An Inside Look At Ina Garten's Life And Impressive Career

Ever since "Barefoot Contessa" debuted in 2002, Ina Garten has become one of the most iconic stars ever created by Food Network. And her sweet relationship with her husband, Jeffrey Garten, is an important part of the show's success. "Really sweet, kind, funny, smart, supportive, just everything you could ever dream of," Ina later gushed to CBS News, reflecting on how he had spent more than five decades by her side.

The pair met when Ina was visiting Dartmouth's campus as a high school student, and their first date was almost ruined when she didn't realize that she needed a fake ID to get into bars, as she recalled on "The Drew Barrymore Show" in October 2022. "I thought, 'Well, he's a Dartmouth guy, so he probably wants to go to a bar or something.' I had never been to a bar, and so I just said, 'Oh let's just go this bar, Hilltop,' like I'd been there many times," the chef said, going on to quip, "I was totally cool." When the two bouncers at Hilltop asked for her ID, she asked what they meant. "Many years later I said to him, 'What did you think? Like, why did you want to take me out again?'" Ina joked, reflecting on the disastrous date. "He said, 'I thought you needed taking care of.'" All these years later, it turned out that a second date was a smart idea.

Keep reading to find out more about Ina Garten's life and impressive career.

Ina Garten discovered her love of food in Paris

Ina Garten and her husband were on a cheap camping holiday in Europe when she first encountered a passion for French street markets. After Jeffrey Garten's time in the Army ended, they decided to take the trip during the summer of 1971 with a tent, sleeping bags, and some $99 plane tickets. "If we can survive in a tent for four months, we can survive anything," she later joked to "Today."

They brought a small stove to cook in their tent and avoid paying for expensive restaurant food, according to an article Ina wrote for Bon Appetit, describing the "magical trip that would dramatically alter both of our lives." And their first stop in Paris was where she made an incredible discovery. "I had always thought about French food as 'cuisine' with complicated preparations and slowly simmered sauces," the chef reflected. "Instead, I discovered French street markets and simple, seasonal food that was based on incredibly good ingredients." 

Ina was particularly wowed by the fresh bread from local boulangeries and fruit from the markets, name-dropping Poilâne bakery on rue Cherche-Midi and the boulevard Raspail street market. The Food Network star added, "If anyone had told me then that decades later I would live near these two magical places, I would have thought they were insane."

She's a licensed pilot

As a young bride, Ina Garten wasn't always by husband Jeffrey Garten's side. As he told Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2016, his career in the Army meant that he was stationed in Southeast Asia in 1970. Ina didn't stay home worrying, however: As she revealed in her interview with Drew Barrymore, she decided to get her pilot's license instead. But unfortunately, the endeavor wasn't without its challenges.

When she first asked for lessons at the training facility across the street, Ina was told that nobody wanted to instruct her. "I'm sorry, we don't have anyone here who would teach a woman how to fly an airplane," they reportedly told her. "Well then, find somebody," she replied. The chef ended up going to the next town over, but she eventually got her license.

Ina also described a terrifying incident she once had while trying to land her plane. "What I didn't realize you had to do is ask for permission for a taxiway," she told Barrymore. "So I landed and I just made a right turn onto a taxiway, and right in front of me was a helicopter." Luckily, Ina managed to avoid a full collision because the helicopter's rotor was still going, meaning it could veer up and out of the way. "And I could hear the tower go, 'Student pilot,'" the cook recalled with a laugh.

Ina Garten worked for two presidents in the White House

Before she was the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten worked in the White House during Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter's presidencies, preparing the budget for the nuclear department. 

"It's kind of crazy because I went to Syracuse thinking I wanted to study fashion. ... I just found it very boring," she later revealed to Bustle. After finding herself much more interested in her economics class, Garten discovered her love for numbers and ended up in an impressive government job. "I was responsible for the budget of part of the Department of Energy that dealt with nuclear issues," she explained. "It's amazing that they leave that for 28-year-olds." Although she found it exciting to work on projects that went straight to the president, the job eventually lost its thrill. "At some point, I just came to realize that nothing was happening — that I kept on working on the same issue every year," Garten added, insisting that it was impossible to get anything through Congress. 

Garten mostly keeps her political opinions to herself nowadays — though she does maintain some of her ties to Washington, D.C., and she even joked about the food that she would make for various politicians during a 2018 interview with critic Frank Bruni, per Eater. After deciding that she would prepare a dinner of lobster macaroni and cheese for Elizabeth Warren and "something fun, like a lobster and clambake" for Joe Biden, Garten was asked what she would serve Donald Trump. "A subpoena," she quipped.

