Ina Garten: Cooking Is Hard

( Illustration by Golden Cosmos )


David: Ina Garten is not only a household name, she is beloved, with the help of her Food Network program Barefoot Contessa. Not to mention all those viral videos. Garten has 14 million cookbooks in print, 14 million. Her success doesn't really come though from pioneering recipes or being in the foodie Ina Garden, it's got more to do with being a confiding authentic warm personality that tells you that you too can make coco vena or a roast tenderloin, anything.

Just follow the recipe, you can do it. Ina's approach to food is classic and accessible. Her latest book, Go-To Dinners, is a best seller as usual. Now, my wife and I have known Ina and her husband, Jeffrey Garten, the Economist and chief Ina Appreciator for a good while now. I can tell you hand to heart that the person you see on TV is the same one you get in person. Funny, unpretentious, a smart businesswoman and a master of every variety of chicken known to the history of heated poultry. She's the real deal.

Now, I have to start out by telling you, the last time I had a famous cook on the show, I may have told you this, it was Jacques Pépin and on the radio, with my laptop in the kitchen, I made crepes with him and exactly, with my wife Esther laughing at me in the corner of the kitchen. We're not going to cook. We're just going to talk.

Ina Garten: [laughs] We're not cooking. We'll cook in person. How's that?

David: Exactly, I'd love to do that.

Ina Garten: [laughs] Nothing worse than having your wife laughing at you. Your very very smart wife laughing at you. [laughs]

David: It's an hourly occurrence. Now you write in the preference of this book, early in the book, you said that when you were growing up, you had dreaded dinner time. Why was it dreaded? Was the food so terrible? What was your-- Was it your mom who was making dinner.

Ina Garten: My mother was making dinner. My father was an ear surgeon. My mother was very-- I think now I might say that she would be diagnosed with Asperger's. Didn't have relationships, and she had no interest in food, so she would get dinner on the table, but there was no joy in it.

David: What was dinner on the table? What was it?

Ina Garten: Boiled chicken, canned peas. What would I say, she was a dietician by training and didn't believe in carbohydrates. We never had bread or potatoes or polenta or anything absolutely delicious. We didn't even have frozen vegetables. We had canned vegetables. I particularly remember Harvard beets, one of my least favorite things in the world.


No child likes Harvard beets. You might develop a taste for it afterward, but not when you're 10.

David: It sounds like dinner was not a joyful time.

Ina Garten: It wasn't a joyful time. Particularly my father was very stern taskmaster and would grill us about whatever was in school. He would criticize us. When dinner was over, I had a nice knot in my stomach and they would always want me to eat faster. They would say, every time your brother takes a bite, you take a bite.

David: Oh my God.

Ina Garten: I'd be like, oh, I just can't.

David: When is the first time you picked up a frying pan in earnest? It wasn't just when you got married later on it.

Ina Garten: 100%. It was when I got married, I was never allowed in the kitchen. My mother never taught me how to do anything. She didn't see any joy in it. She felt that my job was to study and it was her job to make dinner. I think she wasn't comfortable with me being in the same room with her. She would always say, you go study. I was in my room, my whole childhood, and I think I was pretty lonely. I think that's why now cooking for friends and Jeffrey and doing the show be my guest, where I'm connecting with people is so satisfying.

David: In other words, you like to cook with people around, not by your lonesome in the kitchen.

Ina Garten: I prefer to cook by myself.

David: You do?

Ina Garten: I do. Cooking's hard for me. I do it a lot, but it's really hard. I just love having the space to concentrate on what I'm doing, so I make sure it comes out well. Cooking's hard. When you go to the butcher and you order a chicken, it's a different size every time. It's a different kind of chicken. Some chickens they're allowed to add water to it. You have no idea what you're going to get. Just the simplest thing as chicken can be complicated. I do find it hard. I'm not confident that it's going to come out well, and I have to say, [laughs] I'm surprised when it does.


David: Do you remember the--

Ina Garten: Maybe I have high standards.

David: Do you remember the first time you made a dinner in earnest for you and Jeffrey?

Ina Garten: Probably as soon as we got married because we had the money to go after dinner. When we were engaged before we got married, I remember going out and buying Craig Clay Burns, the New York Times cookbook. I went to-- what was it called? It's a store like, I think it was called Kaldor. I bought entire set of kitchen equipment. I just was really excited about being able to cook. I remember within the first month, I made a challah and I remember thinking that's what you're going to start with.


I did. I really love things that challenge me that I think I can't do and then make them and show myself that I can do them.

David: I get the feeling, and this is far from your first book. You've had many books before this, but Go-To Dinners is a book in a way made for Ina Garten back then. In other words, these are in some ways the least intimidating recipes you could imagine. You're almost telling the reader, "You know darling, I know you think you can't do anything, but even you can do this."

