"That's how this all evolved," Jeffrey Garten said. "We would have Sunday brunch, and more and more people would come. She had a huge amount of style and confidence over these events. We would invite 20, 30, 40 people over for parties. . . . She didn't know those parties in Washington were a dry run for the whole thing."
She made frequent trips to the now-defunct Hechinger's hardware store on Wisconsin Avenue, in Tenleytown, as she refurbished two rowhouses, one in Dupont Circle and the other in Kalorama. The profits from buying and selling the two houses enabled her to make a low-ball offer to buy the Barefoot Contessa, a gourmet food store in the Hamptons (named after the 1954 movie).
Ina Garten's ideal party is soup for lunch at a round table, an easy, fun, make-ahead meal.
Washington to retail? Garten spotted an ad in the New York Times that the store was for sale and she saw it as an opportunity to do what she loved for a living. A few days later, it was hers.
For her current house, a 10-year-old, 3,500-square-foot shingle-style farmhouse with a wraparound porch and two sets of French doors, Garten didn't even hire an architect. She designed it herself, picked the Benjamin Moore historic paints in shades of khaki, green and brown, dressed the windows in white wood blinds, and added a mix of antiques, black-and-white photographs, sisal rugs and straw baskets. In winter she turns the furniture in the living room to face the fireplace.
The long center hall leads directly to the black-and-white kitchen, where her shows for the Food Network are filmed during two busy months, spring and fall. The room has two Bosch dishwashers, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, white cabinets, black countertops (some Formica, some granite) and a black-and-white linoleum floor. There is tone-on-tone sage green paint in the kitchen and nearly identical wallpaper in the powder room. The same stripe shows up again and again, on her Web site, www.barefootcontessa.com, and in her books.
The house is not just tasteful, it's immaculate. "I'm always this tidy," Garten admitted, adding that it's not so hard to be neat when you have no kids or pets and a husband who shows up only on weekends. (Jeffrey Garten is dean of the Yale School of Management and lives in the couple's house in Southport, Conn., during the week.)
Her decorating extends to the care she takes in setting a table. First, she considers the season. Fall evokes oranges and reds, she said. Then, she starts in the middle of the table and decides on a centerpiece. "Flowers, fruit, sometimes it's a big basket of artichokes or a big bowl of clementines and dates -- my favorite is orange flowers," she said.
For a typical fall dinner, she recently set a round table for six people using three French linen tablecloths of different lengths. (She does not dry clean her linens. She washes them in the machine, hangs them dry and her once-a-week housekeeper irons them. Garten said she ironed the linens herself until recently, when life got too busy.) The autumn table's centerpiece consists of three cake stands of different heights laden with in-season fruits in contrasting shapes and colors: grapes, pears and persimmons. "It's balanced," Garten said, "but not symmetrical."
These days she is two weeks into the book tour for her latest cookbook, "Barefoot in Paris," and 500 readers have been lining up at her book-signings. She gets 50 e-mails a day asking everything from entertaining advice to what kind of lipstick she wears. One fan, after seeing an episode where friends come to stay at Garten's house for the weekend, asked if she could bring her husband to celebrate their anniversary.
Meanwhile, the offers to do more pour in: her own magazine, a line of furniture, even setting up Barefoot Contessa boutiques inside department stores. She has two cookbooks left to write to fulfill her current contract with Clarkson Potter; "Barefoot Basics" will be published next year.
Any attempt to build a bigger empire is shot down by Garten, who wants her life to be just like one of her parties -- simple, easy and fun.