"Welcome to our playdate": What you missed at Ina Garten's Straz talk

In all her glory, the domestic goddess said, "Oh, shit."

click to enlarge Ina Garten packed the Straz's Morsani Hall Wednesday night.
Ina Garten packed the Straz's Morsani Hall Wednesday night.

Approaching the doors of Morsani Hall on Wednesday, you would've thought you were at Amalie Arena to see Stevie Nicks. Hordes of people crowded the doors just before 6:30 p.m., plastic cups of red wine in one hand and tickets out and ready in the other.

They were waiting for the ushers to let them in. They needed to claim their preordered copies of a highly anticipated cookbook. Some people in line could be heard saying they hoped to catch the author in the hallway.

Ina Garten was that author.

The domestic goddess stopped by the packed downtown Tampa venue at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts to promote her new book, Cooking for Jeffrey, and talk about her life. (She's familiar with the area, too, having made trips to visit her husband Jeffrey's parents in Tampa.) Perched on her throne at center stage — atop a tasteful Oriental carpet and appropriately minimalistic floral arrangement — Garten, 68, talked about everything from her nearly 50-year marriage to cooking tips to a snafu while carving duck.

The Food Network hostess has written 10 cookbooks, which have sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide. Her television show, Barefoot Contessa, is an Emmy winner, and she was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people — along with Pope Francis. But on stage she was a woman having a good time with what seemed like an audience of her close friends, laughing and answering their questions.

Led through the conversation by her longtime friend Deborah Davis, Garten launched into a tale of how she and her husband met, riling the crowd with jokes and good-natured sarcasm. Jeffrey, as the story goes, was attending Dartmouth and saw the 15-year-old Ina walking across campus, which was then male-only.

“He literally hadn’t seen a girl in, like, months,” she laughed.

He contacted her almost six months later with a letter and a photograph, and the two were married five years later. In fact, Garten was full of advice on how to keep a marriage fresh and alive. Aside from the fact that Jeffrey, dean emeritus of the Yale School of Management, “leaves Monday and comes back Friday,” Garten said he’s “the center of [her] life, and she’s the center of [his] life,” which is “all you can ask for from another human being.”

She also cooks him lots of chicken. Her recipe for roast chicken is dubbed “engagement chicken” because of its ability to prompt a marriage proposal in 24 hours.

Garten also recounted a camping trip, featured in her cookbook, she and Jeffrey took around Europe early in their marriage. It was while they were in France. This, she said, is where peaches are fresh (not canned), Brie “actually tasted like cheese,” she was offered coq au vin and her love of food was born.

Returning to the states, she soon landed a job as a nuclear budget analyst for the White House. When Davis remarked on Garten’s knack for grasping things like science, economics and policy, she scoffed.

“You think I had that grasp? It amazes me that they entrust these things to 25 year olds.”

The young woman often threw dinner parties after work and taught herself to cook by taking Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipe by recipe, “like in [the film] Julia and Julia.” Flipping houses in her spare time, Garten eventually realized that she wanted to do something different with her life. When she saw an ad in a 478-page copy of The New York Times, she decided to “jump in the pond, splash around and see what’s comfortable.”

Having never been to the Hamptons, where she famously lives today with Jeffrey, Garten answered the ad for a catering and gourmet food shoppe — spelled with the extra p and e. Driving out with her husband, she hesitantly put in an offer for the location. When the owner called the next day to accept, Garten said she knew she had to take the plunge.

Her response? “Oh, shit. I think I just bought a business.”

Jeffrey was with her through the entire process, Garten said, reiterating his importance in her life. He took a weekend off work, where he was employed by Henry Kissinger, to help open the store. During the opening, the Gartens got a call from someone described to them as “some secretary.”

It turned out to be the Secretary of State.

Again though, Garten felt the stirrings of a need for change. After 18 years, she sold her store and holed herself up in the office she built for herself above the shop.

“I just decided I wanted to wake up and see a new horizon,” she said.

In her office, desperate for direction, she researched the stock market and considered building a bus company. It was Jeffrey who directed her toward writing cookbooks, and, on a whim, she wrote a book proposal. Now, 14 years later, her TV show is still a network hit. It will air a new special program, “Barefoot in Washington,” this weekend.

Returning full circle to where her journey began, Garten talked about the importance of what she called “left turns,” or times in her life where she made changes that she wasn’t always certain of. She stressed the importance of learning how to stop worrying or constantly trying to figure out what to do next. She believes this lesson is what brought her to the work that she loves.

Her greatest achievement so far has been teaching people how to cook. Some tips from her in the kitchen: use simple equipment, make a game plan for your menu and be precise with your measurements.

Oh, and never be afraid of left turns.

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