Ina Garten is moaning in pleasure. She’s just taken a bite of sugared brioche dipped in vanilla creme anglaise, and her enjoyment is visceral — and loud enough that a young man 10 paces away looks up from his phone with raised eyebrows. She puts her hand on her heart and lets out a deep, drawn out, “Ohhh myyyy goddd,” before tilting her head back and letting her eyelids flutter. It’s 10:27 in the morning, and at least one guest at La Mercerie Cafe in New York City is having a When Harry Met Sally moment. A lot of people love food. No one lets themselves enjoy it as much as the Barefoot Contessa.
Every day is cause for celebration in Garten’s world, but even by her standards, 2018 was a big year: Her 11th cookbook, Cook Like a Pro, hit bookstores; Food Network announced a companion television show; she celebrated her 70th birthday; bought and decorated a new apartment in Manhattan; and (sort of) revealed her political leanings for the first time ever. In October, during an event to promote her new cookbook, she was asked what she might serve President Donald Trump if she had him over for dinner. She thought for a moment before responding, “A subpoena?” The New York City crowd roared in agreement.
Garten has been a media darling for nearly two decades. Her first book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, was published in April 1999. Two years later, the Food Network put her on TV. Before that, as her obsessive fans well know, she owned the Barefoot Contessa, a prepared foods shop and bakery in East Hampton, New York, which catered to the rich and famous and their glamorous parties. Named after a movie starring Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart, the shop gave Garten her characteristic affinity for “good,” “store-bought” staples. It also forced her to learn how to “cook like a pro,” or be efficient in the kitchen. When it closed, well into her career as a Food Network host and cookbook author, Garten was already a household name.
Since then, Garten has employed a tireless curiosity and natural lust for life in the development of a public persona that’s the closest thing the home cooking world has to royalty. The Italian feminine for “count,” which generally indicates a middle rank in European nobility, “contessa” comes from the same Latin root as “companion,” as in a companion to a ruler. Counts and countesses were the original entourage, a chosen few who were able to live a comfortable, often glamorous life without the pressure of actually having to rule.
These days, Garten travels with her own entourage. It’s a crisp day in early October when I meet her for breakfast at La Mercerie, a restaurant located inside the Roman & Williams Guild, an atelier and home decor showroom. She descends from a black SUV with four women: her book agent, her assistant, a makeup artist, and a hairdresser. Her hair is shampoo commercial shiny, and sways like a skirt when she turns. She carries an oxblood-colored Saint Laurent purse, and is wearing pleated black slacks, a deep maroon brocade jacket, and dark gray Allbirds sneakers. “They’ve changed my life,” she says of the shoes, which seem to give her some physical buoyancy. As we sit, several diners turn and stare; someone comes up to thank her “for teaching me how to cook and feed the people I love.” Two people ask for selfies. Garten smiles as she greets each fan. She’s practiced, but seems genuinely pleased to meet these strangers. She cups their hand in hers, looks at them directly in the eyes, and sounds touched when she says, “thank you so much, I am so, so glad!”
Though Garten’s longtime home base is in East Hampton, she’s in New York City every week for work. (The famous Mr. Garten, better known to fans as just Jeffrey, is at Yale most of the week, where he’s a Dean Emeritus who “loves to write,” according to his wife.) She spends at least one day a week testing recipes in her Manhattan kitchen, but she makes time to dine out too, for inspiration.
“Last night we went to Misi,” Garten says, referring to chef Missy Robbins’ new pasta-focused restaurant in Brooklyn. “It was fabulous. We had every pasta on the menu, and then Missy sent some more, and afterwards I was like, ‘I’m never eating again.’” She laughs, pauses, and then looks at the menus that have been presented to us — “but now I’m hungry again! Doesn’t this look so good?” An order is placed for coffee drinks. Garten admires the dishes and silverware on the table.
La Mercerie and Roman & Williams Guild showcase designers Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch’s signature furnishings, textiles, and objects d’art. On one side is a living space, where beds draped with sheepskin sit near plump leather sofas and vintage curios filled with hand-blown vases. On the other side of the space, silver platters and hand-glazed bowls top restaurant tables. In addition to a menu of food and drink, each diner is presented with a menu of dishes and glasses as well as a branded pencil to mark off the items they’re interested in purchasing, from saucer-sized plates ($38) to hand-etched glass goblets ($105). “The crazy thing is,” Garten says as she looks around the restaurant, “I already own all of this.” She explains that the first time she had breakfast at La Mercerie she ordered “a set of everything” and had it shipped to her home. A laundry list of breakfast items, including the eggs cocotte — “we absolutely have to get that,” Garten says — is rattled off to a server.
Television cooks sell more than recipes; they sell stories. Garten’s story has always been about happiness. Food and entertaining are prescriptions for happiness in the Barefoot Contessa’s world. “When I was a kid, I wanted to cook because I was always searching for flavor,” Garten writes in the foreword to her new book, of growing up surrounded by cellophane-wrapped tomatoes and bland Wonder Bread. But cooking, she believed, was a way to infuse imperfect ingredients with flavor; flavor, on the tongue, translates into happiness. She discusses flavor constantly on her show, especially whenever she’s adding salt, butter, or booze, and it’s just as present in the new book. An updated recipe for chicken marbella is “full of big flavors,” while warm, marinated olives are “so much more flavorful than olives straight from the fridge!”
