12 Facts You Didn't Know About Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa

"Cooking's hard for me," Ina Garten once admitted in an interview with PBS. This little revelation counts as just one fact about the Barefoot Contessa that might surprise her followers. It's the secret behind why Ina Garten gravitates toward cooking simple recipes and why she's so approachable and endearing. Her recipes allow her to cook food that's really delicious, despite her perceived insecurities as a cook. And, the fact that she's willing to admit her limitations allows others to see themselves in her. In other words, she comes across as very real to the people who read her books and watch her show. And, people relax around real.

However, these cooking challenges aren't the only little-known facts about Ina Garten. For someone who lives in the public eye, she still has the ability to surprise and delight. She has had a long and interesting career, which means some tidbits about her life may have gotten lost in the pages of cookbooks past. Given that, it's worth taking a closer look at some of the other possible surprises, like these 12 facts, about the Contessa that might just astonish even her most knowledgeable fans.

1. Ina Garten met her husband when she was 15

According to a 2022 Match.com poll, (via Marie Claire) women meet their future spouses, on average, by the age of 25. Ina Garten didn't have to wait quite as long to meet her future husband, Jeffrey Garten. They met when she was 15 years old and tied the knot just five years later. Sometime after their wedding, the pair traveled through France together. Fate matched Garten with her future profession on that trip by inspiring her to learn French cooking, which she eventually did by studying Julie Child's cookbooks. 

And, Jeffrey was there to encourage her and inspire her, first as the chief sampler of her dinner party recipes and later as the person who encouraged her to buy what would become her shop, The Barefoot Contessa. He has been at her side for more than 50 years. The bond between the two is strong, and challenges, like having to spend large amounts of time apart when she first opened her store, solidified the bond. Jeffrey, who was working in Washington, D.C., at the time, spent his time commuting between D.C. and the Hamptons, where Ina Garten rented a room so that she could be near her new store. Over the years, he has appeared on "The Barefoot Contessa," and is the subject of her cookbook, "Cooking for Jeffrey." 

2. Her mom discouraged her from learning to cook

Given how famous Ina Garten is as a foodie, it would logically follow that she must have been born in the kitchen, learning how to pair ingredients together while she was still a toddler and then going on to cooking Sunday dinners for her family by the time she turned six. The opposite is true. The Barefoot Contessa told Al Roker on his podcast that her dietician mother discouraged her from cooking, telling her, "It's your job to study. It's my job to cook." Probably because of her profession, Ina Garten's mother was obsessive about what her family ate. Growing up, Ina Garten didn't eat the delish carbs like the parmesan smashed potatoes, she's known for. And, butter and decadent desserts? Forget about those, too. 

Eventually, she pursued her love of cooking, though unlike some celebrity chefs, like Anthony Bourdain, she didn't attend cooking school. After she married, she found new freedom in the kitchen and decided to teach herself how to cook, which she did by working through Julia Child's cookbooks. She found her voice and purpose as a cook. Cooking, for her, means more than just sampling delicious food, though that's a part of it. What Ina Garten really loves about food and cooking comes down to the social aspect of it. She hungered for connection with others. Food and feeding people, by her way of thinking, offers her the best way to do that. 

3. She began her career in nuclear energy policy

When Ina Garten started her career, in the 1970s, she worked in the White House first under President Gerald Ford and then James "Jimmy" Carter. She spent her days in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a budgeting analyst, overseeing the budget as it pertained to U.S. nuclear policy. For foodie fans who connect with her Barefoot Contessa persona, this tidbit of information is probably an interesting factoid. However, it represents more than that. During the late '70s, women were in a transition period, meaning in the generations that came before Ina Garten, women mostly didn't work in the sciences or big business and certainly not as nuclear policy analysts in the White House. 

If they worked outside the home at all, they worked as secretaries or school teachers. Speaking to Today in 2022, Garten explained that there was a lack of female role models in the career sphere when entered the workforce — especially in roles like the one she held at the White House. She said, "We all wanted to grow up to be our husbands or our fathers, and Jeffrey worked in the State Department, so I thought that's what I wanted to do."

4. Her food career started with an ad

How Ina Garten found her shop, The Barefoot Contessa, sounds like something out of the Terry Brooks fantasy novel, "Magic Kingdom for Sale – Sold." While perusing ads in the New York Times she saw one that basically offered her the chance to buy her own magic kingdom — a 400-foot specialty food store in the Hamptons. 

