It’s difficult to find any cooking enthusiast who doesn’t love Ina Garten. Her authentic, down-to-earth style has endeared her to millions of foodies and television viewers, evidenced by the success of her cookbooks, which have become New York Times bestsellers (via The New York Times). Her television show, according to Deadline, is also a long-running favorite for Food Network fans. Even the late Anthony Bourdain, who was rather notorious for being a curmudgeon from time to time, adored her. "I love Ina Garten. She’s one of the few people on Food Network who can actually cook," he said via Atlanta magazine. "In many ways I want Ina’s life."
We don’t blame him. Who could? After all, Ina’s life does seem more than a little enviable, with her long and happy marriage to Jeffrey Garten, lunches with First Lady Michelle Obama, and all the vodka-laced Cosmopolitans one can handle.
So how did this self-taught chef go from a relatively unremarkable existence crunching numbers at the White House to cooking up a culinary empire and gathering a bevy of devoted fans? Let’s take a look at how Ina Garten’s decades-long transformation is turning heads.
Ina Garten excelled academically
With a resume that includes accolades such as successful business owner, chef, television host, and author, it’s a given that Ina Garten has got some serious brainpower. That intelligence showed through for Ina even as a young child.
Garten, born Ina Rosenberg, was an excellent student, reports Good Housekeeping, gaining extra marks for her careful, detail-oriented nature and high marks in science classes. That braininess took her all the way to New York’s Syracuse University (via Country Living). She particularly loved her science classes. She didn’t know it at the time, but this would play an important role in her career as a chef. According to Good Housekeeping, Garten has said, "all of her recipes and ingredients are measured precisely — as if they were a scientific equation."
Garten’s ability to learn things quickly would prove to be a vital trait in her professional life. Surprisingly, at least to some culinary traditionalists, the self-taught chef has no formal education in the food world. Instead, she’s taught herself everything she knows, from how to make a chicken pot pie to the myriad ins and outs of running a small business.
Ina Garten first met her husband when she was a teen
In 1964, Country Living reports, a teenage Ina Rosenberg took a trip to Dartmouth College to visit her brother, who was a freshman at the higher education institution. She caught the attention of her future husband, Jeffrey Garten when he spotted her out the library window. He pointed her out to his roommate, who not only knew who Ina was but had already planned a date with her that night.
Once Ina went back home, Jeffrey began writing her letters. Fast forward six months later, and Jeffrey showed up at Ina’s house in Stamford, Connecticut ready to take her on a date. The rest is history, right? Not quite. That first date was, as Ina described it to Food Network, "a disaster." The two drove to a bar in New York, as the legal drinking age in the state was 18 at the time. Ina was still in high school. "I had never been to a bar in my life! The guy at the door says, ‘Where’s your ID?’ and I thought, ‘What ID?’"
This early speedbump in their relationship didn’t really deter the couple. They continued to date as Ina went off to Syracuse University, eventually marrying in 1968 when Ina was 20 years old.
Ina Garten put college on hold to be with her husband
After getting married in December of 1968, when Ina was still attending Syracuse University according to Country Living, she postponed her college career to move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina with her husband. Jeffrey had enlisted as an officer in the United States Army and was to serve a four-year military tour during the Vietnam War (via Jewish Virtual Library).
Although she was putting off her pursuit of a college degree, this move to North Carolina may have been the most important step in her future culinary career, though it may not have seemed like it at the time to young Ina. With Jeffrey away all the time, she began cooking and entertaining guests as an enjoyable way to keep busy. "From the time we got married, I really was interested in cooking, but I had never cooked at all," Ina told People. "He encouraged it so much by just being so appreciative when I cooked, and that was really the beginning of my career."
Ina would eventually go back and finish college once Jeffrey’s military service was complete. His continued support proved to be vital to Ina throughout her studies and beyond. As she wrote in Cooking for Jeffrey: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, he was "the first feminist I ever knew."