The trouble is that cooking is work. Cooking is stressful. Even Garten admits to being stressed before every dinner party. “Every single one,” she says. “But this is how I know I still care that everyone has a good time. It’s my way of ensuring I’m on my A-game.” Problem solving is part of being a good host. With each new cookbook, she gets one step closer to solving the puzzle.
Garten isn’t a chef; she’s a home cook and bon vivant in the style of Julia Child. She likes to learn from the pros, chiefly by imitating, riffing. A Cook Like a Pro recipe for haricots verts with hazelnuts and dill is based on the flavor philosophy of the late french chef Joel Robuchon, who said he “limits his dishes to no more than three dominant flavors” so you can appreciate each one. “I’ll never dine somewhere and then call up a chef and say, ‘Okay, can you give me this recipe?’ Or I mean, rarely, and if I do it’s really just for myself.” Garten says. “But if I’m having trouble with my brioche recipe or something I might call up Jean-Georges and troubleshoot it. Mainly I eat something and I think, ‘Oh that was an interesting pairing,’ or ‘Wow, that was really so good I have to try to make it for myself at home.’”
As the Barefoot Contessa brand has matured, as her collection of friends has come to include the truly famous, as her books further multiply (there are now more than 12 million copies in print), as her wealth continues to increase, Garten’s slid into a life in pursuit not just of happiness, but of pleasure. With each new book, including in Cook Like a Pro, the ratio of work to pleasure decreases, maximizing pleasure and efficiency while minimizing work.
In the Contessa’s world, food should always be delicious first. In an episode on make-ahead breakfast dishes, Garten slags off the bran muffins she used to sell at her shop, complaining that she asked the bakers to make them “taste better” to which they’d reply, “but these are our best-selling muffin!” She makes a “yuck” face, and calls for a recipe with less bran and more butter. Garten, it should be noted, was taking her pleasure on television long before Samin Nosrat helped herself to nibbles of juicy steak, olive-oil-soaked focaccia, and another scoop of gelato in Netflix’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. For Garten, cooking isn’t a window into the world as it is for Nosrat, but neither is it a chore. And anything that makes it easier or more fun — extra booze, Haagen-Dazs ice cream melted into vanilla custard sauce, truffle butter — is embraced with confidence.
Speaking of pleasure, the hedonists (and sex-positive feminists) would approve of Garten’s flirtatious relationship with her husband of nearly 50 years. “If this tent be rockin’, don’t be knockin,’” she squeals in a season 12 episode as she climbs into a backyard tent with Jeffrey. When asked what they plan to do for their golden anniversary, which the couple celebrated earlier this month, Garten says, “We’re going to have our favorite day in Paris. We’ll go to a street market, buy ingredients to make a really nice lunch with a bottle of good wine, take a nap, and then go to our favorite wine bar for dinner.”
The best things in life might be free, but being a bon vivant involves luxury, and luxury involves wealth. The Gartens have created a comfortable life for themselves, and as they’ve moved up the ladder, they’ve upgraded. Last year, the couple sold their two-bedroom co-op for $1.95 million, and paid $4.65 million for a new apartment, also on the Upper East Side, a few steps from one of Garten’s favorite restaurants, Vongerichten’s JoJo. Garten entertains famous friends at her Hamptons estate. Katie Couric, Jennifer Garner, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all visited — and guest-starred on her show — this year. When asked if Miranda can cook, Garten laughs, “Not at all. He should stick to his day job!”
Garten’s team, that aforementioned entourage, has grown slightly over the years, and though she mostly spends her days tinkering with recipes in her test kitchen barn, the Barefoot Contessa brand still needs managing. It’s said that the simplest things are often the most difficult to execute. But Garten delivers, seemingly every time, according to the thousands of five-star reviews on her Food Network recipes. Cooks might first be attracted to Garten’s seemingly effortless, joyful style, but once they achieve success in the kitchen thanks to her instructions they become fans for life. More than the promise of pleasure, what Garten is selling is the confidence of a practiced cook.
As we finish breakfast, Garten spies a branch of winter berry buds in a glass vase. “That arrangement?” she asks a clerk nearby. He nods. “I’ll take it. Just deliver it.” The store has her credit card and address on file. She also purchases a gunmetal gray linen tablecloth ($225), and a set of glasses ($10 to $12 each) for a friend’s housewarming. “I have almost no time to shop, so when I’m out I need to be efficient,” Garten says.
Though her work might be challenging and time consuming, it does seem that cookbooks now come easily. “My next book is due next summer, and there will be 85 recipes in it, same as this one,” Garten says, ever confident, eye on the ball. “I’ve already finished 75 of those recipes,” she says. After breakfast, she has a few more meetings, and is then headed to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s newest spot, Manhatta, for dinner. “I can’t wait to see that view!” Garten says, giddy as always.
Daniela Galarza is Eater’s senior editor. Alex Staniloff is a NYC-based photographer.
Editor: Erin DeJesus