28

At 28, The Barefoot Contessa's Ina Garten Was Balancing The White House's Nuclear Budget

"It’s amazing that they leave that for 28-year-olds!"

Quentin Bacon/Courtesy of Ina Garten

In Bustle’s Q&A series 28, successful women describe exactly what their lives looked like when they were 28 — what they wore, where they worked, what stressed them out most, and what, if anything, they would do differently. This time, cookbook author and host of the Food Network show The Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten discusses quitting her job at the White House to own and operate a speciality grocery store.

Ina Garten is obsessed with good ingredients — even when she's pouring them into a massive martini glass. Just when you think that her casual insistence that everyone has cosmo ingredients like Grey Goose and Cointreau in their pantry or will cook a stew with homemade chicken stock is a little snooty, she'll delicately chug from an oversized cocktail glass or utter those four famous words — "store bought is fine" — to let you off the hook. This is the Barefoot Contessa at her best: Elegant, but approachable.

Garten's unconventional rise to prominence in the food world similarly lends humanity to a woman so aspirational that Nancy Meyers once shot a movie in her store. Though the 72-year-old Garten's Barefoot Contessa empire includes 12 successful cookbooks, including her latest, Modern Comfort Food; 18 seasons of The Barefoot Contessa show on The Food Network; and countless magazine columns, at 28, Garten had yet to make the career switch that would come to define her. In 1976, she was married to her husband Jeffrey — still a regular fixture on her show and in her cookbooks — and living in Washington, D.C., where she worked at the White House's Office of Management and Budget while honing her cooking and entertaining skills on the weekends. Two years later, she would quit her job and buy the Hamptons specialty food store the Barefoot Contessa after seeing an ad in The New York Times, officially kick-starting her culinary career. The decision to change jobs was a major one, but she didn't agonize over it.

"A lot of people stand on the side of the riverbank and convince themselves not to jump in. But I have a low threshold for boredom, and if I’m bored, I’m gonna jump," Garten says of her decision to buy the store after growing tired of government work. "So I make a decision, I find out as much as I can about it, and then I go, 'OK, feels right, let’s just do it and we’ll figure it out along the way.' I don’t wait until I know everything about it, because otherwise you’ll never make a decision."

Her decision to sell the Barefoot Contessa to two employees in 1996 was just as spontaneous as buying the store nearly two decades prior. "I never have a long term plan. I can’t tell you what I’m gonna do two weeks from today," Garten tells Bustle with a laugh. "I know what I need to do today, tomorrow, maybe the next day, and I just line everything up so I can do a really good job at that. And then I do it all over again."

Below, Garten reflects on balancing the nuclear energy budget, splurging at the butcher shop, and flipping houses to save money for her culinary career.

Ina Garten and her husband Jeffrey in 1976.(Courtesy of Ina Garten)

Take me back to 1976, when you were 28.

I was working on my MBA at George Washington University, and I was working full time at the White House in a group of the Office of Management and Budget that writes the president’s budget and nuclear energy policy. And I was buying old houses and renovating them and teaching myself how to cook in my spare time!

What was your government work like?

I was responsible for the budget of part of the Department of Energy that dealt with nuclear issues, but nuclear power, not nuclear arms. The government produces enriched uranium for nuclear power plants, so I oversaw the budget of part of the Department of Energy that actually did that, but also the entire budget of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s amazing that they leave that for 28-year-olds.

Did you have a background in that kind of work, or were you interested in math and numbers, at least?

It’s kind of crazy because I went to Syracuse [University] thinking I wanted to study fashion — they had a very good fashion department. I just found it very boring. So I switched, crazy enough, to culinary arts, which I found even more boring! [Laughs] I was trying to find myself. I took French and I was doing really badly in French, so I dropped French and I had to take a course that I never in a million years thought I would want to take, and it was Economics. And I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a nightmare.” And it turned out to be so much more interesting than I thought, and really challenging. And so from there I went into Economics and Business classes. So in the end, through the college experience I found two things that were interesting to me: culinary [arts] and business. And that’s just what I’m doing now.

Did you enjoy working at the OMB?

Oh, yeah. I thought it was really interesting, and we were working on huge, $20 billion projects we were either budgeting or not budgeting. It’s exciting; whatever you’re working on, it’s going to the president. But at some point I just came to realize that nothing was happening — that I kept on working on the same issue every year. I’d put it in the budget, Congress would take it out for political reasons, then we’d put it back in and it would get taken out [again]. And that was the ‘70s — that wasn’t now, where they’re just downright obstructionists.

