By Lori Rodgers –
I wouldn’t be surprised if most Flavors & More readers know more about Ina Garten than I do. For now, that is. On a tip from an industry insider and friend (Chef Judi), I took advantage of the opportunity to see the Barefoot Contessa in Tampa recently. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect and I was so busy in the weeks preceding the date that I neglected to invite a guest. So I convinced my 16-year old daughter to accompany me. We headed out as soon as I got home from work, arriving a the Straz Center in time to wander a bit but not early enough to eat dinner. That’s probably just as well considering my daughter has adopted a vegan lifestyle!
The place was packed with legions of Ina’s fans and her latest cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey, was available for purchase, signed by the author of course. The lines were long and I didn’t really want to carry the book around all night so picking up a copy is still on my “to do” list. My daughter Julia and I got a snack from one of the vendors and found our seats.
The evening got under way right on time with Ina being introduced by author Deborah Davis. Immediately I was pleasantly surprised by Ina’s genuineness. And as her story unfolded I was equally impressed by her business savvy. She is one of the rare breed of people who see an opportunity and leaps. She followed her passion and dreams and created an enviably successful business.
Did you know the day she took over the gourmet food shop in The Hamptons was Thursday of Memorial Day weekend? By closing time the store was sold out. Completely! Ina asked the former proprietor- who had agreed to stay on for the first year- what they were going to do. She replied, “Go to the grocery store and buy sugar, flour, and chocolate. And then we are going to bake all night.” They sent Jeffery scouting for more supplies. He located a bakery in a neighboring town, waited outside until they opened and bought everything they had. Everything. Then he loaded everything into his tiny sports cars and headed back to the shop. Meanwhile Ina and staff baked muffins and cookies all night long after working a 12 hour shift during the day serving customers. The hard work paid off, the store was immensely popular and for many years it satisfied Ina’s ambitions.
When Ina talked about changes in her life she referred to it as “taking a left turn”. There came a point that she knew it was time to take another turn. She didn’t have a grand plan for the next chapter of her career. She just knew it was time to “turn” and once again she followed her inner voice and sold the business. She set up an office upstairs in the same building and was bored to tears. Jeffrey would leave for his job in the city on Monday mornings, asking Ina what she was doing that week. A manicure on Wednesday was the highlight of her schedule. After several months of this, he suggested that she “do something that has to do with food.” Maybe write a cookbook? After initially doubting her abilities, she did and we all know the rest of the story. A similar series of events led up to her television show. She was courted intensely by producers. She told the audience that evening in Tampa “I couldn’t conceive that anyone would want to watch me cook. That would be so boring!” The producers sent her clips of Nigella Lawson and she saw some possibilities. Then they called and told her they would be arriving at he home on a certain date and time with a film crew, just to try it out. And the rest, as they say, is history!
Learning about Ina’s life was inspiring. I glanced over at Julia on occasion and saw that she was equally intrigued. Hearing firsthand from someone who took advantage of opportunities when they arose and stayed true to her purpose and talents is powerful. I was so pleased I guilted her into coming with me!
And then we got to the question and answer portion of the evening. Many people apparently knew this was coming as they had lined up along the sides of the theater in advance. There were fans from all over the world who mainly wanted to tell Ina how much they adored her. Nice. There were a few oddball questions such as “If you only had three ingredients and two of them were salt and pepper, what would you cook?” Ina quickly responded “pizza”. One young female entrepreneur inquired what dish she should prepare to encourage her boyfriend to propose! The answer, “my roast lemon chicken!”
Here are my favorite takeaways from the Q & A:
If you double a recipe, you don’t necessarily double all of the ingredients
Best serving dishes – white
Always let your guests help cook, never let them do dishes
The customer experience is paramount. While running the shop, Ina would purposely leave and re-enter several times a day, observing everything that customers encountered from music, to aromas, to displays.
And finally, people just love Ina. She has hit upon the perfect balance of doing what she loves while simultaneously serving millions of people just like me who want to please the people we love by cooking simple, delicious meals for them.