‘Barefoot Contessa’ Turns 20: How Well Do You Know Ina Garten?

Ina Garten
Amy Sussman/Getty Images Entertainment Video for Food Network

The story of how Food Network host Ina Garten became known as the Barefoot Contessa is a funny one: Garten’s Barefoot Contessa TV show is named after her Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, which in turn were named after her Barefoot Contessa food stores.

But Garten, now 74, didn’t come up with the name; the first store’s original owner did. “She had been called that when she was a kid, after the movie with Ava Gardner [1954’s The Barefoot Contessa],” Garten told MSNBC’s Willie Guest in September, per Insider. “The family used to call her the Barefoot Contessa; it was her nickname.”

And, as you’ll see below, Garten initially wanted to rename her store. With Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa turning 20 — having premiered on November 20, 2002, with the episode “The Mediterranean Feast” — we’re rounding up fun facts about Garten’s path to cooking-show fame.

She met husband Jeffrey Garten when she was 15 years old

And Ina married him at age 20. Jeffrey, a frequent presence on Barefoot Contessa, later became a managing director of Lehman Brothers, Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade in the Clinton administration, and a professor and dean at the Yale School of Management. “Really sweet, kind, funny, smart, supportive, just everything you could ever dream of,” Ina said of Jeffrey in a 2015 interview with CBS News. “I mean, here we are 50 years later. And I just feel that much more about it!”

She became a pilot in college

“When Jeffrey and I first got married, we lived in North Carolina — I was still in college — and across the street was a small airport, and so I went across the street and I found the people who were training pilots, and I said, ‘I’d like to learn how to fly a plane,’” Garten recounted on The Drew Barrymore Show earlier this month. “And they said to me, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anybody here that would teach a woman how to fly an airplane.’ [I said] ‘Well, then find somebody.’”

Garten also shared that on one memorable occasion, she didn’t realize she had to ask permission for a taxiway and she nearly collided with a helicopter on the tarmac.

Julia Child is one of Garten’s heroes

Early in their marriage, Garten and her husband spent months in France, where she became “enamored” with French food and bought both volumes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “That really was the beginning of my culinary education, my self-education,” she told Food & Wine earlier this year, hailing Child as one of her heroes. “I’m sure nobody thought anybody would want to watch somebody making an omelet on TV. And yet, she believed in it. She really believed in it, and she just kept going.”

Garten worked on nuclear policy in the White House

By 1976, a then 28-year-old Garten was working on her MBA at George Washington University and working full-time at the White House, helping to write the president’s budget and nuclear energy policy through her job at the Office of Management and Budget. “I thought it was really interesting, and we were working on huge, $20 billion projects we were either budgeting or not budgeting,” Garten told Bustle in 2020. “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].”

She also flipped houses

Perhaps in some alternate universe, Garten is an HGTV star instead of a Food Network star: She flipped houses during her time in Washington, D.C. “I loved doing it, so I didn’t find it stressful,” she explained to Washingtonian in 2018. “I was working a lot, but it was something I did on my own time, and I was also teaching myself how to cook. I think when you’re young, you do all that stuff.”

Garten bought the Barefoot Contessa store after seeing it on sale in the newspaper

Garten bought the original Barefoot Contessa store, a 300-square-foot specialty food shop in Westhampton Beach, NY, after seeing it listed for sale in the newspaper. “My grandfather owned a candy store,” she told The Cut in 2020. “And one generation later, my father was a great surgeon. He saw his daughter going to work in the White House, and then all of a sudden, she’s going to own a grocery store. He was like, Wait a minute, we’re going in the wrong direction here.”

The future TV star was sold on the property… but maybe not the sign out front. “I actually thought it was a terrible name. Who calls a food store Barefoot Contessa?” she told Geist.

Soon, however, Garten came around to the name that would become synonymous with her TV show and her cooking persona. “I actually liked the name because it’s about being elegant and earthy,” she said. “It would’ve been a terrible thing to change it.”