In Oprah Daily’s series, My Creative Space, newsmakers, celebrities, and other notable names reveal the place where they feel most inspired, open up about their prized possessions, and share a few things they can’t work without.
For nearly 15 years, Ina Garten has had the same commute to work: She walks out the door of her shingle-style home in East Hampton, NY, pads across the lush lawn, and enters the barn—a lofty, sunlit structure, where she develops her simple yet sophisticated recipes, and films her Food Network cooking show, Barefoot Contessa.
Every Monday, Jeffrey (her husband and the former dean of the Yale School of Management) would get up and “make the four-hour schlep to New Haven,” and during his drive, he’d call and ask Garten about her commute. “I’d be like, ‘The rabbits were in the way today, so it really took me an extra second,'” she tells Oprah Daily over Zoom. “So yeah, the commute is very nice.”
In the ’90s, when the Gartens purchased their East Hampton house, they included a right-of-first-refusal clause in the contract for the open field next door—meaning that if their neighbor decided to sell the property, the Gartens would have the first shot at buying it. “Every year for 10 years, I wrote to the man who owned the property and asked if he’d consider selling,” she recalls. “And every time, he’d write back saying ‘no.'” Finally, in 2006, he gave her a call—that’s when they worked out a deal.
By that point, Ina knew how she wanted to use the extra space: “We were filming for eight weeks straight, twice a year, and during that time, the crew took over the entire house, which meant Jeffrey and I practically lived in our bedroom,” she says. “I knew that either Jeffrey was going to divorce me or I was going to have to find some other place to film.”
The result was a rustic, 2,000-square-foot barn. Designed by architect Frank Greenwald, it includes a perfectly organized pantry stocked with plates, props, and other staples; a reading room designed specifically for her cookbook collection; and, most importantly, an airy kitchen inspired by the one in her own home. “Remember this is a place where at least two people work,” she says, referring to herself and her two assistants, who both test and develop recipes alongside Garten, in addition to helping with administrative tasks and social media. “So we took my kitchen and did it twice: We each have our own refrigerator and stove, and we have duplicates of every pot, pan, and spoon.” There’s also an 18th century Swedish trestle table (which, during the pandemic, has doubled as Ina’s office) and 25 feet of limestone counter space. “It’s just beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. “Every day, I walk in here and think, I can’t believe I work here.”
Ahead, the culinary icon takes us inside her space, revealing her must-have ingredients, recipe-testing process, and more.
My Creative Process
As soon as I have an idea for a recipe, I’ll read everything that has been written about that kind of thing, then I’ll come up with my own twist or a way to do it simpler. For example, when I was working on Barefoot Contessa Modern Comfort Food, I knew I wanted to include a beef stew. So I thought, what would I want a beef stew to be? I’d want the beef to be better, so instead of using chuck, I’ll make it with short ribs, which have so much flavor. And how can I bump up the flavor of the sauce? Maybe I should add a lot of red wine, like beef bourguignon.
Once I know what I want—both in terms of flavor and texture—I’ll start cooking. Sometimes I nail it on the third try, and sometimes it takes 10. In fact, I worked on my Boston Cream Pie for six years. But when I feel it’s right, I give the recipe to my assistant and I watch her make it. I want to see what she doesn’t understand, like she might say, “I don’t know whether to cut the carrots straight across or on a diagonal.” Well, I’d normally do it on a diagonal, so I probably forgot to include that detail. When people stop me, they often say, “I feel like you’re standing next to me when I’m making your recipes.” That makes me really happy because that’s exactly what I do. I stand next to my assistant and she’ll go, “Oh my God, it’s bubbling!” And I’ll add: Don’t worry—it’s supposed to bubble.
My 12 Cookbooks
Making a cookbook can be a little like exercise—it’s really hard in the beginning, but over time, you get better and better at it. After I released my first one, my publisher called and said, “We need another cookbook immediately,” and I remember saying, “I gave you all the recipes I have. I had one book in me and I’m done.” But then I thought, Well, I used to do catering, so maybe I can do those recipes and call it Barefoot Contessa Parties, which is what I did.
Twelve cookbooks later, I can now finish a book and write down 75 ideas for the next one. It just seems to flow, and I think, you don’t come up with new ideas by being alone at home—you get them from going places and interacting with people. We took [COVID-19] very seriously, but we’re vaccinated, so in late March, I went to La Mercerie in New York City and had something so delicious that I came home and made my own version of it. Sometimes I’ll talk to friends who are interested in food or I’ll read a magazine and that will spark something. I feel so grateful that after 24 years, I still get up in the morning and think, I’ve got these great recipes I can’t wait to work on.
My Most-Used Ingredients
When I buy groceries, I leave things like lemons, onions, and garlic in bowls on the counter, rather than putting them away. Not only are they easy to get to, but also, when I’m working, I often think, what would make this even better? Chances are, one of those ingredients will do the trick, so it reminds me to use what’s already there, rather than search for some crazy spice or herb.
Also, it’s essential that you have good salt. Most people think different types of salt are interchangeable, but that’s not at all true. I have three that I use all the time: Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, which is about half as salty as Morton Salt; Fleur de Sel de Camargue, which I use to finish things; and Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, which I’ll add to savory dishes, like a pot pie. I’ll brush the crust with egg wash, then sprinkle some pepper and sea salt flakes on top, so it looks like it has a lot of flavor—and actually does have a lot of flavor.
