How Ina Garten Built a Food Empire With a Team of Two
In honor of our co-founders Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s new book, The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career ($12), we’re running an interview series featuring 17 questions (to parallel the book’s 17 chapters) about the work lives of inspirational female leaders at the top of their fields. We last spoke with inspiring entrepreneur Ruth Zukerman. This week, it’s a White House employee turned celebrity chef—meet Ina Garten, founder of Barefoot Contessa.
What if your dream career was just a serendipitous moment away? A young Ina Garten was working at the White House in a creatively unfulfilling role when she flipped a page in The New York Times one morning in 1978. It advertised a small specialty food store for sale in the Hamptons. With no experience in the food business and a lot of gumption, Garten drove out to Long Island to see the shop. It must have been love at first sight because she placed an offer right then and there, and Barefoot Contessa was born. Now, 36 years later, the original East Hampton store may be no longer, but Garten’s brand has catapulted into nine wildly successful cookbooks and a TV show on Food Network. Now a best-selling author and acclaimed chef, Garten has, it’s safe to say, found her true calling.
Still barefoot and reading the Times, Garten has come full circle in crafting her dream career—one that allows her to wear jeans and taste delicious food. We tapped the celebrity chef for what she’s learned in over 30 years of impassioned entrepreneurship, so get your notepads ready.
“I think people would be surprised that I have a very small team; besides me, it’s just two people and a part-time accountant. We meet every morning at 9 a.m., decide what we need to do that day, and just do it. The best part is that I love them, and we have a wonderful time together!”
“When I worked in the White House, I had to dress for work: silk shirts, skirts, stockings, and heels.”
“I do have a 30-minute meeting every morning with my team (Barbara and Lidey), and we work out what to do each day. I totally depend on their judgment and ideas. And the good news is that’s the only meeting I ever have to go to.”
“I love to read about food, particularly cookbooks and Cook’s Illustrated magazine, which approaches food in the scientific way that I do. But I’m not very interested in ‘the industry.’ I’m really more interested in taking something people love to eat and making it more delicious and easier to prepare.”
“I can’t really say that I regret anything I’ve done. I never have a long-term plan. I just do the best job I can with what’s in front of me and follow the path that reveals itself. Each part of my career has informed the next step. For example, running a specialty food store for 18 years taught me that people eat differently at home than they do in restaurants, and that has been the basis for all of my cookbooks.”
“When I’m hiring someone, first I want to love them. I will see this person all day every day, and I want them to be someone I truly look forward to spending the day with. After that, I’m looking for someone who is smart, interested in food, confident enough to tell me the truth (even if it’s not what I want to hear), and finally, someone who is excited about building the business with me.”
“I [always] dreamed of having a job where you could wear sneakers to work. Now, I wear cotton pants and a shirt that I can throw into the washing machine—and sneakers!”
“I think my assistant would say that I work hard and have a very good time.”
“When I’m feeling uninspired, I find that nothing works. I take time off or travel to see what other people are doing—not just in the food business. Sometimes the new fashion in Milan will inspire the color palette for a new cookbook.”
“It’s been a long time since I quit a job, but I think the honorable way to do it is to give your employer as much notice as possible. I had one employee who retired after 30 years but not until she had hired and trained her replacement. That shows astonishing loyalty and respect for your employer.”
“The lunch I have almost every day is either what we’ve tested that morning or soup and half a sandwich from Mary’s Marvelous, a local specialty food store. Well, maybe there’s an oatmeal cookie in there somewhere.”
“I think a common mistake is to just see your job as a series of tasks in front of you and to not consider the big picture. I love when an employee both does their day-to-day job well but also suggests new things that we might do in the future to build the business.”
“My five favorite Instagram accounts are people and brands that I deeply admire. Their accounts are not only interesting subjects, but they each understand the power of a beautiful photograph: @unionsqevents (for food), @elesium (for art), @debbytenquist (for gardens), @miguelfloresvianna (for architecture and interiors), @ottolenghi (for food), and @taylorswift because she’s simply a genius and having such a good time.”
“Every morning I read The New York Times, have coffee and oatmeal, and get some kind of exercise—a walk to the beach if there’s time, or 20 minutes on the elliptical machine if there isn’t. Twice a week I do yoga at 4 p.m. to come down from the intense days I have.”
“The best advice I ever received was in 1978 when my sweet husband, Jeffrey, told me to do what I love because if I love it, I’ll be very good at it. That was when I left the government and bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons. Good advice!”
“Right now I’m finishing my 10th cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey, which comes out on October 25 this year. I’m having a great time with it because not only is it a collection of recipes that I’ve made for Jeffrey over the 48 years we’ve been married, but it’s little bit of memoir and about how cooking for him has been the foundation of my career.”