Ina Garten: The Complete Evolution Of The Barefoot Contessa

Could someone without formal food training or restaurant industry experience build a culinary empire and become a household name? Yes! And Ina Garten did just that. Garten's unique ability to connect with audiences by sharing accessible recipes and personal anecdotes has made her a global success. Known by her fans as the "Barefoot Contessa," Garten's cookbooks have sold more than 7 million copies, and her television show has been a massive hit for the Food Network, according to CBS News.

From working on budgets in the White House to buying a specialty food store in the Hamptons, Garten's backstory makes her an unlikely celebrity chef. But her sheer audacity, work ethic, and journey to achieving her goals are all part of Garten's appeal.

Garten's love affair with food and glamor started after a trip to Paris with her husband, Jeffrey, in the 70s. She became fixated on creating delicious recipes and was enthralled by France's rich culinary culture. Garten's life took a new direction upon returning home to the United States, and she began reading Julia Child's cookbooks. From there, Garten taught herself to cook (via Eater) and, in the process, made her dreams come true. Take a look back at Ina Garten's incredible life and career.

Ina's childhood did not inspire her to cook

Looking back at her childhood, Garten's recollections of her home life are different from the warm atmosphere she tries to create as a part of her "Barefoot Contessa" lifestyle brand. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1948, Ina Garten (née Rosenberg) was raised in Stamford, Connecticut, where her dad was stationed as a doctor, and her mom worked as a dietitian. Growing up, Garten was never encouraged to cook. Instead, her mom told her to focus on her school work, and Garten obliged, per CBS News.

In her first cookbook, Garten's work was engrained in the idea of creating the comfort and coziness you feel when coming home to your mom, a notion discarded in her later work, possibly because Garten never got that feeling from her mom (via Eater). "She wasn't the warmest, funniest person around," the Garten told Eater when describing her mom. As a result, Ina had a distant relationship with her mother and said marriage was when her "life began," per Eater.

She fell in love with cooking after a trip to Paris

The Barefoot Contessa's love of cooking started in the most fitting setting, the city of love: Paris. In 1971, Garten visited France for four months with her husband, Jeffrey Garten, where they lived on five dollars a day. "We stayed in a small orange tent on the outskirts of Paris (we couldn't afford a hotel room!)," Garten wrote in an Instagram post in May 2022. During her visit to France in the 70s, Garten witnessed a French family eating outside at a long table, and the picturesque scene inspired her. She fell in love with glamour and taste from then on, per Eater.

Today, Garten's life is vastly different from her initial trip to Paris in the 70s; she now owns an apartment in Paris and visits the European city often. "If someone had told me then how things would turn out, I simply wouldn't have believed it. Frankly, there are still moments when I don't believe it!" she wrote on Instagram. Nevertheless, Garten's adoration for Paris lives on, and her work is influenced by her love of French cuisine and culture. In 2004, Garten published a book titled "Barefoot in Paris: Easy French food you can make at home," the cookbook offers Garten's musings and celebrates the culinary delights that come from Paris, the City that is partly responsible for who she is today.

Ina got married young and dropped out of College

Besides creating a cooking empire, Ina is famous for having a loving and enduring marriage with Jeffrey Garten. Their connection has captivated her fans for years. Jeffrey is regularly on her cooking show "Barefoot Contessa" on the Food Network, and she even devoted her tenth cookbook, "Cooking for Jeffrey," to him. The pair met when Ina was 15 and visiting her brother at Dartmouth College. After dating for a few years, Ina and Jeffrey married when she was 20 and studying at Syracuse University, per Eater. Once married, Jeffrey enlisted in the Army, and the couple moved to North Carolina. Ina became a military wife, dropping out of college to focus on cooking for him.

However, after coming home to find his wife watching a sitcom at 11 am, Jeffrey knew something was wrong and that she would not reach her full potential that way. So Jeffrey confronted Ina and said, "You have to do something. You won't be happy if you don't." (via Food Network). That moment changed everything and shifted Ina's perspective. She started focusing on her interests, business, and cooking, and after a while, she returned to college and earned an MBA, according to CBS News.

