Sunday, November 18, 2012

An evening with Ina Garten

(l to r) Moira Forbes, Marissa Mayer, Ina Garten
On November 14th, Book Passage hosted an event featuring Ina Garten in conversation with new Yahoo Director/CEO and foodie/Ina fan, Marissa Mayer. The evening was part of Dominican University’s leadership lecture series, and the 850 seats at Angelico Hall were sold out.

Alas for Marissa Mayer, she hit the ugliest of weeknight traffic, trying to get north to us from San Francisco, and had not made it by the start time of 7pm.

Luckily for all of us, an amazing woman stepped in to interview Ina, and she did it splendidly. I don’t know how or why she happened to be there, but our stand-in was Moira Forbes, publisher of ForbesWoman and 4th generation in that publishing family. With such an expert journalist asking the questions, we got an amazing evening of discussion between some danged smart and accomplished women. Marissa finally fought through, and joined us about halfway into our evening.

We started WAY back with Ina’s college years, when husband Jeffrey (they were married even then) told her she would never be happy unless she got out and did something truly interesting, stimulating, and special with her life. Her first interest was science, and skipping lightly over those years, she wound up as an advisor to the White House on nuclear policy. But what she was REALLY enjoying about Washington, was hosting dinners and parties full of interesting people.

Reading the newspaper one day, she spotted an ad for a food shop in The Hamptons that was up for sale, and switched roads completely. She had no formal cooking training, and knew absolutely nothing about running a business, and in the first days of the shop, repeatedly decided it was the dumbest thing she’d ever done in her life. But she loved being in charge, “I’m not a good employee, so being in charge suited me much better!” and the sense that she was hosting a party, every day. She credits the success of the Barefoot Contessa with its hospitality —the idea that every customer who came in was a guest at the party, and it was a delight to host them.

After several years, when the work began feeling too repetitive to her, and with the store doing well, she sold it to the manager and chef on its staff, and waited for the next thing to come along. Her life, she says, is a pattern of things coming along to her, rather than Ina wracking her brain to think of some new scheme of work. She has a genius for knowing which opportunities to grab.

“It is terrifying to walk away from something and change your life. But I don’t back down from being terrified. You can’t stand at the edge of the pond just staring down at it. You have to jump in.”

It was Jeffrey who suggested the first cookbook, because Barefoot Contessa customers frequently asked for recipes.  She wrote a proposal and sent it to an agent. The book would have just 75 entries—she dislikes enormous all-inclusive cooking tomes—and contain some of the best recipes she had developed at Barefoot Contessa, beautifully photographed. It was accepted, and Ina had a publisher and an advance, but she was sure she’d have to return it, so she banked it in a separate account to sit and wait to be returned.

“I wrote the cookbook I wanted to have myself. I like simple food; cookbooks by restaurant chefs can be complicated. What you want on a weeknight at home or for a dinner with friends is just a good meal, with great ingredients, that is simple to prepare and full of layers of good flavors. One thing that always interests me is a traditional recipe with a twist, which comes out better than you can imagine that dish.”

Holding the first copy of that first cookbook, she says, is still the greatest moment of her life.

The next terrifying opportunity to come knocking was television, and the Food Network came knocking several times before she accepted what she thought of as their crazy idea, and began filming the show. It still shocks her that the show is such a success, but it delights her as well. And she has never seen a single one of her shows. “I think if I ever saw it, I'd never do another episode."

Knowing what my cooking group went through to produce our two cookbooks, I’m especially impressed with Ina’s description of how she produces hers. She personally works on and tests each recipe, sometimes as many as 75 times, until she is satisfied with it. Many recipes have not made it past her development and testing; it took her 3 or 4 cookbooks before she was willing to publish her ginger cookies. 

Next, she gives it to a friend or employee (she has a very small company and group of employees), and watches them shop for the ingredients. It amazed her, the possibilities for misunderstanding on this step, and led to very specific ingredient instructions, and more than one measure for some ingredients (size of a vegetable, or a package volume as well as its weight, for instance). 

And then she watches more than one person cook the recipe, down to their choices of cooking tools, pots, pans, and the like. How their kitchen is organized, type of oven they use. All of this testing plays into how she writes the final recipe.

As someone who has used her cookbooks for years, I can testify that every recipe has always worked perfectly for me, and comes out looking like a million. And I have told customer after customer at Book Passage exactly that, oodles of times now. And now we know WHY they work so well.

“I'm interested in flavor, texture, delicious, appealing, comfort, relaxed. My ‘brand,’ everything I do, is true to me; I'm a very simple person,” she told us.

“When you cook, everybody shows up. It's about more than the food. It’s community; I love the warm responses of people who learn to cook with my books or show.  It is so very satisfying for me.”

So what is success, to Ina Garten?
“I get up in the morning and get to do what I love to do. I walk from the house to the barn where my cooking kitchen is; that’s my commute.” Jeffrey (Dean of the business school at Yale), who drives from the Hamptons to New Haven to work, sometimes calls to jokingly compare commutes with her.

Marissa Mayer gave us probably the most amusing moment of the night, an account of what she witnessed on the night she first met Ina Garten just a few years ago. At a dinner honoring Gayle King (of CBS news), the celebrated best friend of King, Oprah Winfrey, was just entering the room to join the honoree. Coincidentally entering a few yards behind her was Ina Garten. Mayer witnessed an extremely excited woman elbowing Oprah Winfrey aside to get to Garten, exclaiming, “Oh, Ina, Ina, I’m so excited that YOU’RE here!”

What's next for Ina Garten? “I never plan for the future. I just want to be stimulated and happy. I’ll let the next idea come along to me-- people are always bringing ideas to me. Though I'm probably not going to endorse the garden fertilizer that someone recently proposed...”

The discussion finished with Q&A from the audience about a variety of cooking questions and the newest book, Foolproof. I have already browsed it cover to cover, and I’m definitely making the mushroom bread pudding for Thanksgiving. 


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