Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten

By Liz Seymour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the back flap of the book jacket for Ina Garten's new cookbook, she is described as one of the country's most beloved culinary icons.

But one reason she's so adored is because non-cooks love her, too. Why else would "Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics" (Clarkson Potter, $35) list the contact information for the architect of her new barn and where she got its outdoor sconces? It's why, sandwiched between recipes for tagliarelle with truffle butter and maple-roasted butternut squash, she posts a 10-tip checklist for how to "set a table like a pro."

Anyone who watches her Food Network show, "Barefoot Contessa," knows that Garten, a former caterer and gourmet shop owner in the Hamptons, is about so much more than the food. Viewers don't tune in solely to see her drop raisins into croissant bread pudding or cut avocados into chunks for guacamole. They're seeing an entertaining lifestyle that includes what flowers to put on the table, how to set up a buffet and even how to design a kitchen and organize a pantry. Nearly every episode shows wide-angle views of her home with plenty of effortless-looking touches to emulate: the black-and-white photographs on the living room mantel, the built-in bookshelves in the dining room, the country-chic furniture and beautiful English-like gardens.

Her style is so appealing to so many that her book signings are huge events. Last month, 1,000 books were sold at Sur La Table in Pentagon Row.

"I like to think I'm not giving you something, I'm teaching you something," Garten, 60, said recently when asked about her popularity. "I've empowered people to do it for themselves."

The new barn is actually her office for a growing Barefoot empire that now encompasses six cookbooks, the television show, a monthly column for House Beautiful magazine and a line of packaged gourmet food and mixes. It's a lot for a woman who makes business decisions specifically to avoid becoming a celebrity, unlike many Food Network hosts.

Her Paris apartment is where she goes to relax, with a no-work vow, with her husband of 40 years, Jeffrey Garten, a professor and former dean of the Yale School of Management. But with her growing success, home and work were blurring together at the brown shingle house in East Hampton, N.Y. "I really wanted to go to an office."

The barn is on a one-acre parcel next door. Before she bought the vacant property, she'd stare at it all the time and once a year would write a note to the property owner in North Carolina asking him to let her know if he ever wanted to sell. Each year he would send a note back politely declining. Then, in 2005, he called her.

The 2,000-square-foot barn was finished last year. The show films in the main room, an open living and kitchen area with an 18-foot-long island topped with Belgian stone counters in charcoal (a good color for TV because it makes limes and other vibrant foods "pop," she said). There are two Sub-Zero refrigerators, two Bosch dishwashers, one stainless-steel sink from Waterworks and one Viking range so Garten and her longtime assistant, Barbara Libath, can work together. Nowhere will you find a convection oven, wood-burning stove or any other equipment that the average Barefoot fan doesn't have at home.

A favorite item in the new place is a tall wicker basket at the end of the island. She slips oven racks, large cookie sheets and cutting boards in there when they're not in use. She bought hers at Axel Vervoordt Antiques in Belgium. The barn also has a bedroom, bath, dressing area and a small office.

Looking for more details? Check out "Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics" for the full list of sources and stores. "I thought people would really want to know," she said.

They do.

Despite her cultlike following, Garten still maintains a refreshing candor and unpretentiousness. During an interview over coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, she expressed surprise at the mammoth crowds that greet her at every stop on the book tour. Her fans love knowing the Hamptons lifestyle, but most of them don't live it. And they are searching for ways to enjoy the holidays in a battered economy.

Garten has some advice.

"First of all, instead of going out to dinner, buy good food," she said. "Cooking at home shows such affection" for the people you love. "In a bad economy, it's more important to make yourself feel good."

She is an icon because her message is universal and empowering. Don't cook all the food; buy some. Keep the table settings simple. Do most of the work the day before the party. All good rules to follow at this most stressful entertaining time of the year. It is hard, she said, but you can do it. She swears that her familiar line about telling her husband not to talk to her 15 minutes before guests arrive is true.

"I'm really a nervous cook, but you don't believe me," she told two Post editors at the Four Seasons.

"You're right," we said in unison. "We don't."

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