Barefoot Contessa: From the White House to Food Network

If you’re a Barefoot Contessa fan like me, you know that she used to a work for the Gerald Ford White House. Ever wondered how she moved one from that to cookbooks and cooking shows?

But Garten eventually fled government work for the same reason so many have since: gridlock. “I was working on exciting projects,” she says, “but it was like Groundhog Day. One project was $20 billion, and we were trying to get it out of the budget”—that is, cancel the project due to its exorbitant expense. Yet “every time we’d send it back to the Hill, the senator from the affected district would but it back in the budget. I did this for four years. It may be $20 billion, and it may be going to the president—but nothing’s happening.”

One morning, at the height of her frustration, Garten was reading the New York Times when she came across a section she’d never even seen before called “Business Opportunities.” In it she saw an ad for a specialty food store in East Hampton called the Barefoot Contessa. Although she’d never visited the Hamptons, Garten had become a master of the Washington dinner party; she had also made some extra money buying, renovating, and reselling houses. Inspired, Ina told Jeffrey about the ad, and the two of them soon visited the store, making an offer on the spot. The owner accepted. Now, instead of analyzing multi-billion-dollar nuclear projects, she was managing a 400-square-foot food store.

“After the first weekend, I really thought this was the stupidest thing I ever did,” Garten says. “But Jeffrey told me, ‘Look, if you could do it in the first week, you’d be bored the second week.’ He was right. If I’m not scared to death, it’s not worth doing.”

The Barefoot Contessa was a huge success, allowing Garten to expand the franchise further into East and West Hampton. After overseeing the franchise for 20 years, Garten grew restless, sold her store, and searched for a new passion. The quest took a year. “I had nothing to do,” Garten admits, “which was scarier than anything else.” Finally, she put together a proposal for a recipe book, easily finding a publisher. The book, called The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which first appeared in 1999, was an unexpected hit, eventually selling over a million copies. A second book followed, then a third and a fourth; Garten is now working on book eight or nine—by her own admission, she can’t quite keep track of them all.

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