Ina Garten: It actually does come full circle, doesn't it? Once I learned how to cook, and then of course I got Mastering the Art of French cooking both volumes and worked my way through those. I learned the French techniques from Julia Child. I really believe in simplifying things. What happened in the pandemic is we were also completely stressed. We didn't know what we could do, what we couldn't do. I was making a recipe every day for Instagram so people could figure out what to do with those white beans that they had in their pantry.

David: 3000 pounds of white beans.

Ina Garten: Exactly. So many white beans and whatever they had, I was making recipes for my cookbook, for this book. I was cooking lunch and dinner for Jeffrey and me every single day. By sometime around May or June, I was like in bed with the covers up over my head. I thought, I really need to simplify. It is true that I came full circle, but for a different reason.

David: No, I've admitted this to you before, but I now admitting it to everybody who's listening to relax. I don't cook, I watch cooking videos. I watch you. I watch Jacques Pépin, I watch this swan guy who's going 300 miles an hour making incredible food, but I can't cook. Hold my hand and tell me what I need to know initially.

If I'm having four people over, six people, whatever it is, what do I need to know? What do I not need to be nervous about? What would you recommend I start with?

Ina Garten: I think there's one thing everybody should know how to do, which is a roast chicken. I do it in all different forms. I do it with potatoes and fennel. In this book, I have a spring roast chicken or a roast chicken with spring vegetables, with things like asparagus. You can put almost any vegetable in a roasting pan and a chicken on top of it and put it in the oven. It's the easiest thing in the world. The only thing you have to do is make sure you don't overcook the chicken. People get really nervous.

David: You think this is the easiest thing? This is the point of entry.

Ina Garten: Any roast chicken, or the chicken in a pot, which is just as easy as can be. You put it in a big pot with chicken stock and vegetables, and then you later you get saffron to give a little heat and then orzo, and you've got a whole dinner all in one pot.

David: Now, I have to ask you, I'm lucky enough to know Jeffrey, but I think for most people who watch you, they see Jeffrey at the end of your show, and he'll be saying something like, this is the best soup I've ever had, or this chicken's unbelievable. Something like that. You think to yourself, he can't possibly be this nice and this brilliant at the same time.

Ina Garten: He's just so appreciative. I think it's one of the reasons why I love to cook because if you cook for somebody who doesn't appreciate it, there's no satisfaction in it. One day I made him a cup of tea and he said, "Oh, this is the best tea I've ever had." I was like, "Jeffrey, it's a cup of hot water and a tea bag."


It was a particularly good tea. Still, nothing goes by him. He really appreciates it, which I love.

David: Now, you ran a store, you owned a store from 1978 to 1996. A long time. The Barefoot Contessa, why did that hit the way it hit out in the Hamptons? It was an incredible success.

Ina Garten: I thought of it as a party. When you walked in the door, I wanted all of your senses engaged. I wanted you to smell something wonderful. I want you to see a wonderful display of produce, or I wanted to hear great music, but it was old fashioned, like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, or whatever was fun to listen to. There were samples of things all over the store so you could taste things, and people would just come in just because it was fun. I thought if they're going to come because it's fun, they'll always come when they're hungry. I think that's what worked. It wasn't really about the food, it was about the feeling of being in the store.

David: It seems impossible to imagine but there was a time I know that you were not [laughs] as famous as you are now. You started publishing these cookbooks and you were hesitant about doing a television show. You got offers, I think more than once before you decided to go forward with it. What was your hesitation?

Ina Garten: [laughs] I didn't think anybody would want to watch me cook on TV, actually. Food Network kindly made me an offer and I kept saying no, and they kept coming back and there was someone there [unintelligible 00:11:00], who just kept saying, "Make me a better offer," and I kept saying to her, "No, I just don't want to do this." She just kept coming back and finally, I had heard about a show that somebody said was a really good cooking show.

It was Nigella Lawson Show, and unbeknownst to me, they went to London, found her producer told me that they were coming to East Hampton, like in two weeks, and I was like, "Whoa, whoa I said I wasn't going to do this." Eileen said, "Just do 13 shows." I was thinking how hard could that be? [laughs] They arrived on my doorstep and I thought, "Okay, let's see what we can do." One of the things I think about in life is you got to jump in the pond.

You say no to things without really understanding. Like I said no to Instagram before I understood what it was and I kept saying no about TV. I was just like, "I love writing cookbooks. I want to keep doing that and I can't imagine being on TV."

David: It always seemed to me that the most successful ones, oh, there was some character involved. The Julia Child was a big character. She had personality traits that we could easily list. [unintelligible 00:12:16] did all kinds of people who've done it. How do you think about that in terms of the personality you put out there because I have to say, being lucky enough to know you it seems like one in the same person.

Ina Garten: I am the same person you see on TV. I found a coach who would teach me how to be on TV. I have no idea why I knew this but after one session with her, I thought that's just awful. Nothing she said made sense to me and I thought, "I just need to be myself on TV." It's the only thing that works. I don't know why I knew that. I just knew it.