So I came to the conclusion of two things. One, as a woman I was never going to be able to be the head of this organization, because it would require a man to make that decision for me — to promote me to be the head — and I just didn’t see how that was ever going to happen. And I decided I wanted to do something that was mine, [where] it was up to me whether I was successful or not, not up to somebody promoting me or not. So that’s why I was looking outside to see if there was some business I could buy or start. My two options were real estate, [because] I liked renovating old houses and developing things, and the food business, which I knew nothing about.

What did a typical weekend look like when you were 28?

I used to have a dinner party I’d say three Saturdays out of four [each month]. The weekends I really devoted to cooking and entertaining. I would have dinners on Saturday, or you know, those were the days when you’d invite people for Sunday brunch, and that was our weekend.

What did you like cooking around that time?

[Jeffrey and I] had gone on a camping trip in Europe for four months before this. And when I came home I realized that French food was really interesting to me. So I had bought Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both volumes, and I was working my way through that. So on a dinner party I remember I made — probably more than once — roast leg of lamb, a potato gratin, and tomatoes stuffed with good fennel. It was really good, simple, French country food. It wasn’t fancy, but it was French. So I think at that time it was pretty special. We didn’t have any money, so a leg of lamb was a splurge!

After the first week [at the Barefoot Contessa] I said to Jeffrey, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Two years later, when you were 30, you would quit your government job and buy the Barefoot Contessa store after seeing it for sale in an ad. Did you feel like you were at a crossroads in your life at 28?

I think I felt that I’d come to the end of the line working in government, and I needed to do something else. What that was, I didn’t know. And when I saw this ad and we drove up to this little town I’d never been to before, Westhampton, and I walked in that store I just... it felt like home. It felt like I wanted to be there. I was lucky I knew that if [the store] failed, I wasn’t going to be out on the street. But I also knew that I had to try something.

Did you ever doubt yourself?

Oh, good god! After the first week [at the Barefoot Contessa] I said to Jeffrey, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” And I was only 30! Oh, absolutely.

Why were you doubting yourself?

It was exhausting. I jumped into something that I had no idea [about]. I was working 18-hour days, seven days a week. Every week I would get up at three in the morning on Wednesdays, drive a van into New York, pick up smoked salmon and cheese and everything I needed to sell in the store, and drive back at midnight to stock the store. And then I'd come back at five o’clock in the morning and run the store. It was deeply exhausting, but I loved doing it. I loved the people that worked for me, and I loved doing displays, and I loved deciding what products we should have. I loved making apple pies and putting them out and seeing that people liked them. I loved the work that I was doing, I just had to figure out after the first summer how I was going to do it without killing myself, and fortunately I did.

What did your family and friends think when you told them you were quitting your job to run a store?

My parents thought I was crazy. My parents did everything humanly possible to convince me not to do it. Because I was leaving a perfectly good job at the White House, they thought — they could tell their friends their daughter worked at the White House. My grandparents are immigrants, and when they came to the United States, my grandfather had a candy store. One generation later, my father was a well-known surgeon, and I ended up working in government in the White House on nuclear energy policy. So it seemed like it was going in one direction and then all of a sudden, “Wait a minute, she’s buying a food store? You’re gonna buy a grocery store?” They felt like I was going backwards. My father was like, “What are you gonna do, live over the store?”

When you bought The Barefoot Contessa, did you have any idea of the career trajectory you wanted?

No, I had no idea. When I ran the store, all I knew was I was going to run the store. And things happened that forced me to the next step — like the first lease that I had expired and the landlord didn’t want to give me the lease that I wanted, so I was forced to find another space, and a building across the street came up for sale and it was eight times the size, so I had to figure out what to do with that space and have my store in it. Then I got a call from somebody in East Hampton who had the lease on one of the buildings Dean & DeLuca was in, and they weren’t going to pay the lease, so he asked if I wanted to do it [and we moved again]. So opportunities came along along the way.

It’s interesting and comforting to hear that things sometimes just work out.

I think that if you’re open to possibilities, things come to you that are interesting. I mean, 98% of what comes to me I just pass by, I’m not interested in it at all, but every once in a while, something comes up and you go, “Yeah that’s kind of interesting, that might really work,” and then you follow it where it goes. But if you have a long term plan and you’re wedded to that — at least for me — I don’t think you see stuff that comes along the way. It either fits in your plan or doesn’t. Sometimes you need to just follow something where it goes. And you may follow it and say and it doesn’t work, so I’m not gonna do it, but at least you’ve given it a chance.

What advice would you give your 28-year-old self?

Don’t worry so much, it’ll be OK! [Through] all of the worrying, you just do it and figure it out. And that process is what I really love to do. I love having a problem and figuring it out. And nobody telling me what to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.