Ina Garten on Her Creative Process

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Find out more about the elegant and earthy hostess, what keeps her going and why she loves what she does.

When you pick up an Ina Garten cookbook or watch an episode of Barefoot Contessa, you might not realize how much work goes into creating the recipes, testing them and finally proclaiming them good enough to share. All of Ina’s recipes go through a rigorous testing period until they’re perfect, as the writer and TV host explains. Even Jeffrey has to wait until a recipe’s perfect before he can get a taste!

Thinking about Ina’s life story, it may seem like a stretch of the imagination that she went from writing nuclear policy in the White House to writing cookbooks in her Long Island home, but it happened. Despite the difference in subject, both lines of work require precision.

But cooking goes a bit further, as it requires that something extra — the secret ingredient, if you will. And Ina has that. She says it’s just in her DNA. The rest is history: She didn’t attend cooking school or learn from a grandmother, but she picked up skills out of necessity while running her specialty food store, Barefoot Contessa. It started out as a way to try a new career and ended up giving her her well-known moniker. Would she have it any other way? Not really.

FN Dish recently chatted with Ina about her new series, Cooking for Jeffrey, her recently released cookbook and her Washington, D.C., special. Find out more about the elegant and earthy hostess in our interview.

Where do you get inspiration when you’re coming up with a new recipe?

Ina Garten: I get it really from everywhere. I mean, if I go to dinner somewhere or I see something in a cookbook or I see something in a food store or somebody tells me about something they had — a friend goes to a dinner party and had something delicious. I mean it’s, like, in the air, and I keep a running list of things that I want to make. Today, you know, figs are in season, so I was playing around with a ricotta and fig cake. So, I’m always adding to the list and taking things off the list, and I just find inspiration everywhere.

What is the recipe testing process like for you? How long, would you say, does it take to start it off and then reach that final recipe where you’re proud of how it came out?

IG: Sometime I can nail it in a day by making it twice. But sometime it takes me 25 times, and it could take two weeks. And there are some recipes that I’ve been working on for years that I’ve never kind of got. I have to start with something in my head — a flavor, a profile, a texture that I’m looking for — and I just keep going until I get to that point, and sometime it takes four years and sometimes it takes a day. It depends on the recipe.

Does Jeffrey ever get to taste during the recipe testing process?

IG: If he comes by he would, but not generally. He doesn’t generally get to taste until it’s perfect.

What was the first dish you cooked successfully?

IG: I’ve got to tell you, it was so long ago I don’t remember. When I first got married, I started cooking from Craig Claiborne, but I don’t remember specifically one dish.

What would you consider your signature dish?

IG: Roast chicken and apple tart — French apple tart. Actually, I’ll do better than that. There’s one dinner that I make very often which I just love. It’s rack of lamb, orzo with roasted vegetables and a French apple tart for dessert.

What is the one food you could happily eat for the rest of your life?

IG: Just one? A good Irish oatmeal.

You write in your book that entertaining is more about the friends, the company, than it is about having fancy food.

IG: I kind of never liked fancy food. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I think when I started writing cookbooks, I wrote about what I usually do rather than trying to find something new. I mean, I’d been doing dinner parties when I lived in Washington, so when I came to New York and had the specialty food store I learned more about what people like to eat at home, that they like simple food at home. They go out to be challenged, but not at home. And so when I started writing cookbooks I really just wrote about what I knew how to do.

If you could host a dinner party for any group of people, either dead or alive, who would you invite?

IG: Jeffrey. Julia Child. Taylor Swift. And my best friends.

Is there a menu that you’d want for your last supper?

IG: Actually, a friend of mine made a dinner that I think pretty much encompasses that. Every course was served with Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes. It’s, like, just really good Sauternes. … First she made foie gras, which is great with Sauternes, and then lobster with grapefruit and Sauternes, and a French apple tart for dessert with Sauternes. I love good Sauternes.

What’s your fuel each day? What’s that one thing that gets you out of bed every day?

IG: Nine o’clock in the morning, meeting my team at the barn every day and deciding what we’re going to do.

Where do you think your desire to cook comes from?

IG: Taking care of people. I love the process of giving people something that they enjoy, so I think that’s really what makes me happy.

Can you cite any mentors you had when you were growing up? Maybe someone you looked up to who was a great cook, in your family or outside of your family?

IG: I can’t answer that, because I didn’t. It just came from me. My grandmother used to cook, but she died when I was quite young, so I don’t know whether seeing her cooking influenced me or whether I’m just — I have her DNA. I don’t know. I think it’s in the DNA.

If you could give your younger self a bit of advice or something to look forward to, what would you tell her?

IG: “Don’t worry so much. It’ll be all right. It’ll all turn out OK.”

Do you think you’ve found your calling in being the writer you are today, a television host, or is there something else that you’re trying to accomplish? I read somewhere that you have your pilot’s license.

IG: No, I’m not going to be a pilot. And that’s very good for everybody else, too. I love what I do, and I’m just so happy that I get to do it, and everything isn’t a goal, it’s just a process, and if something comes along the way that looks interesting to me, maybe I’ll do it, but for right now I love what I’m doing and I’ve got no room for anything else.

Watch Barefoot Contessa: Cooking for Jeffrey on Sundays at 10:30a|9:30c.