Ina Garten is perched on a chair in the elegant Georgetown living room of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and his wife, Elsa Walsh. The house smells of mouthwatering roast chicken, which is sort of how you imagine everything always smells around Garten, the cookbook author and TV host.
Longtime pals Garten and Walsh (their friendship started romcom-cute over email when Walsh asked her for help with a recipe) have just cooked a few birds, along with maple-roasted carrots, and they’ll later serve them to a handful of Woodward and Walsh’s friends. As with so many of Garten’s social meals, the cameras will be running — this cozy dinner party will likely end up in a special that Garten is filming for the Food Network about dining in Washington.
The Georgetown luminaries, though, won’t be Garten’s A-list-iest dining companions — on Wednesday, she and her camera crew will head to the White House, where she’ll spend time in the kitchen with chef Cristeta Comerford and have tea with first lady Michelle Obama. The whirlwind Beltway tour also includes filming foodie favorites like Union Market, Rose’s Luxury, and Chaia, the veggie-taco restaurant co-owned by her friend Bettina Stern.
As the crew set up their next shot, we plopped on a sofa next to Garten for a quick chat about her stint as a government worker in Washington in the 1970s and her famously adorable on-screen rapport with her husband, economist Jeffrey Garten.
Where did you live in Washington?
Well, I used to buy houses and restore them. The first place was on Church Street, which is just the loveliest. I think it was $48,000, and a woman who lived next door came over and said, ‘I wanted to see the person who was so sick in the head that she’d spend $48,000 on a house!’ And then I renovated it and sold it three years later for almost $100,00, and so I imagined her coming next door to that person who bought it and going, ‘I wanted to see the person who was so sick in the head that they’d spend $100,000 on a house!’
Your work [at the Office of Management and Budget] at the time was pretty wonky…
But I loved it. I was working on interesting things. You always would think, “This thing I’m working on is going to the president; how exciting!” but then four years later, you’d realize that nothing happened because of what you wrote. And that was in the ’70s, and can you imagine now? Because nothing happens — it’s so hard to get anything done.
So what made you make such a big career switch?
I thought at the time, “Well, this is what people do when they grow up.” And then when I hit 30, I thought, “No, it’s not — this is what other people do when they grow up.” I just wanted to do something that was more fun, and I wanted to do something that was mine. A couple years ago, Jeffrey ran into someone who worked at OMB, and he told him that I used to worked there. And the man remembered, which I thought was so strange because I was so unimportant there. And he told Jeffrey that I’m remembered because I “got over the wall.”
So you’re like the patron saint of young Washington women who get bored with their jobs and dream of doing something else. What advice would you give them?
Just go for it. It’s not that you’re going to figure it out immediately, but you just have to start that process. And so if you’re doing something . . . well, I have a very low threshold of boredom. If I’m doing something that isn’t exciting, that doesn’t keep me up wondering what’s the next step, I have to move on. Everyone says, “It’s so risky,” but the only risk really is not doing it. It doesn’t mean that I finished it all in one step, but you have to think, if it doesn’t go well, I’ll find something else. Fortunately, for me, it went really well.
What do you make of Washington entertaining?
Remember, my experience is from quite a while ago. But I found that people didn’t go out to dinner as much, that they entertained at home. I love that because it’s cozier — you’re all sitting around a table, talking.
Part of that might have been that there weren’t good restaurants — we have much better ones now.
I know! There were some great places at the time, but they were very fancy. There weren’t all these wonderful casual spots.
Your new cookbook is all about cooking for Jeffrey. Did you ever cook him something terrible, especially when you were first starting out?
I always tackled really fancy dishes, like Julia Child’s. I remember one of the first things I ever made for Jeffrey was a challah, which, I mean, there couldn’t possibly be a harder thing. You have to get the dough right, and the temperature and the yeast. I now have a recipe in the book from that period. Even though I never trained as a chef, I think I was always meant to do this, to cook. So I don’t think I served him too many things that were awful.
Is there something anti-feminist about a modern woman wanting to cook for her husband?
There was a generation of women who wanted to be like men — to act like men and have jobs like men. I never did; I wanted to act like me. I love cooking, I love feminine pursuits. I just want to do them in my own way. The best example I can give to other women is to be independent and have a good business and be able to take care of yourself. It’s one of the great joys of my life to take care of my husband, and he takes care of me, too.
You show that through cooking, so how does Jeffrey care for you?
I am absolutely the center of his life. I walk in the room, and he goes, “Okay, what are we doing?” He just drops everything. He’s also been the brains behind everything I’ve done. He’s invested, literally. He just believes in me, which is extraordinary. And he makes good coffee.
That’s called burying the lede in my business! So are you excited about cooking for Michelle Obama?
It’s beyond thrilling. And really interesting to be back at the White House, since that’s sort of where I started, only now it’s completely different. It’s kind of like coming full circle — but I think I’ve done okay.