Ina Garten on her internet appeal: ‘Young people don’t have mom in the kitchen’

By Jacqueline SchneiderFeatures correspondent
Getty Images American food icon Ina Garten sits down with the BBC's Katty Kay on Influential (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
American food icon Ina Garten sits down with the BBC's Katty Kay on Influential (Credit: Getty Images)

The American television personality, author and food icon opens up about family, fame and life's greatest joys.

Professionally known as the Barefoot Contessa – and affectionately known as the woman who makes Cosmopolitans the size of her head – Ina Garten is both a titan of the food world and an icon of internet culture. Garten brings the joy of cooking to generations through her television show and 13 published cookbooks, which have sold more than 14 million copies combined.

Yet Garten, 75, still considers herself a "home cook". 

For the second episode of her unscripted interview programme, Influential, author and BBC special correspondent Katty Kay sat with Garten in her bespoke barn test kitchen at her home in East Hampton, New York. The two discussed Garten's forthcoming memoir and the winding path that brought her to her home in the kitchen.

Where to find Influential with Katty Kay

  • Watch it live on Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on the BBC News channel
  • Stream full episodes on YouTube
  • Although food was always a love of Garten's, it wasn't always a career. Instead, Garten patterned herself of what she thought ambition and success looked like. "I'm of a generation where women didn't necessarily go to work – the role models we had were the men that were around us – so I wanted to be Jeffrey."

    Jeffrey is Ina Garten's husband, whom she met as Ina Rosenberg, aged 15. An economist, Jeffrey began his path with four years as a lieutenant in the US military during the Vietnam War. He moved on to hold roles in both the White House and the State Department, and eventually became a managing director on Wall Street. Jeffrey is now the author of six books on global economic policy as well as a business columnist. 

    Garten forged a path like her husband's – her start, far from food and culture. She studied economics at Syracuse University, and then business at George Washington University. She began her career in politics at the White House in the early 1970s, working on nuclear energy policy.

    Yet it didn't quite fit. "When I worked at the White House, all I wanted to do is have a job where nobody told me what to do and I could wear sneakers to work," says Garten.

    Watch: Garten explains why she originally wanted to be like her husband

    In 1978, at Jeffrey's gentle encouragement – and with the inspiration of a four-month camping trip in France the two had taken years earlier – Garten turned her sights to food. She bought a 400-sq ft (37.2 sq m) speciality grocery store in West Hampton, New York, from an Italian woman who'd been known as "Barefoot Contessa" in her youth.

    "I thought, I'll just wait for a year and then I'll change the name. And then it didn't matter. Because people would call me The Contessa," says Garten.

    She quickly outgrew the space, moving the store to a larger location three-times the size in East Hampton, then growing the business into a destination frequented by celebrities, and celebrated as a home base for local chefs and bakers. By 1999, she launched herself as an author, publishing her first cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa, which went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. In 2002, Garten become widely known as the Barefoot Contessa on her own Food Network show, which won her a Daytime Emmy Award for Best Culinary Host.

    Garten's accessibility, both as a presenter and a cook, has also won her the attention of fans across generations. But a younger cohort has especially taken note of her simple approach to cooking, which has made her a veritable internet-culture celebrity: TikTok comedian Tom Hearn has amassed nearly 300,000 followers, largely by impersonating Garten's down-home appeal and relatable chit-chat with Jeffrey.

    Watch: Ina Garten on why young people don't know how to cook

    "I think it's accessible," says Garten, of her cooking style. "It's not like, 'first carve the pumpkin and then make a pumpkin soup for it'. It's just, 'make pumpkin soup, and it's delicious'. And people will. It's about taking care of each other. I think we need that. And young people don't have mom in the kitchen anymore, or grandma in the kitchen anymore. So, they don't know how to cook. I think it's just one of life's great pleasures is to cook for people you love. I think they kind of miss that."

    It's a privilege for Garten to be that guide, she says, standing among the cookbooks she's referenced for years. "The way Julia Child taught me how to cook, I've taught other people how to cook. It's just a great pleasure."

    Kay notes Garten's younger fans don't simply follow her for relatable cooking tips – but also for her true love story with Jeffrey, which shines onscreen. "For generations of young people who are looking – they look at you two and that's what they all want," says Kay.

    Looking back at my childhood, it was nothing I wanted to recreate – Ina Garten

    Garten theatrically fans away tears as she expresses her gratitude for her husband. "I got very lucky, I really did," she says. "A friend of mine says that in any good marriage, each person feels like they get a better deal than the other one. And I think we do feel that."

    The couple was married in their early 20s, and took the decision then not to have children. Kay asks if Garten feared she wouldn't be able to achieve her professional aspirations as a parent.

    I think it's much harder," says Garten. "I don't think that's why I made the decision. I'm actually writing a memoir now, and it's kind of looking back at my childhood. It was nothing I wanted to recreate. I'm always looking forward to look back, and realise a lot of my decisions were based on my childhood. And so, I think that was really the motivating factor. And Jeffrey and I were just so happy together."

    Watch: Ina Garten on her decision to not have children

    Kay and Garten hop into Garten's car, and head to the roadside market, where Garten teaches Kay how to choose the right produce – picking the best melons, corn, donut peaches and gigantic tomatoes. Contrary to popular belief, says Garten, it's essential to resist pressing on the fruit. "You know when you buy produce and it's got a little brown spot on it. It's because somebody pressed it. Never do that."

    Garten sees her life as a stream that brought her to her rightful place in kitchen. The best career decisions, she says, come when we surrender to the flow, rather than bumping up against the rocky edge of a certain kind of ambition you feel obligated to mimic. It's how the Barefoot Contessa found her own meaning, happiness – and even her love story.

    "Everybody wants to know, 'where am I going to end up?' Forget where you're going to end up. You don't know where you're going to end up," says Garten. "All you know is that if you jump in the pond and you splash around while you're there, you're going to look around and go, 'oh, that's really interesting over there. I think I'll follow it there', and see where it brings you."

    Along with the tireless support of her partner, this sense of instinct – even destiny – has been crucial for Garten's success. Born in Brooklyn to a doctor and a dietician, and raised nearby in Connecticut, Garten didn't necessarily have her parents' guidance to pursue her dreams.

    Watch: Garten on being discouraged from the kitchen as a child

    "You once said that your mother tried to keep you out of the kitchen," says Kay, "and I love the idea that you've made a phenomenal success out of the one thing you were not meant to do."

    Garten smiles. "And is there a connection there? Probably. I'm 75 years old, and I'm still saying, 'you can't tell me what to do!'"

    The conversation with Garten is the second in Kay's revealing, nine-part interview series. New episodes premiere every Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET on the BBC News channel, and will be available the following day on the BBC News YouTube channel. An audio version will be available wherever you get your podcasts.