The Barefoot Contessa Discusses Entertaining the First Family and Shopping Like the French

05/25/2011 01:30 pm ET

Ina Garten, better known as the Barefoot Contessa has spent her culinary career emphasizing simple meals and quality ingredients. Today, as Americans debate whether local or organic is better, the Obamas planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, and Slow Food is gaining popularity, Garten's philosophy seems prescient. Recently, she took time from her busy schedule to discuss how she evolved from spending a week preparing for a dinner party to making edible centerpieces.

LM: I read that your mother always insisted you focus on schoolwork rather than have you help in the kitchen. Do you remember cooking anything in particular before your inspirational four-month camping trip with your husband around France.

IG: When I got married, I hadn't cooked a thing. The camping trip was a few years after we got married but I do remember when I started cooking I wanted to make very complicated things. If a recipe didn't have 2 ingredients that were recipes themselves, I wasn't interested. I loved making my own challah just to prove that I could! I had dinner parties that took a week to make—and I was in heaven.

LM: After moving back to D.C. after the camping trip, you bought volumes 1 and 2 of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What other cookbooks did you either find inspirational or helpful early on?

IG: The first cookbook I ever bought was Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook, which is extraordinary because there are two or three recipes on every page and they're all wonderful. That was my basic cookbook. I particularly loved that some of the recipes are classics like southern fried chicken and apple crisp but many are international—I think it was the first time I made chicken liver pate and moussaka.

LM: Lydie Marshall taught you to respect the essence of ingredients, and then many decades later, having an apartment in Paris, you learned how to shop for groceries like a French woman—buying what's in season. You've said that people always ask you what the new food trends are, but food trends don't interest you because you'd like to get back to basics. I doubt you'd consider basics trendy, but Americans now call people who shop and eat like Parisians "locavores." Why are people increasingly drawn to going back to the basics and a more simple way of cooking?

IG: I think there are two ways of eating, or cooking. One is restaurant food and one is home food. I believe that people have started making food that is easy that you want to eat at home. When you go out to a restaurant, you want to be challenged, you want to taste something new, you want to be excited. But when you eat at home, you want something that's delicious and comforting. I've always liked that kind of food—and frankly, that's also what I want to eat when I go out to restaurants, but maybe that's me.

LM: You talk about the integrity of ingredients and working to bring their intrinsic, natural flavor out. What chefs do you feel highlight the natural flavors of their ingredients?

IG: I love Danny Meyer's restaurants Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. I also love Eli Zabar's Taste and Dan Barber's Blue Hill. They all believe in serving the most delicious food from the best quality ingredients, and in season. Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud is the same thing—I could eat there every night. It's stunningly delicious but also simple. I never want to be served something weird that makes me ask, "What is this?"

LM: For the novice who wants to start cooking, what basic utensils would you suggest they start with?

IG: A set of good sharp Wusthof knife. A KitchenAid mixer. A Cuisinart food processor. All-clad and Le Creuset pots. And a whole stack of half sheet pans.

LM: What one cooking tool or appliance do you use most often in your cooking?

IG: My knives.

LM: What are the most versatile ingredients that you keep on hand?

IG: My go-to ingredients to add flavor to things are: salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese, freshly squeezed lemon juice plus good vinegars and a drizzle of olive oil.

LM: What dish would you recommend to a greenhorn cook who is trying to master one dish, would you suggest any one dish to start with?

IG: Roast chicken. It's in my first book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, with carrots, fennel and potatoes cooked in the roasting pan—it's an entire meal and it's absolutely delicious.

LM: If you were entertaining President Barack Obama and his family at your home, what would you serve?

IG: I would make something really simple that I can make without breaking a sweat. My favorite meal right now is roasted capon, which I'd serve with tagliarelle with white truffle butter—it's in my new book, Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, plus lots of roasted carrots. I would finish with a wow dessert like Red Berry Pavlova.

LM: That sounds delicious.

IG: It's not fancy, but it's still very special and I wouldn't have a melt-down making it. I'd want to be relaxed so I could have a good time with the Obamas!

LM: I know you also talk about setting a table and flowers, is there any sort of special arrangement or place setting?

IG: It's easy to spend as much time setting the table as you do making dinner! I keep it easy—fresh flowers cut short in drinking glasses, votive candles, and dishes with good chocolates and fresh strawberries all casually placed in the middle of the table. It's simple, it's pretty, and then have treats to eat with dessert!

LM: How has increased awareness of food and new movies, such as Food, Inc. and Fresh, which look at the food industry in the U.S., will affect the style of cooking in the U.S.?

IG: With more and more fast food available, it takes an extra effort to cook delicious, healthy meals. I have always been a proponent of simple, easy food that doesn't take forever to cook so you really can eat well at home. Michael Pollen and all the other books about the subject have made us even more keenly aware of how important it is—not to mention that it's so much more pleasurable to eat with friends and family around a dinner table rather than wolfing down a take-out hamburger alone in front of a computer screen.