David: I have to say though, I'm watching you cook and there's a move that you do all of a sudden, the stick and a half of butter goes into the pan.


You look up both with mischief in your eyes and the little guiltily and say, "Yes, but it makes a lot of brownies."


Go ahead.

Ina Garten: Do you know what I believe? I think we should eat real food. If it's delicious, surely it's worth cooking for it. My favorite expression is if you eat low-fat diet, it's not that you live longer. It just seems longer.


Isn't that true?

David: We have some questions sent by email to you. This comes from Julie Wilson and Maureen Tipping in Comber Northern Ireland. This question is from my neighbor Maureen and me Julie we're tuning in from Comber, which is a small village just outside of Belfast. During COVID, our neighborhood came together into a really lovely supportive, and fun community. We went from being neighbors to being friends. This Christmas, we would like to co-host a party for our street. Our village is famous for potatoes so we're really keen to know if Ina has any ideas on how to transform the humble spud into a delicious party food hors d'oeuvre.

Ina Garten: A potato hors d'oeuvres.

David: Keep in mind you're giving potato tips to Ireland. That's [unintelligible 00:14:17]

Ina Garten: Exactly, that's really daunting. You know what I would do is I'd make potato latkes. I think that would be great.

David: Wow, and you have a great recipe for that I should say.

Ina Garten: I do, and what you can do is you can prepare them in advance, put them on a sheet pan and warm them in the oven.

David: Sounds delish.

Ina Garten: Is that a good one?

David: From a Alex Lewin in Berkeley, California, "Dear Miss Garten, about 10 years ago I read a short story in Harper's about which I remember nothing, not the title, the author of the plot except for a scene in which a character fishes a bay leaf out of a bowl of soup and flicks it away and he tells his dining companion bay leaves are BS. Ever since then I've been negged where the question are bay leaves BS? Whenever I put them in anything I can tell what effect they have, am I using them wrong? Also, is it true that they should be kept in the freezer?"

Ina Garten: I really don't know the answer to this, and I will say that I always also wonder whether bay leaf makes a difference. There are a couple of things that I use bay leaves in and I've always wanted to make them without the bay leaves to see if it made a difference and they never have so I'm not sure.

David: Can I just say this is called making news, Ina Garten calls bullshit on bay leaves.


These are questions from New Yorker Instagram, what to make for two people while still making it feel like a holiday and a special meal? This is from Teresa Newbury.

Ina Garten: You know what's really great is roast pork loins because they're very small, and you can marinate them and roast them really simply, serve them with a potato and apple and fennel puree and some shaved brussel sprouts. That'd be great holiday meal and it's not like cooking a whole ham.

David: I have a very important question to ask, when did brussel sprouts go from being as in my childhood disgusting to in-

Ina Garten: I happen to know.

David: Into my adulthood is like I can't wait to get more brussel sprouts, what happened?

Ina Garten: What happened was, and I actually started this at the store in the '80s. I started roasting brussel sprouts instead of boiling them. They were so good because they're crispy and they're more like french fries. They're fantastic. Then I thought, "Well, if you can roast brussel sprouts, maybe you can roast butternut squash." We started roasting butternut squash, and string beans and we roasted everything. The best part is it's the easiest thing in the world. You put whatever vegetable it is on a sheet pan, olive oil, salt, and pepper and into the oven.

David: On asparagus to your pro-roasting rather than steaming or boiling.

Ina Garten: 100%. I think it brings out the flavor, it caramelizes the sugars in it, and it's much more delicious.

David: Now here's a fantastic question from someone named Hamptons Video. I don't think that's the name but here we go. "Do you ever use a microwave?"

Ina Garten: I do. [laughs] I use it every day actually to make oatmeal in the morning. It's a perfect thing to do. I'll use it if I'm going to melt butter, I'll use it to prep things. I mean not a lot. It's not like I'm cooking in there but every morning I use it for my oatmeal. Good Irish oatmeal.

David: Perfect. Now, this is not exactly a food question. How many scarves do you own? You always have one on. [unintelligible 00:17:38]


Ina Garten: A lot.


I have drawers and drawers of scarves. She's absolutely right. [laughs] I have them everywhere.


I just love having a scarf around my neck. I just think it feels good. David, I was just thinking to myself, can we just do this again tomorrow?

David: We can do it all day.

Ina Garten: It's so much fun. [laughs] Thank you much.

David: Ina Garten thank you so much.

Ina Garten: So much fun to talk to you as always, David.

David: Thank you.


Ina Garten's most recent book is called Go-To Dinners, and her latest show Be My Guest With Ina Garten is in its second season. Oh and one note from the fact-checking department to Alex Lewin, who asked about bay leaves. The short story you read in Harper's was by Laurie Moore, and it's called Subject To Search in 2014. The offending bay leaf was a dish of couscous but the fact checker did not settle the crucial question of whether or not bay leaves are BS. Thanks for writing in Alex.


[00:18:54] [END OF AUDIO]


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