Yalies, meet Mr. and Mrs. Barefoot Contessa

During the week, Jeffrey Garten, a professor and former dean of the Yale School of Management, eats like many college students. He frequents diners and Chinese restaurants near his house in Southport, Conn.

But on the weekends, when Garten is home in East Hampton, N.Y., he can savor the delicate flavors of his wife’s perfect roast chicken. Garten’s wife doesn’t make her chicken perfect just by following a recipe, though. Her meals are also perfect because she writes all the recipes she uses — because she is Ina Garten, the celebrity chef known as the Barefoot Contessa.

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“Jeffrey is an easy audience,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “He likes everything I make.”

Actually, he says, there was once a fish stew that didn’t turn out quite right. But the two have been married since 1968, and one bad dish in more than 40 years is a pretty good track record.

***

Ina Rosenberg was 15 when she met a 20-year-old student at Dartmouth College named Jeffrey Garten. She was visiting her brother, who also attended Dartmouth at the time, and she wound up finding the love of her life on campus.

After their wedding, and after Mr. Garten’s four years of military service, the couple moved to Washington, D.C. Mrs. Garten worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget, overseeing all nuclear energy research before she had even turned 30. At the time, in the late 1970s, Mr. Garten was working for Henry Kissinger.

During their time in Washington, the Gartens hosted dinner parties almost every weekend. They didn’t need to worry about hiring caterers, though, because Ina did all the cooking for the couple, and in the process managed to become an expert chef during her 20s.

“I was never allowed to cook when I was growing up,” she recalled, explaining that her mother liked to have the kitchen to herself. “So when we got married, it was like taking off the shackles.”

Once those shackles came off, they never went back on.

***

Around the time Ina turned 30, in 1978, she decided policymaking was not for her. She wanted to devote her life to cooking.

That same year, she spotted a small advertisement in The New York Times for a specialty food store that was for sale in West Hampton Beach. In the middle of a sedated Hamptons April, the couple drove to see the store. Mrs. Garten fell in love for a second time.

“We had no money, but it was a very small price and we offered them a little less than they wanted,” Mr. Garten, now a prominent financial commentator, recalled. “They accepted on the spot.”

So the Gartens took out a second mortgage and Mr. Garten ultimately left his job with Kissinger to enter a career on Wall Street, which was much closer to Long Island.

The store, called the Barefoot Contessa, was a huge success. In the nearly two decades that she ran it, Mrs. Garten grew the Barefoot Contessa into a major operation and gained renown among Hamptons regulars.

She sold the store to its employees in 1996, and began the next chapter in her life. She set out to write a single cookbook, and now she has written six. Her latest, “Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics,” published in October 2008, has been on The Times’ bestseller list for the last 15 weeks.

In addition, Garten hosts a show on the Food Network and has a brand of food products — the Barefoot Contessa Pantry — available in stores nationwide.

***

But what does she cook at home?

Both husband and wife swear they eat the same meals outlined in her cookbooks. Earlier this month, the Gartens hosted a dinner party and she served turkey meatloaf with parmesan smashed potatoes and roasted carrots.

The meatloaf recipe, included in her first book, includes her signature chatty description of the meal.

“My husband loves when I make enough that he can have meatloaf sandwiches for days afterwards,” she wrote. “This is a large recipe to ensure lots of leftovers.”

It’s tough to imagine, though, that there are ever many leftovers at the Garten household. Some of their other favorites dishes are a roast filet of beef with gorgonzola sauce and a rack of lamb served with orzo and roasted vegetables.

Mrs. Garten says she loves cooking for her husband. But she’s not looking for him to start helping out in the kitchen.

“He’s a deeply appreciative, incredibly supportive husband,” she said. “But I don’t send him to the grocery store. He does what I think most smart men do — he makes our coffee.”

***

Even if Mr. Garten doesn’t help with her raspberry tart, he has had a great view of his wife’s growth from a government researcher to one of the world’s most famous chefs. (But he takes no credit for her success, saying his only contribution was agreeing to move away from Washington.)

Looking back on his wife’s career, Mr. Garten starts to speak like the business school professor that he is. The former School of Management dean, who appears often on her television shows as the quintessential bumbling husband, takes four main lessons away from his wife’s decades working with food.

“If I were teaching this case at SOM, I would say first of all it’s a validation that you have to follow your passion,” he noted, adding that his wife has taken risks in her work and always focused on quality.

But, above all, Mr. Garten said it is the fact that his wife is so authentic — both in print and on screen — that has made her a culinary sensation. Both Gartens say that, if anything, her food has only gotten simpler over the years. Her cookbooks are not filled with fancy French recipes; the dishes are meant to be fun and easy to prepare.

The Barefoot Contessa would know, her husband says.

After all, Mr. Garten said, “Even if she’s made something 100 times, she still follows her recipe to the T.”

Comments

  • glvnyc

    great article! i really enjoy seeing ina on the food network (weekdays 1:30pm and 5pm; saturday 1:30pm; sunday 10:30am), as the barefoot contessa. she and jeffrey make such a cute couple that i imagine many of us we part of.

  • Jack

    Ina Garten never met a stick of butter or pint of heavy cream she didn't love. Only Paula Dean rivals her on TV for unhealthy fattening food. Well, at least Ina never featured deep fat-fried butter on her show. Her recipes are still to be admired at a distance.

  • Anonymous

    ha great article -- i'd love to be married to her!

  • Alum

    To #2 (Jack):

    Haha - too true! But I still remember what Paula once said when asked about the general attitude towards her rather unhealthy recipes: "Hon, I'm yer cook, not yer doctor!!!"

  • anon

    What a puff piece! There is nothing cute about JG--anyone who's worked in his vicinity can tell you he's a soulless sleazeball of the first order.

  • glvnyc

    anon, do tell more!

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