Fortunately, her husband Jeffrey was on board. So, they both trekked to West Hampton, a place she'd never been, to see the shop and Garten made the shopkeeper a low offer there and then, thinking the owner would want to negotiate. Much to her great surprise, the offer was accepted. Once the dust settled, the Barefoot Contessa set about learning all the jobs in the store, and creating the fun and happy vibe that the eventual celeb chef wanted in the store. It was bake, rinse the pots, and repeat for almost 20 years before Garten called it quits, but the experience proved to be the exact training she needed for the next phase in her life: cookbook writer.

5. She thought she could learn the food business in a month

Lots of words describe Ina Garten. Fun. Engaging. Optimistic. The last quality — optimistic — epitomizes her approach to running the specialty food store that she bought in the Hamptons. And it's a good thing, too, because she made a deal with the woman who sold her the store to stay to train her for a month before she finally left the reigns in Garten's hands. Yes. You read that right. Just a month. In an interview with Forbes Women, the Barefoot Contessa laughs at her optimism in the face of the near-impossible task, saying, "Like you can learn how to run a business in a month."

It was only after she was well underway in her new venture that she realized that trying to learn a business in a month wasn't so wise. Had she worked in the food industry before opening a store? Nope. Had she ever supervised employees? Nope. Other than the dinner parties she hosted in her former life, she had no experience whatsoever. Understandably, the time came when she realized that her optimism got her in over her head. That's when her husband, Jeffrey, offered her some wise words. He told her, "If you can do it in the first month, you'll be bored in the second." That was just what she needed to hear to refocus her energy, helping her to eventually master the business.

6. Doing her TV show supports her cookbook-writing

If you were to ask the Barefoot Contessa to name the job she most identifies with, she'd say, cookbook writer. Even though she hosted her own cooking show, "The Barefoot Contessa" for almost 20 years, it was just a means to bring attention to the cookbooks she loves to write. In fact, the TV shows, monthly magazine columns –  for the likes of celebs like Oprah and Martha Stewart – and all of her public appearances are essentially promotions for her cookbook business.

When it comes to writing her books, Ina Garten spends a lot of time in recipe development. First, the former food store owner hangs out, observing what everyone else is doing. Then she asks people she knows about their ideas for recipes. From there comes the idea for a new twist on those tried-and-true recipes, requiring her to work and rework a recipe up to 25 times to ensure that it's her take on the dish and not someone else's. Once she's done with that, she asks an assistant to cook the recipe from her instructions. If this stage of the process reveals that anything in her writing is unclear, Ina Garten goes back and tweaks the instructions again until she's sure that anyone reading the recipe can make it.

7. Ina Garten believed her work life was over at 50

Anyone who thinks life's second act only exists in far-away fairy tales should take a bit of inspiration from Ina Garten. When she was 50 years old, she felt burned out by her chosen career running The Barefoot Contessa store. She came to the conclusion that the best years of her career were the ones she looked at in the rearview mirror. But, little did she know that life had some big things in store for her second act, which the Garten discovered a year later. 

She sold her store, The Barefoot Contessa, to two of her employees and basically hung out for a year, doing pretty much nothing. She did this until boredom set in. And, to combat the boredom, Garten started writing her first cookbook and had some very specific ideas about what should go into the cookbook. "I wanted it to be a cookbook that I'd want to have," she says (via Epicurious).

The project, which contained only 75 recipes, took up two years of her life between the testing of recipes, the writing, and the photography. That book eventually spawned a whole cottage industry of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and a legion of followers around the world, including singer Taylor Swift. 

8. She treated her first cookbook like a business

Ina Garten came into the cookbook business with an MBA from George Washington University and nearly 20 years of experience in the specialty food business. Writing a cookbook represented just another chance to show her chops as a businesswoman. However, she admitted in an interview with Forbes Women that if she'd taken a gander at the cookbook section of the bookstore at the time, "I never would have written a cookbook."

