Trent Pheifer was celebrating. He arranged oysters and clams—lustrous, exposed on the half shell—shrimp, crabs, and four blazing-red lobsters over ice. Among the shellfish menagerie he slipped lemon wedges and three dips: mignonette, cocktail, and mustard sauce. The impressive spread was to commemorate a milestone for Pheifer: Over the course of five years, he has cooked more than 1,000 of Ina Garten’s recipes. And in a little over a year from now, he’ll have cooked his way through her entire culinary oeuvre.
Pheifer began his project, Store Bought Is Fine, five years ago (Oct. 10 is the official anniversary). In the years since its inception, he’s learned a bevy of culinary techniques, sharpened his photography skills, amassed a sizable online following, and even met his culinary idol. What began as a whim has become an all-consuming and life-altering project.
“I grew up cooking with my grandmother and my mom,” Pheifer told me. “But by the time I had left school, I wasn’t cooking much. I moved to New York City, where there were so many good restaurants—cooking for me was microwaving a bag of Trader Joe’s vegetable fried rice.” Like most of us, he met Garten through the television. Pheifer found himself soothed by her ease, creativity, and homespun sensibilities.
He always wanted to be invited to her parties. Instead, he began to host his own.
Like Pheifer, Garten didn’t get her start in a professional kitchen. In 1978, she left her government job in D.C. to helm a small specialty food store, called Barefoot Contessa, in Westhampton Beach, New York. In the late ’90s, after two decades running the store, Garten used her growing appeal and culinary know-how to publish her first cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Three years later, the Food Network came knocking and launched a television program bearing the same name. In the years since, Garten has built a veritable culinary empire, complete with 11 cookbook titles and a 26-season-and-counting TV run.
Garten’s outsize appeal maneuvers delicately between aspirational and accessible. She cooks decadent but doable dishes from a farmhouse-style kitchen in East Hampton. There are facets of her life—her ZIP code, her circle of friends—to which the average home cook cannot relate, yet her well-tested and unstuffy recipes allow anyone to bring her flavors into their own homes. She doesn’t shy away from treating oneself, and she’s not concerned with latching on to the newest culinary trend. Her approach is cozy, confident, and clearly working: 20 years later she maintains a massive following. Garten’s shows and recipes are the subject of memes, binge-watching, and utter devotion, Pheifer being just one example.
The premise posits Pheifer as a store-bought version of his culinary idol, a Julie & Julia for the Instagram era. The title hearkens to one of Garten’s characteristic, and often exaggerated, adages—if you’re unable to procure a certain ingredient, like fresh herbs from the garden or vanilla shipped directly from Madagascar or even flames summoned directly from hell at home, the supermarket alternative will suffice.
“The initial concept was to put pictures of my horrible food next to her gorgeous-looking professional photos, but that kind of fell by the wayside over time,” Pheifer says. It has since morphed into a multidimensional enterprise that’s become an integral part of his life. “To be honest, I thought this would be a project that I’d do for three months and kind of lose wind, but I really, truly found my passion cooking.”
When he’s not working as a fundraiser for a nonprofit, Pheifer’s calendar is scaffolded around cooking and shooting Garten’s recipes. He budgets himself about four recipes a week. If one is extremely simple, like the compound butter he made just last week, he’ll lasso in a fifth. He cooks from all 11 of her published books (in no particular order), as well as from the recipes she prepares on her television show. While sourcing the ingredients and mastering the techniques are the obvious hurdles in a project like Pheifer’s, there’s one element that guides his workflow more than any other: taking the perfect picture.
“I always feel like I’m chasing the light most of the time, but I try to not let it interfere with my life as much as possible,” Pheifer says. Capturing the right image for his ballooning Instagram account, which boasts more than 27,000 followers, is a major part of his process. “I’m just using my iPhone and trying to get natural light; I go where the light is. I have photos in my bathroom, near my bed—a lot of my photos are on the floor of my kitchen.”
Sharing his progress online, Pheifer has found buoyancy and light in the community that frequents his Instagram. “We all think of the internet as a horrible place where people are so mean to each other, but to me this has brought out the best in people,” he said. “This community has been so supportive. There’s mutual love, admiration.” Garten herself frequently comments on his posts, and they’ve exchanged a few niceties online.
Yet no online interaction compares, Pheifer assures me, to the thrill of meeting his idol in person. It happened on a trip to Paris on his last day in the city, when he walked into a restaurant for lunch and noticed an extremely familiar face in the corner. The color, he says, drained from his face faster than you can say, “Jeffrey’s gonna love this.” Seated in the back of the restaurant were Garten and her husband, Jeffrey. After he finished his meal, Pheifer plucked up the nerve to stop by her table. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so after a little bit of liquid courage, my friend and I walked over and introduced ourselves,” he said. “She turns to me and says, ‘I heard you were in town.’ ”
Since the start of the pandemic, Pheifer, like so many of us, has been spending more time at home. The new stay-at-home lifestyle has both helped and hindered his project. During the early days of quarantine, it was hard to find many of his staple ingredients (remember the yeast shortage?). But all the extra time he saves not having to commute to and from work has given him a larger window to cook and shoot his recipes during the week. Most of all, he misses the epic brunches he would host for his friends on Sundays, chances to gather at the altar of the Barefoot Contessa.
Of the thousand-and-counting recipes that he’s prepared, Pheifer says he’s liked about 95 to 98 percent of them. He counts her Rigatoni With Sausage and Fennel and her Chicken Thighs With Creamy Mustard Sauce, as well as her Ham and Leek Empanadas and Cauliflower Toasts, as some of his go-to favorites. As for disasters? Her Pear and Parsnip Gratin: “I’m just not a huge parsnip fan, and I was single at the time, so eating a whole casserole of pear and parsnip gratin was not what I wanted to do with my week. I think it was one of the only major fails.”
As he begins to consider the end of his project, Pheifer still doesn’t know what he wants his final Garten recipe to be. He assumes it will be something from her forthcoming book Modern Comfort Food, which was released earlier this month. He plans to hang on to the Instagram handle, but may pivot to recipe developing or experimenting with Korean and Thai food, two of his favorite cuisines to cook and eat.
“Ina will always have a special place in my heart. She taught me how to cook. There’s a lot of recipes that I grew up with that I would like to put my own spin on. The end of this will be bittersweet. It’s been five years of my life. But I’m excited for the next chapter.”
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