Ina Garten, the serene, soft-spoken siren of the kitchen, has enticed viewers with her simple no-fail recipes and love of entertaining. The Emmy-winning star of the Food Network's "Barefoot Contessa" and best-selling cookbook author has a science background. She worked in Washington, D.C., as a nuclear policy analyst for the federal government before buying the Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton and changing the trajectory of her career. At 65, she continues to write cookbooks, host her show and develop new products She will be at the Benedum Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. For tickets ($45.75-$55.75) and information, go to www.trustarts.org, call 412-456-6666 or buy at the box office at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown.
I have to ask: Are you as relaxed as you look on camera?
[Laughing] No. Sometimes. Not always, but thank you.
So did it take a while for you to adjust to the life of a television personality?
I'm not sure what that means, but I love what I do. I love writing cookbooks and it has just been great.
I suppose I am asking if you miss your anonymity?
You know, I live a pretty quiet life because I'm not in New York around the Food Network hubbub. I live in East Hampton. It's pretty quiet here. I live in a small town and it's just the way I like it.
You seem to be a very highly motivated person. What drives you?
It's funny, I don't see myself as so highly motivated. I love doing things that I love to do.
The truth is I think of myself as fairly lazy. I just can't get myself to do something I don't want to do. So I've structured my whole life around things that I really love doing, so I don't think it's work.
But you went for your MBA while you were working in Washington.
I did it because I actually thought I wanted to be in business, but I never finished. I bought Barefoot Contessa right in the middle of my business school studies and I was off and running. I think I must have spent a year of a two-year degree at George Washington [University] because I knew I wanted to be in business. If I look back at my career and education, I would say I was always working toward where I am now, but didn't really quite realize it.
You were interested in science.
I was and that's what cooking is. I think of it as science, but instead of ending up with hydrochloric acid you end up with like, sour cream coffee cake [laughing]. It is so much more appealing. The way I do it is a very scientific approach. I have an idea about something and then I go about testing it. I work until it is exactly what I want it to be.
I will change one variable and I will see what happens to it. Maybe it will take me four tries to get it right or 25, which happens to be the sour cream coffee cake [laughing]. It took me about 25 tries to get it exactly where I wanted it to be.
I am picturing you with glasses and a notebook as you cook.
Not glasses but yes I take notes. I print out on a computer the last version and just think, OK, it was missing something or I didn't like the texture as much or I need to bump up the flavor and I'll do one more version and change three things and see what happens.
Some people can identify flavors easily and you have said flavor is important to you. So was that ability something you developed or have you always had a sensitive palate?
I think I have always found that I am searching for flavor. In fact, I don't think I'm a great cook. I think I'm a great taster. I know when something tastes right, and I know when it can be better. I just have in my head a flavor, you know, like the idiot savant thing [laughing]. But unlike major chefs who have worked in restaurants over the years, I can't just throw things together and it will come out right. I am really looking for a flavor and a texture that I've got in my head. I do it in a very deliberate way in a recipe.
Do you think of yourself as a risk taker?
Yes, but, calculated risk. I actually think I push myself at various stages in my professional life to just jump off a cliff and figure it out because I have a very, very low threshold of boredom. When I'm bored I have to change it. I have to do something else. I can't stand doing the same thing over and over again.
So am I a risk taker? Not by nature, but if I'm doing something that I think isn't exciting. ... Do I like thinking about it in the middle of the night? Or does it worry me? I think that I work a little bit scared, which pushes me. So it's not about the risk, it's about avoiding boredom kind of thing, more than anything.
You took the big leap when you left business school and bought Barefoot Contessa and just went for it.
It seems like a risk looking back, but in fact I felt like I couldn't work in the government one more minute. So it's a balance between risk and avoidance. That's exactly what it is [laughing]. And avoidance is probably my more motivating factor.
How did Jeffrey [her husband] react when you told him what you wanted to do?
