“I’m testing a fig and ricotta cake!” Ina Garten says when she answers the phone for our interview. “If you were here, you could have some.”
The 68-year-old Garten doesn’t rest: her 10th cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey—dedicated to her husband, Jeffrey Garten—was just released this week, but the celebrated chef, author and TV host, who's also known as the Barefoot Contessa, is already at work on her next book and preparing to embark on a tour in support of Cooking for Jeffrey. She’ll be at Tampa’s Straz Center next week; we caught up with Garten in advance of her talk and asked her what attendees can expect, her all-time favorite recipe and her must-have cooking equipment.
When you set out to write a cookbook, what’s your creative process like?
It’s a two-year process of developing recipes and then testing, re-testing and testing again. I give every recipe to my assistant, Barbara, to see how someone would make it at home with just the printed page and no other instructions, and I always learn something from that—I call it road testing.
Then I’ll make the recipe for a dinner party. It’s one thing to make the skillet-roasted chicken on its own, but for a dinner party you have to make three or four things, and that’s when I find out whether it’s impossible to make [the recipe] along with other dishes.
Once the recipes are done, we photograph them here in my barn, where I work, and then I send [the manuscript] to my publisher, Clarkson Potter. Then I sit down with the designer and we design it together. I’m involved with every detail, right down to how the book lays when it opens, probably to Clarkson Potter’s dismay! [Laughs] I want it to be a beautiful object, one that you’d want to give as a gift but that’s accessible enough to use yourself.
You achieved success later in life. What’s your advice for people who want to make a change, or who are looking to emulate your path?
Well, this is true for anyone, young or old: We tend to stand on the side of the pond and talk about what the pond’s like and what it’s going to feel like being in the pond—but you never know until you jump in the pond. We’re all taught that we should find our passion—but we don’t know what that is until we jump in and splash around. It’s a process. I’ve splashed around in quite a few ponds and figured out what I wanted to do while I was there.
Cooking for Jeffrey is as much a love letter to your marriage as it is a cookbook. What’s your best piece of relationship advice?
Well, I only know about my relationship, but I’ve always felt that I’m the most important thing in his life, and I hope he’s always felt that he’s the most important thing in mine. Even if we’re not in the same place, we’re the anchor in each other’s lives.
Plus, he’s funny and smart—I think that’s a requirement.
Does Jeffrey ever cook for you?
He makes really good coffee. Smart men always make good coffee. [Laughs.]
What’s your all-time favorite recipe?
The French apple tart in Back to Basics. It’s the simplest crust, with slices of apple, butter and sugar on top. It’s the essence of autumn, simplicity and deliciousness.
Ever had a major cooking disaster?
I’ve made a lot of things that nobody would want to eat—I think we all have. I’m always testing recipes, so sometimes I’ll just start adding things, and by the end it goes in the trash. It’s all part of the scientific process.
What are your kitchen essentials?
People think you need a million different pieces, but I’d say a stack of sheet pans, good knives, All-Clad pots and a KitchenAid mixer. If you can’t afford a whole set of All-Clad pots, go to a restaurant supply store and buy good-quality restaurant pots, then slowly replace them. Get things that will last a lifetime.
Favorite flavors to cook with?
Good vanilla, lemon zest, maple syrup, thyme, Provencal spices, mustard, garlic, red wine vinegar to give a dish an edge, Parmesan cheese and lots of salt and pepper.
What cookbooks are you loving right now?
I like Julia Turshen’s Small Victories—it’s just wonderful. And I love Sarah Chase’s stuff—it’s simple, flavorful and absolutely delicious.
I also tend to use specialty food-store cookbooks, like the Silver Palate, because [the recipes are] “at home food”—ones you can make with ingredients you can find.
What can people attending your talk in Tampa expect?
My friend Deborah Davis is interviewing me, and she’s going to ask all kinds of questions about business, food and entertaining—we’ll talk for an hour, then open it up to questions from the audience.
And, finally, what’s next for you?
I’m working on my next book and series, and I just filmed a show in Washington, D.C., that will air November 6-7. I cooked with the White House chef and spent some time with Mrs. Obama—it was totally amazing. If I get to do all this for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy.
Tickets to Garten's talk at the Straz Center on Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. start at $45; for more info, click here or call (813) 229-7827.