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Since 2002, Ina Garten has filmed hundreds of hours of Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa franchise, but she’s mostly shared the screen with perfectly roasted chickens, photo-worthy lemon bars and, on occasion, her adoring husband, Jeffrey. But the author of 12 cookbooks — 13, come October, with the arrival of Go-To Dinners — has never filmed much with others. That changed March 26 with the Discovery+ arrival of Be My Guest With Ina Garten, an interview series that finds the Hamptons’ most famous host sharing meals and conversations with the likes of Julianna Margulies, Willie Geist and director Rob Marshall. A onetime White House budget analyst whose new series has already been picked up for two more seasons, Garten recently Zoomed in from the East Coast to talk about her latest gig as culinary interviewer.
How do you approach booking guests for the new show?
Well, it’s not necessarily famous people. They’re people that I admire, who’ve done really interesting things. It’s often assumed that successful people got where they are because of talent or luck. But I think it’s because they powered through something. So I’m always interested in what barriers people hit.
What was your barrier?
When I was working in the government, I just wanted to get out. I wanted something that was mine. So I chose a specialty food store in the middle of nowhere. When I decided to do cookbooks, the popular thing at the time was these enormous books of 250 recipes — how to cook everything. I wanted a book of 75 great recipes, like one really good roast chicken. My publisher didn’t get it. People were skeptical because it was so different from what was being done. I kept my vision, and, fortunately, they stuck with me.
Addressing the camera must come quite naturally at this point. How did you prepare for the interview portion of the show?
I have somebody doing a lot of research for me, because you really have to prepare for these interviews. She gives me five pages to read, tells me to look at this interview, watch that show, read this book. In the weeks before the interviews, I really learn about the person. And in the beginning, I had maybe three pages of questions to ask.
Did you need to reference your notes?
Willie Geist was my first. And, of course, he’s such a great interviewer. I couldn’t he was first. I thought, “Oh, I’m never going to be able to remember all these questions that I have written down.” But I also didn’t want to look at the page. You want to keep the connection. So I did the interview. And, at the end, I said to my director, “What was that, like 45 minutes?” That’s I was hoping for. She said it was two hours! Oh my. Poor Willie.
What better prepared you for this: previous TV work or hosting lord knows how many dinner parties and events?
Probably hosting. I wanted it to feel like you’ve come to my house for a little dinner. I wanted it to feel that way for the audience. And I remember hearing an interview between Terry Gross, who is such a great interviewer, and Michael Ian Black. One of them said, and I don’t remember which one of them it was, but they said, “When you do a really good interview, it’s the conversation you wish you had at a dinner party — but you never do, because interviews can be much more intimate.” I think it really had less to do with filming a TV show than actually just connecting with somebody.
Your 13th cookbook, Go-To Dinners, comes out later this year.
Isn’t that crazy?
It is. How has your writing process evolved?
After probably the first or second book, I thought, “OK, that’s it! I’ve done all the recipes I can possibly think of.” But, amazingly, every time I can usually sit down and think of a list of 50 ideas for things I’d like to do. Then, over the period of two years, I get up in the morning — and, if it’s a beautiful sunny day and I feel like a salad, I’ll go down the list and I’ll pick out a salad and I’ll go get the ingredients. I might nail it on the first day. It might take me a week. I might just go, “You know what? This is too hard.” And I try something else. It really helps that it goes through all of the seasons while I’m writing one book.
Is there one recipe that you think you’ve reinvented the most? You have many, many roast chickens — but your skillet-roasted lemon chicken, which didn’t come until book 10, is a big favorite in my family.
Isn’t that great? I love that one too. It’s so simple, and it really is kind of the essence of chicken-ness. My cooking isn’t creatively cutting edge. They’re more from “remember” flavors. So, I tend to take a recipe for boeuf bourguignon and make it simpler. I’m a big believer in making a better potato chip. That’s my goal. Take something that everybody just loves, but make it better than anybody else.
On TV, your husband seems to earnestly adore everything you make for him. When testing recipes, has he ever vetoed anything?
I wouldn’t give it to him if I thought it wasn’t great. Actually, if I’m testing a recipe, I don’t give him the tests. I wait until it’s done. He’s my number one audience.
Between the shows, the books and 3.7 million Instagram followers, how do you think your your audience has changed over the years?
Everybody loves cooking. I always reference a time I was walking up Madison Avenue and a woman in a big fur coat was like, “Oh, darling, love your cookbooks.” One block later, a truck driver pulled over and said, “Hey, babe, love your show!” That’s what cooking is.
You’re a known Francophile. Have you and your husband been able to return to Paris during the pandemic?
I haven’t been since December 2019. I haven’t even been to an airport. I haven’t gone anywhere.
At least there are worse places to be stuck than the Hamptons.
Yes, and it’s gorgeous today. I love East Hampton in the winter, when there’s nobody here. Of course, I’m very grateful that [weekenders and tourists] come — and then I’m really glad when they go home.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Garten’s forthcoming cookbook.
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