The sheer volume of cookbooks on the market intimidated her. "How could you think that you would rise above that?" she added. But, she approached the project with the mindset, "As long as I'm doing it, I'm gonna do it as well as I can." A lot of the funding came from her own pocket. Ina Garten even hired her own publicist and photographer because she was told that publishing houses don't do much in the way of promotion. Along those lines, she took the advice that Martha Stewart gave her, which was to go to bookstores and offer to sign books. It was in a bookstore in Newport, California, that she learned that the store had sold out of her books the day she came in offering to sign them. That was the first indication that her investment might pay off. That first book went on to sell over 100,000 copies in its inaugural year, making it a surprise runaway hit and launching Garten's third career at the same time.

9. Fun and recreation requires a lot of planning for Ina Garten

The Barefoot Contessa's busy schedule means she needs at least a year to plan vacations that she and her husband take. This isn't to say that the couple doesn't spend time apart. They've spent a number of times apart from each other during their 50-plus-year marriage. Jeffrey was in the military for a while, and his travels took him to Thailand and Japan away from their life together. This doesn't even include the time they spent apart when Ina Garten opened her store, which required them to live separately for a time.

In the early years of their marriage, their time away included a camping stint in the '70s in France, which solidified Ina Garten's love of French meals and eventually, French cooking. They lived on $5 a day and were introduced to French cuisine by fellow campers in Normandy. That trip lasted four months. In the later years of their marriage, they traded the orange camping tent they stayed in during the 1970s for an apartment in Paris that the Contessa did over while Jeffrey was away (with his blessing, of course). That house serves as a home away from home in which they can reconnect with one another a couple of times a year. Those times also allow the Barefoot Contessa to keep her creative juices flowing and often comes back from her vacation spots with ideas for upcoming projects.5

10. The Barefoot Contessa shoots her TV show in a renovated barn

Imagine having a film crew in your kitchen, your living room, pretty much everywhere in your home for eight weeks at a time, two times a year. It'd probably get a bit old, even if the crew was there because you were starring in your own show on the Food Network. Such was the situation that Ina Garten found herself in during the early seasons of her show, "The Barefoot Contessa." But, she quickly realized that she needed her own studio space to free up her personal kitchen and stop living primarily out of her bedroom. The opportunity for that came when, in 2006, the property next door to her home opened up. The Barefoot Contessa bought it, effectively releasing herself and her husband from their bedroom hideout and moving the TV crew across the lawn.

It's a short commute, just across the back lawn of her home and into the doors of the barn studio which is decked out with an 18-foot marble countertop, an impressive dining table, and the kinds of gadgets that make ardent foodies weep with happiness. She regularly retreats to the barn to work with her assistants on new recipes, sits with her impressive cookbook collection, and even does the writing that will eventually make the collection. Much of the other aspects of her business, including planning and social media posting, also spring from the cooking barn. 

11. The Food Network had to beg to get her to do a show

Given how authentic the Barefoot Contessa seems on TV, you'd be forgiven for thinking that having her own TV show on the Food Network epitomized her dream. Nope. More than once, Ina Garten told the Food Network to lose her number. After the success of her first cookbook, the network begged Garten to do her own show but try as they might they couldn't seal the deal. Her constant nay-saying to the arose from a single thought: She couldn't imagine anyone wanting to watch her on TV.

Eventually, she finally agreed to do her own show. The cameras started rolling for the televised version of the Barefoot Contessa's life in 2002, aptly named after her food store that. Her show, "The Barefoot Contessa," has drawn in millions of viewers. As a result, the cookbooks she wrote became more and more popular, with the sales of the books fueling the interest in her show and vice versa. All told, Ina Garten has now spent two decades on TV and written 13 cookbooks. 

12. She also has a pilot's license

Saying that Ina Garten is pretty incredible kind of understates things. She worked in the White House, she started her own food empire, and as it turns out, she also has a pilot's license. After all of this, few would be surprised if it were revealed she is also a member of the Men in Black team. Although the story of how she got her pilot's license involves less exciting things than putting aliens in their place, it does qualify as extraordinary. 

In the early years of their marriage Ina and Jeffrey lived across the street from an airport, and being the go-getter that she is, Garten went to see about learning how to fly. Her conversation with the staff at the small airport earned an apology with the explanation that no one there would teach a woman how to fly. The response astonished the Contessa but she persisted. "Well, then, find somebody," she said, relaying the story on "The Drew Barrymore Show." The lessons were mostly smooth flying, though she did nearly get eaten by a helicopter's blades when she taxied the plane on the runway without the tower's permission. She survived the incident with just a "Student pilot!" comment from the tower.