He always encouraged me to do what I love. He always said, "If you love it, you'll work really hard at it and be good at it." So it's not that he just supported it, he's been a major motivation for me.
I grew up in a generation of women who didn't expect to work. When I was in college I just assumed I'd get married and that would be my life. I was just at the cusp of women waking up and saying, "Wait a minute, I could actually have a great life. I can do whatever I want. I can stay home if I want to. I can work if I want to." And I got to do both. I work at home [laughing].
I was really lucky that I was in the middle of that change. I have often said Jeffrey was the first feminist I ever met. He said, "What are you going to do with your life? You really need to do something. Otherwise you won't be happy." It had never occurred to me. He actually encouraged me, which has been amazing.
Have you ever used a meal to ingratiate yourself or placate someone?
[Laughing] Have I ever manipulated somebody with dinner? No, I would never do that [laughing]. I think if you cook, everybody shows up. If people are feeling badly, tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich go a long way to make them feel better. Have I ever tried to accomplish something manipulative? I'm not sure that I ever have. Have you?
If I could cook, maybe. It's not my thing.
What do you make of the popularity of cooking shows which use butter, sugar and salt with so many people being gluten-free or vegan or low-sodium or sugar-free or living under other diet restrictions?
I think people want to eat good food. It's probably more quantity than anything. I know very thin, very fit people and they eat butter and sugar. It's a matter of how much and how you balance it. Very often people will eat very simple dinners and have a chocolate cake for dessert. I think it's very appealing. A lot of people use my recipes when they are entertaining. They want to make something special. You know, a bowl of fruit isn't special. A bowl of fruit with Limoncello on it might be [laughs].
Another popular genre on television is the food competition. Do you see cooking as a competitive sport?
I think that's entertainment. That is very different from what I do. My whole thing is about giving people the tools to do things themselves. So if you can read a cookbook you can make a good roast chicken for your family and you feel good about that. You've made a really nice meal for people and they've shown up at the dinner table, which I think is a really important component of cooking -- that people show up and you connect with them.
If reading a printed page isn't your thing and you need to see somebody actually do it, then I have a cooking show so you can see how to make a roast chicken. I don't know if you know this but I have a line of Barefoot Contessa saute dinners. You can go to the freezer and take out a grilled chicken with sesame noodles and saute something up in 10 minutes. A cooking competition is about entertainment. I think it's fascinating, but I wouldn't know what to do if somebody had a lid and they took it off and there were like octopus eyeballs and foam under there. I'd be quite stymied [laughing].
You love to entertain. Can you talk about a party that didn't work?
The first party I ever did. I must have been 22 and I invited 20 people, which is a really tough number. It was 20 people for brunch and I decided to make an omelet for everybody. I spent the entire time in the kitchen making omelets one after the other. I think it took me a year to give another party. I was so traumatized by it.
It is a good time [of day] to entertain but you can't do things one at a time. A lot of what I do is about how can you make it before the party? How can you serve things that you are not making? If you want a wonderful dessert, get a great chocolate cake from a bakery and defrost a pint of vanilla ice cream. Pour that on the plate and put a piece of cake on top. You've got a great dessert and you haven't basically done anything.
I have heard you say that before and I appreciate it.
Well, the key is that your friends have a good time. And the key to that is that you are relaxed. If you come to the door and your face is red and you are sweating, nobody is going to feel good. You want everybody to believe, "Oh, I just whipped this up in five minutes before you got here" [laughing].
Tell me about a recipe that haunted you. One that took forever to get right.
Um, hmm. That's a tough one. There are many that I've worked on over the years. I'm trying to think of one that haunted me. I'm sorry, I wish I could, Patricia.
Well, actually, I'm working on one right now that I'd been thinking about for a long time -- which is a lamb tagine with Moroccan spices. It's basically a Moroccan lamb stew and I wanted to get it right. I've played around with it over the years and I feel like I have just nailed it. So that will be in my next book.