She went from working in the White House to conquering the kitchen

Before becoming a store owner and chef, Garten lived in Washington, D.C., where she completed her MBA in the 1970s. Garten then took on a job working as a nuclear energy budget analyst for the White House, a position that she said was "intellectually exciting and stimulating, but it wasn't me at all," per The New York Times

Today, the famous chef's life is so far removed from what she was doing for the government that she finds it funny. "It still makes me laugh!" she told CBS News about working on budgets. But during her time in the White House, Garten was not laughing. Her husband, Jeffrey, told CBS News she was "very unhappy" back then. 

Luckily, Garten knew it was time to change direction. When she saw an advertisement for a specialty food store in the Hamptons while at work, she went home that night and said to her husband, "I have to do something different. Nuclear energy policy's not me." The next day the couple drove out to see the store, and Garten decided she had to make an offer. Even though her husband Jeffrey never thought she would purchase the store, he supported her career change and wanted her to move forward with her dreams.

Her biggest cooking inspiration is Julia Child

After deciding that she was passionate about food, Ina Garten wanted to learn to cook, and who better to learn from than the world-famous Julia Child? Garten started her journey in the kitchen by working through two volumes of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking. "I would have to say that Julia Child's my biggest culinary inspiration because she really taught me how to cook through her cookbooks," Garten told Today.

Garten never attended culinary school or worked in a bustling restaurant, but she has never let that stop her. "Julia Child was my cooking school," Garten told CBS News, and there is a lot of truth in her response as Garten would come home after work at the White House and experiment with different recipes from Child's cookbook. She would then spend days perfecting recipes and preparing a menu when hosting friends over for parties; her husband Jeffrey called his wife's events "Legendary," per Food Network. During this time, Ina realized her passion for cooking was too strong to ignore, which was the catalyst for her career change.

She opened a food store without any experience in food or business

In 1978, Ina Garten's parents could not understand why their 30-year-old daughter would want to leave her prestigious job at the White House Office of Management and Budget and buy a grocery store, according to The New York Times. But Garten's job had left her dissatisfied, and she wanted to do something more creative. So while looking through the New York Times, an advertisement for a food store for sale in the Hamptons immediately caught her eye. "My husband Jeffrey and I drove to Long Island the next day to see the store, and it was love at first sight," she wrote on the Barefoot Contessa website.

Despite having no experience in business or the food industry, Ina and her husband made a low offer on the specialty food store called "Barefoot Contessa." They did not expect to hear back from the store owner for a while, but the owner accepted the offer the next day (via Barefoot Contessa). Under Garten's leadership, the store was a massive success, but she decided to move on and sold it in 1996. "I like a nice project that I can chew on. And so the store was that, and then after twenty years, it was time to do something else," she told Eater.

The name Barefoot Contessa comes from the store she bought

She is not Italian or a countess, but Ina Garten is known as the "Barefoot Contessa," a name she has used for her entire lifestyle brand. The name comes from the specialty food store she bought in the Hamptons in the 70s. Initially, she planned to change the store's name, but she liked it so much and thought it perfectly described her vision, so she decided to keep it. "It's elegant and earthy," Garten told The Morning Call, explaining why she kept the name.

According to The Washington Post, the original store owner, Diana Stratta, named the store as a tribute to the 1954 film, "The Barefoot Contessa," starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Garten speaks fondly of Stratta and credits her for the knowledge she gained in those early days running the store. "I think she [Stratta] feels that I took her child and raised it and gave it an international reputation," Garten told The Washington Post.