Ina Garten learned to cook from Julia Child’s cookbooks
To put it mildly, Ina Garten’s success is impressive. Her accomplishments are made even more admirable by the fact that she has no formal culinary training. Instead, her expertise comes from a nearly lifelong interest in all things cooking, not to mention the help of some very good cookbooks.
Garten had already begun dabbling in cooking during her time in North Carolina, while her husband was serving as an officer in the United States Army. After Jeffrey’s military service was over, Eater reports that the couple traveled to France, where they lived for four months. It was here where Garten truly fell in love with food. She shopped at the farmer’s market and was entranced by the sights of locals eating outdoors. Her experiences echoed those of the legendary chef, author, and television personality Julia Child, who had also lived in France and also became devoted to cooking there.
When she returned back to the United States, Garten began teaching herself to cook by diving headfirst into Child’s cookbooks. "I would have to say that Julia Child’s my biggest culinary inspiration because she really taught me how to cook through her cookbooks," Garten told TODAY. "I learned how to make hollandaise sauce the right way, and then she showed me how to make it the quick way without losing any of the quality."
Ina Garten worked in the White House
It’s not uncommon for people to have jobs early in their lives that are wildly different from the occupations they go on to have as they get older. It’s not exactly shocking for careers to shift and change throughout a person’s life. But it’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic career change than going from nuclear energy to cookbook author. That’s precisely what Ina Garten did, with a brief stopover at none other than the White House itself.
In the 1970s, Garten and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. where she landed a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (via Jewish Virtual Library). Originally finding work as a relatively low-ranking White House aide, the diligent Garten worked her way up to become a budget analyst in the Office of Management and Budget. In this position, she was responsible for writing the country’s nuclear energy budget. She held this job during the terms of both President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter. She also wrote policy papers helping to establish regulations for nuclear power plants. No biggie.
As impressive as the position was, it didn’t take long for Garten to learn that it simply wasn’t right for her. By the end of the decade, she was already looking for a new path that, in her words, was something more creative and fun than writing nuclear energy budgets!"
At the age of 30, Ina Garten purchased a specialty food store
The year was 1978. Ina Garten was desperate to find a career that allowed her to be more creative. As luck would have it, she came across an ad in The New York Times selling a specialty food store in the Hamptons, a group of affluent communities in eastern Long Island, New York. It immediately caught Garten’s attention, even though she had no professional experience in the food business. In fact, she hadn’t even been to the Hamptons before (via Barefoot Contessa).
Nevertheless, the very next day she drove from Washington, D.C. to the east end of Long Island to see the store. She immediately fell in love with the boutique shop but was on the fence as to whether or not she should really go through with buying it. Although her parents were shocked to hear that she’d give up her White House job, Garten’s husband fully supported her decision to try to buy the store."Jeffrey said, ‘If you love it, you’ll be really good at it,’" Garten recalled via Insider. "And that’s the best advice anybody ever gave me."
Garten gave a low offer for the store, thinking it would provide her time to mull over the decision. As fate would have it, the owners accepted the next day and Ina moved ahead with the deal. Just like that, Garten was the new owner of a food shop. The name of the store? Barefoot Contessa, of course.
It was at Barefoot Contessa where Ina Garten perfected her signature "simple" cooking style
By this time in her life, Garten had learned how to cook for herself, but she quickly realized that she had no idea how to prepare food for others or what they were even looking for. "Honestly, the first month I was there I thought, ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life,’" Garten said. "I’d never been in the food business, I didn’t know how to do anything."
The smartest thing Garten did during that time was to hire local chef Anna Pump, who taught Garten that people eat differently when they’re at home compared to a restaurant. "I remember a customer asked me to do a cheese platter," Garten recalled via Insider. "Anna walked over very quietly and she said, ‘Take everything off that platter. Put a big bunch of grapes in the middle, put the cheese around it, do blocks of color, and then stop yourself.’ That’s what she taught me — That the simpler things are the more elegant ones."
To this day, Garten is known for her simplistic cooking. Some of her cookbook titles contain phrases like "Back to Basics," "How Easy is That?," and "Foolproof." This inclusive culinary style is part of what has made her and her show so universally loved amongst food lovers, whether they be culinary giants like Anthony Boudain or foodie newbies.
