EAST HAMPTON, N.Y.
Ina Garten -- with four cookbooks, a hit cooking show on cable TV and 20 years of running the Barefoot Contessa gourmet store on her résumé -- approaches Thanksgiving with her trademark make-ahead style.
She decides on the music, bar setup, table settings and serving dishes days in advance. She writes out her menu by hand. She divides her shopping list into dairy, produce, fish and meat so she doesn't waste time crisscrossing grocery store aisles. She even drafts a timetable, starting with when she wants to serve the food and working backwards to when she puts each dish in the oven.
Ina Garten's ideal party is soup for lunch at a round table, an easy, fun, make-ahead meal.
Yet the woman who answers the doorbell with a drink in her hand and a burden off her mind has a confession: The "last-minute crunch" before guests arrive can be so filled with stress that Jeffrey, her husband of 36 years, knows not to speak to her.
"It's not easy!" she exclaimed during a recent interview in her pretty, spotless home that doubles as a TV studio. "Every single thing I do is about how to make it easier."
If Martha Stewart convinced us it was worth it to make our own wrapping paper and organize the linen closet, Garten -- known as the revered Barefoot Contessa to legions of fans -- tells us to take it easy on ourselves. Don't cook all the food, buy some. Never entertain on a Saturday night: "Too much pressure."
"I don't care if you order takeout," she said. "It's not about the food."
She says she's not just about the food, either. Her cookbooks and TV episodes are full of tips on making entertaining easy, including table settings, flowers, music and even the intangibles of how to get a crowd going (seat the most boisterous people opposite each other in the middle of a long table, so conversation flows to either end, she says).
This just-relax-already routine has propelled the 56-year-old former Office of Management and Budget analyst to the verge of celebrity as an entertaining expert, all within the past five years. She has yet to achieve the recognition of Martha or Oprah (although Garten wrote a column on entertaining in both women's magazines). But in some ways fans find her more universal.
This is a woman, after all, who became well-known in a tough racket serving the toughest of audiences -- as a caterer in the Hamptons. She is neither young nor slender, and is perfectly at ease letting a national television audience see her accidentally dust cocoa powder all over one of her tunic shirts. She eats Campbell's tomato soup or shredded wheat with milk for dinner on nights she doesn't feel like cooking for herself.
"What I do is very accessible," Garten said. "I think because I'm not a trained chef, I know what it means to stand by the stove and not know if the chicken is done. I've thought through how to make [entertaining] simple, but it's still hard. At the end of the day, the message is it's not about the food, it's about the friends, and I think people find it an enormous relief."
Every party she gives or dinner she cooks is guided by one premise: Do as much as you can in advance.
During an interview at her home, she answered questions in her garden (landscaped by Edwina von Gal, who also did Stewart's home in the Hamptons) with a timer in front of her so the pear clafouti wouldn't overcook. Hours earlier, she made the winter squash soup and grated the Gruyere to sprinkle on top, whisked the vinaigrette for the greens and went to the cheese shop to buy a few wedges for the cheese course. The round kitchen table was set, a Bryan Ferry CD was playing and there were fresh flowers in every room on the first floor of her house.
Her interest in entertaining is actually rooted in Washington, where Garten and her husband lived from 1972 to 1978. He worked, mostly, for the State Department. She worked on nuclear energy policy by day, and by night, started cooking her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and preparing for a weekly party.