I don’t know about you, but any time I’m having a dinner party and things start to unravel during prep, I think, “Just channel your inner Ina.” By that, I mean Ina Garten, the calm, cool, and collected Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network (think of her as the anti-Guy Fieri) whose best-selling cookbooks include her latest, Make It Ahead, and the one simply named after her trademark line, How Easy Is That?
Garten comes to the Granada Theatre on February 19, not to make a fabulous supper for everyone (which she could no doubt do) but to chat with author and TuesdayRecipe.com blogger Tori Ritchie, followed by an audience Q&A. “I feel that format is much more interesting,” Garten told me recently over the phone. “Instead of standing in line for three hours at a book-signing and all you get is a selfie and no kind of program. … I learn a lot from what people ask me.”
There’s plenty to ask, given that 40 years ago she was working in the White House Office of Management and Budget, overseeing nuclear-energy issues. Wanting something else, she found an ad in the New York Times for a specialty food store for sale in the Hamptons, and before she knew it, she owned the Barefoot Contessa (and her new nom de career). “Mrs. Obama asked me to the White House for the Easter festivities last year, and it was great to come back as a guest,” she said. “I left the White House in 1978, having no idea what would become of me, and it turned out okay.”
Giving up a career as a policy wonk wasn’t easy. “My parents thought I was insane to leave a perfectly good job at the White House for what they saw as a job at a grocery store,” recalled Garten, who turned the store into an institution. Upon selling it in 1996, she became a famed author and TV personality, so much so that today she mostly gets to spend her days perfecting recipes.
After so much work helping us all become better hosts, I was curious how good guests should act. “The only thing a guest needs to do is really appreciate what goes into entertaining,” she explained. “It’s a lot of work, the shopping, and cooking, and cleaning up afterwards, and it’s supposed to look effortless.” As a guest, she “likes to bring a little something but not something to serve that evening that might derail the host’s plan. I like to bring something for the next morning like a nice brioche loaf or homemade granola or a good bag of coffee.”
Such a fan of comfort food and the classics, Garten laughed when asked about food trends. “I don’t even know what the trends are,” she said. “While people might want something more adventurous out, I help them cook at home. And cooking at home is some version of a good roast chicken and roast carrots — you want basically familiar flavors. I help people make good home cooking with the volume turned up, so I’ll have people work some coffee in their chocolate to give it more flavor, or cassis to plums. It’s about making ingredients taste best.”
As one might guess, she sums herself up precisely. “I’m not a trained chef, so I’m really aware of how much it takes to cook at home,” she said. “As my husband, Jeffrey, always says, ‘If it weren’t easy, it wouldn’t keep me interested,’ so that’s the good news.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Ina Garten on Thursday, February 19, at 8 p.m. at the Granada Theatre. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.