By Kim Kalunian, WPRO Arts and Entertainment Contributor
Foodies and fans are no doubt familiar with the name Ina Garten, but others may know her best as the “Barefoot Contessa,” the Food Network show of which she is the host.
Garten has been the host of the show for 11 years now, and is one of the network’s most popular TV chefs. Next week, Garten will be in Providence for an interview and Q&A at PPAC with Johanne Killeen, the owner and chef of Al Forno restaurant.
Garten is a big fan of Al Forno, and said the first time she came to Providence was specifically to visit the gourmet restaurant.
“I took a small plane to Providence just to go to Al Forno,” Garten said in a telephone interview Monday. “It was like a pilgrimage.”
Although Garten hasn’t been to the Ocean State many times, she said she associates Rhode Island with food, and sees it as a place with a lot of culinary potential.
“It’s been a great time for food generally in the country,” said Garten, who said it seems many people are looking to get back to the basics of delicious, homemade meals.
And that’s what Garten has become known for: simple, elegant, home-cooked meals. On “Barefoot Contessa,” Garten’s relaxed approach and signature, soothing delivery have become her trademarks. “How easy is that?” has become a sort of catchphrase for the soft-spoken, mild-mannered chef.
Watching “Barefoot Contessa,” it’s hard to believe Garten hasn’t always been a TV personality. The woman who seems so at ease on camera actually started as a White House nuclear policy analyst during the Carter administration. Then one day, she decided she needed a change of pace.
“I just thought, I’ve got to have more fun than this,” she said. So when she found a gourmet food store in the Hamptons that was up for sale, she thought she’d take a leap of faith.
“Two months later found myself the owner,” she said. The name of that store was Barefoot Contessa.
At this point, it would be easy to say, “And the rest was history,” but it wasn’t that simple.
“I’m probably the most reluctant TV host that you’ve ever known,” said Garten, who initially turned down the Food Network’s offer for her own show.
“I really didn’t think it was something I could do,” she explained. “But Food Network just kept coming after me.”
Eventually Garten agreed to do 13 episodes.
“I thought, that’ll be that,” she said. “And happily that was about 11 years ago.”
Since then, “Barefoot Contessa” has won two daytime Emmy Awards, one for Best Service Show and the other for Best Culinary Host.
“I love that what I do gets people to cook I think it inspires people to say, ‘I think I can actually make that,’” said Garten, who embraces simplicity in her cooking.
Garten said she was inspired by Julia Child, and cooked her way through many of Child’s cookbooks while living in Washington, D.C.
“I’d work during the day and come home and cook at night,” she said.
For those balancing work and home like Garten did, she suggests trying one of her brand new sauté dinners, which hit frozen food aisles of supermarkets nationwide this month.
Garten said the Barefoot Contessa frozen dinners are versions of some of her favorite recipes that can be made in one pan in about ten minutes.
“Even my husband can’t tell the difference,” said Garten, referring to Jeffery, her spouse since 1968. Jeffery often makes cameos on her show, usually to taste-test his wife’s cooking – don’t worry, he always loves it.
Though food is her profession, Garten still believes that cooking and entertaining should be relaxing and stress-free.
“I think we all feel like we have to impress people with our food and the truth is it’s just the opposite,” she said.
Her advice to at-home cooks is to make two things from scratch and buy the rest. An elegant roast chicken right out of the oven can be complimented by a store-bought raspberry tart for dessert.
“Cooking is like a couture dress,” she said. “If the fabric is gorgeous you don’t have to do a lot to make it look good, so pick simple things to do that you feel comfortable with.”
Garten said entertaining doesn’t have to be a “major production.” The more you do it, and the more comfortable you feel in the kitchen, the more fun you’ll have, she said.
To Garten, food is a great way to bring the people together.
“For me it’s all about getting people to the table,” she said. “If you cook, everybody shows up, and I think that’s when community happens.”
Garten said when it comes to her own dinner plate, she likes pretty much everything but cilantro: “I think it’s a physiological thing. I just don’t like the taste,” she said. An ideal meal for the TV chef would include a rack of lamb with orzo, a big pot of minestrone soup and a French apple tart.
“And then there’s always a nice whiskey sour to start with,” she said with a laugh.
Garten will be at the Providence Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, March 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35.75-$45.75 and can be purchased here.
An award-winning journalist and theater critic – and a performer at heart. Kim’s talents have taken her from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NY, to stages in Boston and Providence’s own Trinity Repertory.