Yet another toot of the horn for Southern Sonoma/West Marin super foods. The Barefoot Contessa, when asked what she loves best about wine country, called out Petaluma's Della Fattoria Bakery and Cowgirl Creamery as top of her pops.
The International icon of taste has had over three decades in the spotlight as one of the United States most credible food connoisseurs. So the Contessa certainly knows her stuff. I spotted Della's Kathleen Weber in the audience a few rows in front. Kathleen has her own cookbook coming out soon.
Food Network's Ina Garten literally 'stepped' into her alter ego as the Barefoot Contessa - first retailer, then caterer, later, a prolific cookbook author and, since 2002, tv celebrity. It was while she was working at the White House in Nuclear Energy Policy back in 1978 that the idea of diverting her career took flight. A chance sighting of a small for sale ad for a tiny, 400-sq ft specialty food store in the Hamptons, caught her eye and the rest, as they say, is history. The store was already named (after a rather dark 1954 movie) and though she wasn't too keen on the title at first, can we imagine Ina as anything other?
"Sometimes in life, you simply have to have the courage to jump of a cliff and hope that you'll fly," Ina told a rapt audience of hundreds of her Northern California-based fans at a wine country evening visit and talk at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, on April 2nd.
I don't watch food cooking shows, as a rule. But I am a fan of Ina's recipes and was keen to hear her in person, on a rare visit to Sonoma County. What a treat to hear her recall the lifelong influence of a four-month, budget tent camping trip in Europe, as a newly-wed, with her husband, Jeffrey, in the late 60s. It was in France, at the street markets, that she was first exposed to the freshest cooking ingredients she'd ever come across. "I'm surprised I didn't burn the tent down, cooking each evening," she said. "If we spent $6 one day, we had to spend $4 the next."
Ina displays little ego considering the level of her success. It's admirable and refreshing. When asked if she grows her own produce at home in the Hamptons, she said, apart from herbs and the occasional tomato plant, that farmer's market stands are her go-to source. So un-Martha, though the pair are pals, having catered many a star-studded clientele event together over the years (Ina is also a past columnist in Martha Stewart Living).
At 66, she's not showing any signs of slowing down. Though Ina sold the (second, larger) store after 20-years to employees, back in 1996, her foray into cookbook publishing (her ninth, with a handy cook ahead theme due out this fall), magazine writing and, later, after considerable persuasion by the Food Network, her 20 episode a year show, The Barefoot Contessa, produced by the team that had been behind British celebrity cook, Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites.
Ina (who was born in Brooklyn, but grew up in Connecticut), attributes her on-going focus as maintaining what she does best and 'keeping things simple'. She has a small, close team of three assistants on hand at the studio barn she built next door to the home that she shares with Yale Professor, Jeffrey: "who, though he likes to come across as a doofus, is actually the most intelligent of men," she laughed.
When asked about her business savvy, Ina shared that she'd declined most invitations to endorse product lines (though she does have her own line of pantry goods and frozen foods), including furniture, clothing and to her bemusement, fertilizer.
Here's a woman whose youthful spirit, energy and can-do enthusiasm beats most people two decades her junior and yet Ina Garten cuts a real-life, full-figured air of being comfortable in her own skin and confidence in her uniform of black pants and crisp, black shirt. She never watches her own show. She laughs freely and a lot. She's not at all intimidating and it was clear that the crowd adored her all the more for it.
When asked what is her most-used kitchen item,she said: "Stacks of half-sheet pans". On cooking for influential guests - the more important the person, the more: "earthy and simple the menu". Expecting a chef friend over for dinner? Cook 'em Mac n' Cheese.
I liked hearing of her approach to emergency catering. "Wherever you are, source the best bakery, the best cheese and charcuterie store, the best fruit," she suggested. "Base menus on what you can find." Don't be afraid to put together a buffet of the best of whatever's on hand.
Ina, whose grandmother was a wonderful cook and early influence, worked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking upon her return to the States after her honeymoon tent expedition in Europe. And though she credits Julia Child with providing her the culinary chops to do what she does, she believes that in today's world, a lot of the recipes benefit from a touch of modern deconstruction, especially in terms of time involved.
Her next cookbook will focus on making ahead. Whipped cream with creme fraiche and powdered sugar, for example, apparently hold up well ahead of time, as do mashed potatoes with goat cheese. I'm a keen proponent for having dinner maybe not quite, but almost ready to serve when guests arrive - so much more fun as host. "Always serve a good cocktail," said Ina, whose preference is a Whisky Sour or Manhattan.
One audience member asked what she might do in the future. She'd like to go on doing what she's doing now, though: "I advocate for diving in the lake, splashing around and having a look at what's on either shore," she said. "If you don't get in the water, you'll never get to the other side."
Ina's visit was in conjunction with the Bellweather Farms Culinary Series. Click here for all sorts of other upcoming shows at Sonoma County's community supported Arts Center.
Kitchen curious? Click here for a tour of Ina's kitchen via Food Network