This Food Network star's idol was Julia Child

While she was working in the White House, Ina Garten taught herself how to cook from books by Julia Child during the weekends and evenings. Along with husband Jeffrey Garten, she was committed to her career at the time. "We were very serious!" the star joked on Instagram in 2020 alongside a picture of them in the '70s. But whenever Ina needed to blow off steam, she turned to the American queen of French cooking. "This is when I taught myself how to cook from Julia Child's books ... the beginning of it all!" she observed.

Child was a personal hero to Ina, thanks to her perseverance, as well as the food. "I'm sure nobody thought anybody would want to watch somebody making an omelet on TV. And yet she believed in it," Ina reflected on the podcast "Dishing on Julia" in March 2022. She explained how Child's success was down to her ability to continue moving through any obstacles that came her way. "Julia's a remarkable example of that," the star added.

So, she was a perfect role model for the hard-working Ina Garten, who decided to learn everything she could about French food, purchasing both volumes of Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." "Every evening, I would just work through those two books. And I really kind of taught myself how to cook," Ina recalled in an interview with CBS News. "Or, I should say, Julia Child taught me how to cook."

Ina Garten started her Barefoot Contessa store

In 1978, Ina Garten left her White House job and bought the Barefoot Contessa store, which she turned into a successful gourmet food and catering business.

A profile in The New York Times a few years later revealed that her parents were initially horrified at the thought of Garten abandoning her promising political career to essentially become a grocer. "My job in Washington was intellectually exciting and stimulating but it wasn't me at all," the future star explained. "I was sitting at my desk in Washington trying to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up and I came across an ad for this business for sale in Westhampton." After spotting the ad, Garten spontaneously drove to Westhampton Beach to check it out.

The name of the store — which shares its moniker with the 1954 Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner film "The Barefoot Contessa" — caught her eye immediately, as Garten revealed on her website. "The former owner is Italian and her family called her the Barefoot Contessa when she was young," the chef explained. On the spot, she decided to buy the store and keep the name for her own business, observing that it suited the atmosphere she wanted to create. "It's about being elegant and earthy, which is what we're about."

The famous chef never wanted kids

Ina Garten knew from an early age that she would never be a mother: The cook has stated that she never regretted that decision and that she never felt judged, particularly not by her husband. Jeffrey Garten was always supportive of his wife prioritizing her career, as she told People in 2018. "When I told [Jeffrey] I wanted to move to New York and open a food store, he said, 'Let's move to New York!'" Ina recalled. "That he would not object to moving to a different state for my career was so unusual, particularly 40 years ago."

In an interview on Katie Couric's podcast, the Food Network star reflected on their life without kids. "It's a choice, and that was the choice I made," the chef explained. "I really appreciate that other people do [have children], and we will always have friends that have children that we are close to, but it was a choice I made very early." Ina added that she never felt trapped by society's expectations, even if she missed out on the social circles that parents form, noting that if she and Jeffrey had expanded their brood, "I really felt — I feel — that I would have never been able to have the life I've had."

Ina Garten didn't want to be on TV

In 1999, Ina Garten released "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" and shared the recipes that had made her store a hit. The book became a success, which led to TV opportunities opposite Martha Stewart. Executives at Food Network liked how she came across on camera and decided to offer her a show, but Garten completely rejected them at first.

"In the beginning, I just thought 'I'm not that person,'" the chef told People, insisting that she didn't care about getting famous. "Why would anyone want to watch me on TV? I couldn't understand what I could do that was different; that was unique." The network was persistent, but she gave them the same answer. "They kept saying, 'No, you'd be really great,' and I'm like, 'Lose my phone number,'" Garten recalled. "Fortunately, they kept coming back." 

Eventually, "Barefoot Contessa" — the television show, that is — was born. "And of course, here we are, 15 years later. I'm still with the same production company and still on Food Network," Garten noted. "Despite myself."

She doesn't watch her own show

Although Ina Garten became a household name on Food Network, she doesn't spend her time checking out TV shows about food — particularly not her own. She confessed as much to People, even adding, "Not a chance. I would never do another show. I think I'm terrible!" Although she admitted that she wasn't sure why "Barefoot Contessa" was so popular, Garten added that she was grateful for her fans: "I'm glad other people like it, that's all I can say."

The chef also explained to Food Network how the show's longtime success didn't exactly solve her fear of appearing on screen. "If I watched a show, I don't think I'd ever do it again," she observed. "Filming is still the most frightening thing I've done. It's just sheer terror. I haven't gotten used to it yet." But as she stated in another interview with People, Garten does understand that her authenticity is what won her a loyal audience. "I think the key to a brand is that you don't start out to build a brand," she added. "You do what feels right to you and you just keep sticking to that."

