“Don’t add too much,” cautions Ina Garten—the best-selling author of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and host of a Food Network TV show by the same name that debuted late last year—as she adds wasabi to a dipping sauce, “or you’ll blow your friends out of their seats.” Garten’s casual speech makes it clear we’re far from the clench-jawed politesse of Martha Stewart’s world. Although Garten conjures the same honeyed slice of American aristocracy that Stewart does—the English-style gardens, the grassy beaches, the relaxed, preppy friends—she’s got an appealing broad-y-ness that is a welcome counterpoint to Stewart’s hauteur.
Garten first became well-known as the owner of the Hamptons’ specialty food store, the Barefoot Contessa, which has kept the Sagaponack set in scones and chicken salad for more than 20 years. She sold the business a few years ago but kept its name on her three books, which together have sold over a million copies, and on her TV show, which is currently in production for a second season.
Filmed at her own Easthampton home, the Barefoot Contessa is as much about an idealized Hamptons’ lifestyle as it is about food. The eastern tip of Long Island is famous for its high-society set pieces: the Page Six celebrities, the parties, and the polo. But the area is also known for a certain restrained and earthy look—spare grassy dunes, farm stands offering fresh produce, and shingles that give even mansions a cottagelike feel. Garten’s efforts reflect this aesthetic. As in the J. Crew catalog, Ralph Lauren ads, and Stewart’s own publications, for which Garten used to write, we’re presented with a distinctly upper class sense of ease and graciousness, of not needing to try too hard. Of course, simplifying always seems easier in a beautiful setting. Watching The Barefoot Contessa makes access to this kind of leisure seem as easy as preparing Garten’s tequila lime chicken breasts.
Garten looks a like a softer Stockard Channing, with apple-pink cheeks and the soft chin of someone who has eaten well over many years, someone who embeds each hamburger she forms with a little pat of butter. She accepts the messes and glitches of cooking with Julia Child-esque humor, and indeed, in nearly every show, she ends up with a fair dusting of flour over her big, smocky shirts. (The mess has none of the Anna Magnani sex appeal of Nigella Lawson, but it’s part of the same neorealist movement in cooking shows, where real locations and close-ups of working hands are in, and studio-style perfection is out.)
Episodes of Barefoot Contessa are pageants of extended-familial love; the narrative thrust of each show is Garten’s anticipatory preparation for her end-of-show guests. In one show she gets a cuddly hello from her husband, Jeffrey, who in real life is the dean of the Yale School of Management; in another, a giggly Garten and her chirpy bridge buddies pretend they’re tipsy. (It’s no surprise to learn Garten also contributes to O, the magazine of Oprah’s touchy-feely, therapeutic empire.) We learn more about Jeffrey and Garten’s other friends in the head notes to her printed recipes. The intimacy feels heavily produced, but it’s still winning: It seems, in a way that it never did with Stewart, that Garten has the capacity to relish the good things around her.
Garten’s recipes are tried and true American cuisine and especially heavy on brunch and picnic fare. Her books are anti-encyclopedic—no How To Cook Everything here—and provide just a handful (about 50 per book) of heavily illustrated, well-tested recipes. This is not the place to browse for new ideas but to find solid formulas for old dishes like, say, a tasty breaded chicken, a corn muffin shot through with raspberry jam, or coconut cupcakes. She is unashamed to devote two-page spreads to stupendously simple recipes like sautéed carrots, scrambled eggs with herbs, or tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad. And yet the recipes and their appealing photographs help sell Garten’s main philosophy: Family and friends are easily delighted by simple, rich classics. In fact, a notable recipe that once appeared on the cover of Martha Stewart Living, an exercise in buttercream patriotism called “the flag cake,” stands out as a little fussy among her other, stripped-down recipes.
Garten’s knack for presenting easy food in a fresh way reflects not just her Hamptons ethos of simplicity but her years in catering. More than restaurant food, catered food benefits from being pared down, easily made ahead of time, and non-controversial. (Caterers are not reviewed by the media in the same way that chefs are, so there is less pressure to innovate with flavors.) Good caterers must have a near-military mastery of logistics and a taste for the common denominator. Martha Stewart, of course, was also a caterer before she became a lifestyle guru. So were Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins of the Silver Palate series, who, before splitting up in the early ‘90s, sold more than 5 million copies of their three books (and, indirectly, countless sun-dried tomatoes). Catering-inspired cookbooks have a popular appeal and breakout potential that a chef’s vanity projects rarely do.
And while restaurant food does best in situ, complemented by decor, menu, and service, catered food is meant to make real homes seem more like the ideal: more elegant, more sane, more relaxed—as Garten writes, “familiar, but a little better than you remember.” As experienced scene-setters, Garten and her peers know the American public is hungry for more than just food. We cook and eat at home less often than we used to; so when we do, we hope to create an event: to stir emotion, perhaps to create memories. And because catered food is easily made by anyone, it fosters the hope that a little bit of the Hamptons might rub off in homes in Des Moines, Iowa, and Tallahassee, Fla. (Yet there is always that lingering feeling that a relaxed barbecue will be a little less charming if your backyard has a commanding view not of your heirloom apple orchard but of your neighbor’s dining room window.)
With Stewart facing months of legal battles and a permanently tarnished reputation, it’s hard to know whether Garten will step in as heir to the lifestyle throne. Part of Stewart’s appeal has been as the perfectionist people love to hate, the Alexis Carrington of home improvement. It’s possible that Garten is too approachable to build an empire. But in the meantime, her cookbooks are good reminders that you don’t need to exhaust yourself to entertain your guests. All that’s really necessary is a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and a Hamptons mansion.