After selling Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten wrote her first cookbook
If there’s one thing you can say about Ina Garten, it’s that she is always up for a new challenge. In fact, she lives for it, as the success of her store soon showed others. Garten had built Barefoot Contessa into a hugely successful business. It became so busy that, in 1985, she moved the store from its original 400-square-foot building in Westhampton to a new 3,000-square-foot store in East Hampton (via Eater). But, after nearly two decades of running her popular shop, Garten was looking to do something new. "I like a nice project that I can chew on," she told Eater. "And so the store was that, and then after twenty years, it was time to do something else."
In 1996, Garten sold the store to two of her employees: the store manager and chef. Now she needed to find something to do. While she worked on charting a new course, Garten built an office above Barefoot Contessa and began writing a cookbook. This would prove to be an ingenious and fateful decision. Filled with recipes she perfected over the years at her store, Garten published The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook in 1999. The volume quickly became a best seller and led her to publish two more cookbooks within the next four years. She’s since put out some seriously good cooking tips for home cooks.
In 2002, Ina Garten began filming a show for Food Network
By 2002, Ina Garten had already established herself as a very successful and popular cookbook author with an impressive business pedigree. That’s when Food Network came calling. The first season of Garten’s cooking show, aptly named Barefoot Contessa, aired in November of that year (via IMDb). The show centers on Garten as she shows viewers how to make not only impressive meals but to easily create entire entertainment experiences for guests. It’s filmed on her property in the Hamptons, though Garten has admitted that the film kitchen isn’t in her main home.
It’s proven to be a wildly popular program and has since made Garten a household name. Approaching its 30th season on the air, Barefoot Contessa is one of Food Network’s ultra-popular long-running series. Yet, one person who doesn’t dare to watch the show at all is Garten herself. She admits to having never seen an episode. "I couldn’t possibly," she told Food Network. "If I watched a show, I don’t think I’d ever do it again."
Not only has Barefoot Contessa reeled in plenty of viewers, but it has also awarded Garten some serious praise from the critics. She has won multiple Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Culinary Host, according to IMDb. In addition, the show was named best Television Program, In Studio or Fixed Location by the prestigious James Beard Awards in 2018.
Ina Garten has a lot of famous friends
Everybody loves someone who can cook, so it should come as no surprise that Ina Garten is so popular. Still, the list of famous friends she’s accumulated over the years is pretty impressive even for a culinary powerhouse like Garten.
But her friendships go beyond the television screen. Take her relationship with Taylor Swift for example. As per People, the two were introduced through a mutual friend and, before you know it, Swift was in Garten’s East Hampton, New York home for a personal cooking lesson. It was the singer, in fact, who wrote Garten’s commendation when the chef was included in Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. "She’s incredibly busy and incredibly in-demand, that she’d take the time to write about me, it meant that she thought that we had a special relationship, which I feel we do," Garten told People.
Then there’s Jennifer Garner. The A-list actress has been an admirer of Garten’s for years and their friendship has been blossoming. Garner has visited the Garten’s home, had one of her own recipes featured on a Barefoot Contessa holiday special, and even shared some In-N-Out burgers with the chef, according to W magazine.
Ina Garten is writing a memoir
It’s obvious that people are obsessed with all things Ina Garten, and so the famous chef has apparently caught on to the demand for more information about her life. In late 2019, she announced she would be giving fans an inside look into her life by writing an upcoming memoir, as People reports.
In a press release announcing the move, Garten said her hope for penning the book is to help motivate readers to build the life they want. "By finding a way to do what I love for a living – cooking – I’ve been fortunate to build a career that has not only been incredibly rewarding but has brought people together through the power of home cooking," she said. "I hope my book will inspire readers to find their own unique story."
While Garten has written 12 best-selling collections of recipes, this will be her first time penning a non-cookbook. As excited as Barefoot Contessa fans may be, they will have to be patient. According to Food & Wine, the memoir is not due to be published until 2023.