My Trusty Pick-Me-Up
Mariage Frères makes a tea called Marco Polo, and I honestly think it has more caffeine than two espressos from Starbucks. It’s like, if you have too many cups, you can’t sleep for a week—but it’s so good, especially with honey.
My 52-Year-Old Spatula
In general, I don’t own a lot of specialized equipment. I don’t have 20 types of pasta makers and all those other crazy tools that you buy at 3 in the morning, then wonder why you did that. Instead, I have just what I need and I take very good care of it. In fact, my favorite spatula is one I received as a wedding gift, which means—and I’m embarrassed to admit this—it’s 52 years old. It came from Caldor, so over time, I’ve tried to find other versions of it, but none have been the right shape or size.
My Ideal Work Schedule
I’m most creative in the morning, so I always have my assistant get everything I need a day in advance. That way, as soon as our 9 a.m. staff meeting is over, I can immediately start cooking. By 12:30 p.m., I’m completely done in. For whatever reason, I just can’t cook in the afternoon. So instead, I’ll do the normal business stuff that I need to do…or sleep.
My Most-Prized Painting
I have a painting by April Gornik, and every time I look at it, I think, I can’t believe I have a painting by April Gornik. We bought it 15 years ago, and at the time, even though we were friends with her, Jeffrey didn’t know her work. So one day when we were in New York, I took him to her gallery, solely to introduce him to her art. Honestly, I didn’t think we’d ever be able to afford it! We saw a few pieces based on the Namib Desert, which she had visited after watching the opening scene of The English Patient, and they were just so beautiful. At one point, Jeffrey was like, “Excuse me, I have something I have to do.” And I thought, where are you going? When he came back, he said, “I just bought that for the barn because it really belongs there.” I couldn’t believe he did that—but I’m so glad he did.
My Go-To Playlists
When I’m working, I’m almost always playing fun, upbeat music. It gives me energy. I tend to listen to my own playlists, which are actually available on Spotify and Apple Music: one’s called Women Who Rock, another is filled with the music I listen to in Paris, and one other is called Barefoot Contessa Beach Party. It’s that, and Taylor Swift. I have to say, I’ll listen to anything by Taylor Swift.
My Surprising Pantry Staple
At the start of the pandemic, I posted a picture of my pantry on Instagram and asked if people were struggling to figure out what to do with all the food they’d stockpiled. In response, everybody went crazy over the fact that I had ramen noodles on my shelf. I’m still not quite sure why that was so shocking, but I actually just wrote a recipe for ramen chicken noodle soup, which will be in the next cookbook.
My Cookbook Library
At a certain point, I just had cookbooks everywhere. I wanted to put them in a closet—but there were too many for a closet. So I thought, why don’t I make a cookbook library? And that’s exactly what Frank Greenwald did, with the help of Daniel Romualdez, who designed the interior. I’m particularly fond of cookbooks from specialty food stores because there’s a big difference between cooking for a restaurant and cooking for home. For example, cake. As a former specialty food store owner [she ran The Barefoot Contessa shop from 1978 to 1996 in East Hampton], my focus was to make a cake that stayed moist for two or three days, whereas a restaurant would be concentrated on making a dessert someone would eat right away. My friend, Sarah Leah Chase, owned a specialty food store in Nantucket, called Que Sera Sarah, and she’s written wonderful cookbooks, like Nantucket Open-House Cookbook and Peddling Through Burgundy. Another friend, the late Anna Pump, owned Loaves & Fishes in East Hampton, and I love to use those cookbooks, too. Even The Silver Palate started as a specialty foods store!
My White Cake Stand Collection
I absolutely adore white cake stands. Every time I see one, I’m like, I have to have that. We love to visit Belgium, and whenever we go, there’s a couple antique stores I always stop at—which means I end up buying six cake stands here and three more there. But we use them all!
My Beloved Jar of Vanilla Extract
Nearly forty years ago, Anna Pump taught me that if you put vanilla beans and a bottle of vodka in a tall jar, then three or four months later, you end up with vanilla extract. Plus, you can take the beans out, snip off the ends, squeeze out the seeds, and add them to something like a vanilla pound cake to make it even more flavorful and delicious. Ever since I learned that trick from Anna, I’ve used the same jar—occasionally adding more vodka or vanilla beans—and every time I open the lid, it’s the best smell in the world.
My Favorite Recipe
Over the years, I’ve certainly made a lot of recipes, but one of the things I’ve probably made most is the French apple tart. It was actually given to me by the late Lee Bailey, who I loved and admired enormously. In the ’70s, when I lived in Washington D.C., I used to visit New York and go to his shop, Bailey-Huebner, to buy what I thought was the coolest thing in the world, which was white platters. Nobody else had them at the time! Then, when I moved to East Hampton many years later, he became a customer of my specialty foods shop and a friend. One day, he mentioned that his favorite thing was this French apple tart and he told me he’d send me the recipe. But like everybody else, I figured he’d never actually get around to it. The next day, though, he left it on my desk. Not only is it the most delicious and simplest dessert, but it’s very special to me.
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