Luckily for any aspiring Food Network stars, Garten is a trove of advice when it comes to landing an onscreen gig. Basically? Be yourself, focus on your passion, and learn the basics. "You hone your craft carefully because you love it," she noted. "You have to know your stuff first."

Ina Garten loves hot dogs

Since Ina Garten is known for her elegant Hamptons home and sophisticated food, her fans might be shocked to learn what she would eat for her last meal on earth. "It's gonna be a hot dog at Frenchie To Go in Paris," she told TODAY Food in 2017. "It's unbelievable." Ina, who has shouted out the restaurant before on her Instagram account, added that she'd have the indulgent treat "maybe with french fries, since it's the last meal." As you can see on the Frenchie website, however, these gourmet goodies are no ordinary hot dogs.

And the way Ina makes her own dogs sometimes includes puff pastry and Dijon mustard, according to one recipe. She and husband Jeffrey Garten also have the American treat during the summer in their own backyard. "Instead of grilled, we like ours over an open fire," she revealed on Instagram in 2021, adding that they use potato rolls, lots of relish, and mustard instead of ketchup. "Jeffrey and I are traditionalists," the star explained.

The Gartens' marriage is still romantic

Even after five decades, Ina Garten and her husband, Jeffrey Garten, still find ways to keep their romance alive. "When we're not together, I'll send her five or six texts per day," Jeffrey told People in 2018, reflecting on how their high-flying careers had sometimes separated them. "I love looking at her schedule. I can envision where she is and what she's doing, and it doesn't feel like we're apart. If I could be with her seven days a week, 24 hours a day, that would be my ideal."

Although fans of the Food Network star might love the idea of Jeffrey constantly sending his wife love notes over the phone, it doesn't always go smoothly, as the chef told Drew Barrymore. "Sometimes they go astray," Ina admitted. "He sends them to the wrong person." On one memorable occasion, he texted a suggestive message to a friend of theirs who happens to be Ina's publicist. "He meant it for me, and he said, 'You're gonna be delicious tonight,' and it went to her," the cook laughed. Meanwhile, the shocked publicist quickly realized what had happened and replied: "I don't think this was meant for me."

The Barefoot Contessa star is team anti-cilantro

As one of the most famous cooks in America, Ina Garten's opinions about food are very influential. So it was a big deal when she entered the cilantro debate and revealed that it's on the list of ingredients she never uses. "I just won't go near it," she told Time, explaining why you won't find the herb in any of the "Barefoot Contessa" cookbooks. The chef added, "And I'm not big on things with eyeballs. And foam." Based on how she describes the taste of cilantro, Garten might actually have the cilantro gene, a rare quirk that makes the chemical compounds in the plant's leaf taste unpleasant.

"Hate it!" she told the "Munchies" podcast (via Cooking Light), adding that anyone who enjoyed the ingredient was welcome to add it to any of her recipes when they were cooking at home. "I just hate it. To me it's so strong — and it actually tastes like soap to me — but it's so strong it overpowers every other flavor." The cook justified her hatred of cilantro by talking about how it distracted her from all the subtler flavors. "I like something that's kind of interestingly flavored, but as you eat it, you get layers, you know, the strawberries, a little zest of orange, a little sweetness, a little yogurt," Garten said. "You get all of those of those flavors in a balance. But when cilantro is in something, that's all I can taste. Everything else goes away."

Ina Garten embraces her status as a gay icon

One of the defining characteristics of the "Barefoot Contessa" was always Ina Garten's sophisticated circle of friends, who would be invited over to try her enviable dishes. And the fact that many of those friends were gay didn't escape her LGBTQ+ audience, many of whom have declared that the cook was a queer icon. In a 2016 interview with HuffPost, she was pleasantly surprised by the title. "They're my friends!" Garten insisted. "I'm really glad people enjoy it ― no matter who they are. I just have friends that are creative and wonderful and I'm glad they want to be part of the show."

She also spoke to Drew Barrymore about the significance of having her gay friends on the show, reflecting that LGBTQ+ representation on TV had changed a lot. "When I started 20 years ago, certainly there were shows that had gay people in it. But they were 'gay people' in it," Garten observed, explaining that the queer community was only seen as a two-dimensional stereotype. "It wasn't just that they were a friend and, oh by the way, they happened to be gay." 

So while she hadn't set out to push any boundaries, Garten had brought her LGBTQ+ fans something different. "My friends are, you know — some are straight, some are gay, who cares? And I just invited my friends," the chef added. "So maybe that was something that made them feel connected to the show."