Barefoot Contessa: The ‘Hardest Year’ of Ina Garten’s Life Led to Her Cookbooks

What was Ina Garten’s life like before she started writing Barefoot Contessa cookbooks? Not all laughs and roast chicken recipes. The celebrity chef once described the year before she wrote her first cookbook as the “hardest year” of her life.

Ina Garten sold her Barefoot Contessa store in 1996

Ina Garten smiles as she prepares to sign books at a book signing event
Ina Garten | Michael Bezjian/WireImage

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Garten ran her own store after quitting her job at the White House where she wrote nuclear energy budgets. She bought Barefoot Contessa, a tiny store in the Hamptons, after seeing a for-sale ad in a 1978 newspaper. 

Garten, who had no experience running a business or working in the food industry, made Barefoot Contessa a success. Her store became a popular destination and even inspired a Nancy Meyers movie set. Garten sold prepared foods and catered events. 

After nearly 20 years of owning the store it was time for a change. Garten sold Barefoot Contessa in 1996 to the manager and one of the cooks. The store later closed in 2003. 

Ina Garten felt her ‘professional life was over’ after selling Barefoot Contessa

Exterior of Barefoot Contessa
Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa store | Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

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What came next for Garten? She took a year off to figure out her next move. But it wasn’t all sitting on the beach with her longtime husband, Jeffrey Garten, and eating home-cooked meals. At the time the future cookbook author felt lost. 

“That was the hardest year of my life,” Garten told the Chicago Tribune in 2017. “I felt my professional life was over. I couldn’t think of something I thought would be interesting.”

That led to her writing a cookbook “out of sheer desperation,” as she told The Cut in 2020. 

“I couldn’t figure it out,” she said. “And just out of sheer desperation, I thought, ‘OK, everybody wants me to write a cookbook, I’ll write a book. And while I’m doing that, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do next.’”

Ina Garten’s now the author of 12 cookbooks 

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Garten’s first cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, debuted in 1999 and she hasn’t stopped since. Garten doesn’t want to stop writing cookbooks. She plans on doing more of what she’s been doing, which is cooking in her “barn” and developing Barefoot Contessa recipes

“I just think it’s in my DNA,” she told Epicurious in 2010. “When I get up in the morning, I think, what do I feel like doing today? Testing recipes is what I feel like doing. And I get to walk out of the house and next door to this big, open barn and just have a good time.”

“I just can’t believe I get to do this,” she added. “After having had several careers first—as a nuclear energy policy wonk and running a specialty food store—this is as good as it gets.”

Garten’s now the author of a dozen cookbooks. Her latest one, Modern Comfort Food, hit shelves in 2020 and is a best seller. Meanwhile, she’s already getting to work on her 13th Barefoot Contessa cookbook, which she teased in an April 2021 Instagram post.