in the book that we've already done. I think the groundwork is already laid for the TV show. It's just a matter of organizing how we're going to use the recipes, or what the story is.
Is there anything you’re looking for in a recipe that makes it particularly well-suited for television?
I don't think I've ever had a recipe that doesn't translate. My recipes are simple enough. They're commonly used ingredients; they're simple enough to prepare. There was one recipe for turkey lasagna years ago where there were so many steps, it literally took us an entire day to film it. By the time it was done, nobody in the crew ever wanted to see a turkey lasagna again. Most of the things I do are fairly simple; it's not hard to translate into television. Because mostly you are just watching me cook.
How has the cookbook market changed since your first cookbook debuted in 1999?
You know, I have to say I never look at what other people are doing. I feel like I do the best job I can on what I have to do today, and then I move on to tomorrow. I don't look around and say, "Oh, everybody's doing healthy cookbooks, maybe I should do that," or "Everybody's doing 'how to cook everything' cookbooks." I write the cookbooks I would want to have myself. I might have added a few ingredients, like truffle butter, that I wouldn't have known 20 years ago, but I think my cooking really hasn't changed that much.
I'm very happy that people connect with it. The thing that people say the most, the thing I want people to feel is, "I made your — whatever it is, fill in the blank — I made your parmesan smashed potatoes, and everybody loved them." That's what I'm looking for. I want people to say that: "I made the recipe, and I could do it, and I felt really good about it." I don't think that's changed, from the first roast chicken I ever wrote in the first book published in 1999 to the chicken with radishes in this book.
Have there been any changes in your relationship to viewers or readers? Has being in the business of selling them on home cooking changed at all in the years since you've been doing it?
I think restaurant food has changed a lot. It went to foam and unusual ingredients, and then came back again. I'm not sure that home cooking has really changed that much. Actually, a lot of that I learned from running a gourmet specialty food store for almost 20 years, because people came in to buy food that they were going to serve at home. In the beginning I was making veal stuffed with morels, and very fancy things that nobody bought. I thought, "Wait a minute, people want roast chicken and roast carrots." That was the basis for my cookbooks. It's home cooking. It's different from restaurant food. There are a lot of cookbooks that, if you want to make restaurant food at home that's really unusual or challenging, there are a lot of restaurant chefs that do that food in cookbooks. But mine really never changed from home cooking...
I think my cooking has gotten simpler. I have less patience for a recipe that takes an hour. I've honed how to make something that's really easy, and really delicious. I've gotten better at that, but that's only a matter of degrees.
One big trend in home cooking is the rise of delivery meal kits, and I was curious what your thoughts about them are — what they suggest to you about home cooking today?
It's interesting because I actually signed up for some just to see what they were. Some of them are really keyed in to home cooking, and they're really good. It allows people to make dinner with good, fresh ingredients, and cut out all the shopping. Actually, I also found that the clean up was so much easier. Some of them were done in one pan, or two pans. They were very easy to make: absolutely delicious, and really easy to clean up. If I had a family with two kids and I was working, I think it's a great way to make dinner, rather than a takeout dinner that you don't know what's in it. Also the kids are — everybody's involved with the cooking, which is great.
Some of the home kits are restaurant meals at home, which don't interest me that much. I like the ones that are home cooking meals at home.
Reprinted from Cooking for Jeffrey. Copyright © 2016 by Ina Garten. Photographs by Quentin Bacon. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.