Ina's strong marriage is one of the key ingredients to her success

Ina and Jeffrey Garten are one of television's most beloved couples. Featuring regularly on her cooking show, "Barefoot Contessa," and mentoring her from the outset of her career, Jeffrey was instrumental in helping Ina achieve great success and create a culinary empire. Ina took to Instagram to celebrate her 50th anniversary with Jefferey, who she often refers to as her biggest supporter. In December 2018, Garten took to her Instagram page to post a throwback photo with her husband before they left for their honeymoon; posting a little tribute to their marriage, she hashtagged the image with the words "#loveofmylife."

When Garten is asked about her success, she always mentions Jeffrey's unwavering belief in her potential. "When I told him I wanted to move to New York and open a food store, he said, 'Let's move to New York!' " she told People when reflecting on the day she decided to purchase a food store in the Hamptons. Garten is proud to have a husband that would move states to support her dream at a time when she feels many men would not do the same for their wives, "that was so unusual, particularly 40 years ago," (via People).

Ina and her husband have chosen not to have children

Just like her inspiration Julia Child, Ina Garten never had children. Famous for their strong marriage, Garten and her husband, Jeffrey, have been open about their decision to remain child-free. Garten discussed the personal topic in an interview on the Katie Couric podcast (via YouTube), telling Couric about her and her husband's supportive relationship and their decision not to have children early in their marriage.

Couric asked if Garten had ever felt societal pressure or judgment about the decision not to have children, and Garten responded with: "No, I never felt judged, maybe I did — but I didn't notice." If she has ever regretted this decision, it does not show, as Garten looks pretty content with her incredible achievements and is always joyful when cooking for Jeffrey. "I really felt, I feel, that I would have never been able to have the life I've had. So it's a choice, and that was the choice I made," she told Couric.

She had no idea her first cookbook would be such a hit

Published in 1999, Garten's first book, "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," was a best-seller and turned out to be what she describes as "the most exciting thing" she had ever done professionally, per Barefoot Contessa. She decided to write the book after selling her specialty store in the Hamptons to the store manager and chef in 1996. 

After working at the store for almost two decades, Garten felt ready for a new adventure. "At that point, with nothing to do, I built myself an office over the store and tried my hand at writing a cookbook," Garten wrote on her website. Without any writing or publishing experience, Garten was not sure the book would be well-received. So, she worked hard to make it a success and invested $200,000 of her money into a team of professionals, including a food stylist, photographer, recipe tester, and a publicity campaign, per The New York Times. The investment paid off and launched Garten's career.

Ina's career took off, and her TV show won 4 Emmys

After the successful launch of her first cookbook in 1999, Garten kept writing, and as of December 2022, she has authored 12 cookbooks, nine of which became New York Times bestsellers, according to CBS News. Garten's talents caught the eye of the Food Network, and television opportunities came knocking. Initially, Garten was not interested, but after rejecting the offer a few times, she eventually gave in and began hosting her own show called "Barefoot Contessa" (via Eater).

Garten's relatively easy recipes won fans over, and "Barefoot Contessa" has been a big hit for the Food Network. The show has been running for two decades and earned seven Emmys and three James Beard awards. But, according to Eater, despite Garten's television success, she still sees herself as a cookbook and recipe writer. Garten has also written monthly columns for Martha Stewart Living, Oprah magazine, and House Beautiful, per Barefoot Contessa.

Ina says 'no' to a lot of things, making her more successful

Garten's success may seem like it happened overnight, but that could not be further from the truth. Each of her decisions is followed through with careful consideration, hard work, and patience, but what's most intriguing about Ina Garten is her resilience and ability to take on new projects and turn them into triumphs.

However, it seems a lot of Garten's success comes not only from the projects she has taken on but also from her ability to say "no" to projects that are not aligned with her life vision. When a Japanese businessman offered to spread Barefoot Contessa stores across the country and turn them into a national brand, Garten declined his offer. Garten was set on her dream to build a house and garden and write cookbooks, and saying yes to that offer would put her on a complete detour (via Eater). Garten jokes about the time she was asked to license fertilizer. "Like, you want me to license your s***? Like, what? Why would I do that?" she told Eater.