A Dessert Party at Ina Garten’s House? How Bad Can That Be?

July 29, 2009 | By | COMMENTS

[Hey, this is Adam The Amateur Gourmet. I'm on vacation in Barcelona, Spain and while I'm gone I've asked some awesome people to fill in for me. I first met Jacob Strauss, the Food Network Addict, at the Miami Food & Wine Festival when I was hosting The FN Dish. Jacob's a great guy and his blog is really sharp and funny. Here Jacob gives an account of every gay food lover's dream--meeting Ina Garten. Take it away, Jacob!]

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I still have a hard time believing it really happened. Last year I appeared on a Food Network special called Dear Food Network that was filmed at Ina Garten’s massive plantation cozy estate in East Hampton, New York. Yes, the Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa herself.

Ina is one of my culinary idols and the main reason I became so obsessed with Food Network in the first place. I love her classy yet casual approach to both life and cooking and her recipes always turn out wonderfully. I just love her!

First some background on how I actually got to appear on the show. To be considered, you had to film and upload a video to Food Network’s website asking a Thanksgiving cooking question for Ina. So I thought of a great question, filmed, and posted my video. I felt pretty good about how it turned out, but didn’t think anything would really come of it. Like, as a kid, did you really think Bob Saget was going to give you the big prize if you submitted something to America’s Funniest Home Videos? One can only dream.

The next day, a producer from the special emailed me. “Wow! They must really want me!” I thought. I read on. Turned out she was just asking if I could mention something on my blog about the special and to let my readers know they should submit videos. Darn!

Somehow the stars aligned and I was, in fact, contacted several weeks later by yet another producer. I had been pre-selected to be on the show. I honestly couldn’t believe this was happening. All that stood between me and Ina’s 35 ft.-long granite counter top was a silly little 13-page background check. Does Ina really need to know if I spent any time in a mental hospital in the past decade? I think not. (And thank goodness that happened 11 years ago.)

I passed the background check, and no blood or urine even had to be submitted… although I hear they do check those after you appear on any Sandra Lee TV show.

Okay, cut to late September. I flew to JFK very early and met the other fans who’d be appearing on the show. After getting driven to East Hampton, we spent the afternoon doing interviews on Main Beach (the same one Ina goes to!), taking a tour of East Hampton, and filming several passes of us in a helicopter, cruising over Ina’s house. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday.

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Ina filmed the cooking portions of the special by herself earlier in the day. Our part of the special was a big “party scene” where we walk in to her home in awe, get hugged by Ina, meet her friends, and eat all the goodies. After being involved in one, I can say that a TV party definitely isn’t as fun as a real party…even when Ina Garten is host.

Don’t get me wrong. Ina was incredibly gracious and seemed genuinely interested in getting to know us throughout the entire evening. She’d chat with us so much that the director had to pry her away often, just to keep things moving.

Ina and her husband Jeffrey recently built a new barn, as Ina refers to it, directly across from their East Hampton home. The barn is actually a beautiful, large building consisting of her giant, modern kitchen (the one you see on newer episodes of Barefoot Contessa), a bedroom, and an outdoor patio complete with fire pit.

When we pulled up to the barn, Ina wasn’t waving us in and greeting us at the doorway. She was still working inside! (And would end up working an almost 14-hour day by the time we wrapped.) We didn’t even see Ina for a while. Instead, upon entering the attached garage we saw several frenzied assistants, busily preparing parts of what appeared to be the dishes we’d be using that night and the ones that Ina would be using in upcoming episodes.

TV cooking shows need many versions of each dish, each at various stages of preparation so the filming process doesn’t have to slow down (and it’s already a slow process as it is). Ina can’t do all that prep work by herself. We were told that strict zoning regulations in the Hamptons prevented the Gartens from installing a permanent, separate, kitchen in her new barn. Thus, when Ina is shooting her TV show, the garage is completely renovated into a makeshift prep kitchen specifically for Barefoot Contessa.

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Packed baker’s racks stocked with pots and pans, glassware, and specialty ingredients lined the entire garage. Multiple refrigerators marked with signs like “Vegetables” and “Meat” were plugged in to every available outlet. Giant binders filled with minute-by-minute breakdowns of every recipe were strewn out on the temporary work tables, while Kitchenaid mixers spun furiously in the background. Everything Ina uses times a hundred was there. It was awesome.

The cruelest part of the evening came when we each had to take a bite of the dessert that Ina had prepared for us. Mine, a mixed berry cheesecake, needed particular attention. Depending on how long the berries and sauce had sat on top of the cheesecake, the coloration of the creamy cheesecake looked different on every prepped version. