MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Ina Garten is a star among food writers. Known as the Barefoot Contessa, she's made a name for herself with an elevated but accessible cooking style. She seems like that friend you can call when you're in a pinch in the kitchen, even though she sits atop a cooking empire that includes more than a dozen cookbooks, multiple TV shows and a number of Emmys and James Beard Awards, which is something like an Oscar in the cooking world. But it might surprise you to know that even she sometimes gets stressed out serving a meal to her nearest and dearest, and that's when she relies on her go-to dinners. And now we all can with her latest book titled, appropriately enough, "Go-To Dinners." And she's with us now to tell us more about it. Ina Garten, welcome back. Thank you so much for talking to us once again.
INA GARTEN: Thanks, Michel. It's so good to be here.
MARTIN: So we'll get to the book in a minute. But for people who aren't as familiar with your career, I'd love to talk about you for a bit. You spent the early part of your career in government. You were at the Office of Management and Budget, and then you were at the White House. But you left to eventually open up a fine food store. And for people who aren't familiar with your story, I was wondering if you would remind - reminding us of what drew you to cooking because I understand that, as a young woman, you really weren't encouraged in that area.
GARTEN: I was definitely not encouraged. I almost wasn't allowed in the kitchen. I just - you know, a woman of the '70s, and we all wanted to grow up to be the people that we knew that were professionals. But they were mostly men. And Jeffrey and I were married when I was 20, and he worked in government. And I just thought, well, this is what I should be doing. So I got myself a job working in the White House. It's the group that writes the president's budget called, as you said, Office of Management and Budget. And I worked there for about four years. And it was really interesting. And in the beginning, you're excited because what you're doing is going to the president. And then after four years, I thought nothing happened. Absolutely nothing happened.
But on the side, what I was doing was teaching myself how to cook and inviting friends over, which I love doing. And at some point, when I hit 30, I thought, OK, this is backwards. I should be doing what I love doing during the day. The other thing I was doing in Washington is buying old houses and renovating them. And it was a kind of a crossroads for me. I was trying to decide whether I wanted to go into cooking or if I wanted to go into real estate. And I just happened to see an ad for a business for sale in The New York Times that was a specialty food store. And so my life took that direction.
MARTIN: You know, it's one thing to be a good home cook who entertains a lot, but it's quite another to successfully run a food business...
MARTIN: ...Which you absolutely did. And I was just wondering - I mean, not just, like, any food business but Barefoot Contessa was, like, iconic. I mean, it was, like, featured in movies and things like that. I mean, I was just wondering what made you think, OK, I can do this? Like, was it confidence? Was it, like, naivete? Like, what made you think, I can do this?
MARTIN: Well, I wasn't going to use that word, but yeah.
GARTEN: (Laughter) Totally crazy. Well, I'd never owned a business. I'd never had an employee. I didn't know how to cash out a register. I wouldn't know brie from Camembert. And I really didn't know anything about the business. But the deal I made with the woman who sold me the store - and it was a very small store at the time; it was 400 square feet - is that she would stay with me for a month and teach me what I needed to know. And she was a wonderful teacher. So I learned under her wing very quickly. And it was intense. I mean, I would work 20-, 22-hour days, go home, sleep for an hour and come back again. And I really learned the business from the bottom up by doing that, by taking over a small store, building it to a bigger store, and then moving to East Hampton to a bigger store. So I learned by just doing it, which is the way I learn things.
MARTIN: Well, you know what? You're kind of a teacher, too, I have to say. I feel like your cookbooks - I feel like they're kind of teaching us in a nice way. They're not intimidating. They don't make you feel like I'm just going to look at the pictures because I could never actually do this - you know? - which - I mean, look, that's the way a lot of people look at cookbooks. They think those are amazing. I love the pictures. I could never do this. I'm just going to look at it. And I just wondered, you know, you're very clear about the fact that you're a home cook. You don't have formal culinary training. You didn't work your way up by cooking in restaurants. So I wonder if you think that shapes how you approach your work and showing people what to do?
GARTEN: A hundred percent. I think that I'm a very nervous cook. And so if a recipe isn't simple enough for me to do and do well and repeat and do it again the same way, it just - it doesn't make it into a book. One of the things I learned by owning a specialty food store is we were preparing dinners and salads and baked goods and things like that that people were taking home and either serving that day or the next day or reheating and serving. And in the beginning, when I had the store, I thought, well, this is - you know, this is the Hamptons. I've never been here. I was making, like, veal with morels and I was making really fancy things. And nobody bought them. And I thought, oh, this is interesting. I wonder if people want, like, simpler things, like roast chicken and roast carrots. And I started making things like that. And that's what sold because I learned people eat differently at home than they do in a restaurant.
In a restaurant, you want to be kind of surprised. You want something that's special. But at home, you want something delicious and comforting. So that's the first thing is the kinds of things that are in my book are the things that you want to eat at home. And after 13 books, I still have that same formula - that I want all of those elements to work. And then people will actually use the books and entertain their friends. And I think it's not really about the food. It's about creating a community around yourself. And God knows we need it right now. I think, you know, after 2 1/2 years of a pandemic and keeping people away, we feel so needy for that connection.
MARTIN: Was the pandemic part of the inspiration for this book?
GARTEN: Absolutely because what happened was I was - I'm normally writing a cookbook 'cause I'm always working on a cookbook. I was helping people on Instagram figure out what to do with those white beans that they bought and put in the pantry. A lot of people didn't know. And I was surprised that that was something, but it became a thing. And so every day, I would make something from what I actually had in my pantry. And then at some point, very quickly, I realized, oh, my God, I have to make breakfast, lunch and dinner for Jeffrey and me. So I was just flat-out cooking all day, every day. And by - you know, the pandemic started in March. By the end of May, I was done. I was like, I have to rethink this because I just - I couldn't cook all the time.
And we didn't know whether we could go out, whether we could do takeout. We just didn't even know. So I thought, OK, I have to redefine what dinner is. Does dinner really have to be a meat, a vegetable, a starch? Or can it be, like, something that you would have for breakfast for dinner, you know, like eggs in purgatory, which is, you know, like, tomato sauce with poached eggs on it with big chunks of toasted bread. And we were like, this is delicious. It may be, you know, something you would serve for breakfast or lunch, but it's also good for dinner. So I started rethinking, can I do one thing, like chicken in a pot with orzo - and that's everything in one pot. And those are the recipes that I put in the book.
MARTIN: So again, hate to make you choose among your kids, but are there a couple of recipes in this book that you're just absolutely in love with - just, like, your go-to among the go-to?
GARTEN: Of the go-to. One thing I've made a lot is the salmon teriyaki with broccolini. And what you do is you make a - like, a teriyaki sauce with ginger and garlic and sesame oil that you kind of marinate the salmon with. And you put it in the oven in a baking dish. And then as it cooks, it makes a sauce for the salmon. And then the broccolini goes in at the same temperature on a different shelf, and you end up with a full dinner that you've cooked in, like, I don't know, I think it's, like, 12 minutes. It's very quick - and then serve it with some basmati rice, and you've got a whole meal that was really easy to do.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, do you think - you know, we've all talked about how COVID has changed us as people, as - our workplaces. It sounds like you've thought a lot about it. What do you think? I mean, how - do you think that this whole experience has changed you in some way or changed something about the way you cook or maybe your convictions about food and what it's for?
GARTEN: I think that the thing that - it's very comfortable to be home alone in your house. It's easy. You can hang out in your sweatpants and do whatever you want, eat dinner, not eat dinner. But what we were really missing - when we finally got back together with friends in person, I think I realized how important that physical connection is. You can't have it on Zoom. You have to have it in person. And I think - I find I have to kind of push myself a little bit to say, OK, I'm going to get myself dressed and out the door and we're going to meet friends.
We do it very carefully. Everybody tests themselves very carefully. And we only see two or three people at a time so that - you know, we don't do big parties so we put anybody in danger. But I think it's become much more clear that we have to make an effort to be with people that we love, to take care of each other in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. I think there's nothing more important.
MARTIN: That's Ina Garten. Her latest cookbook, "Go-To Dinners," is out now. Ina Garten, thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
GARTEN: Thank you, Michel. It's great to talk to you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.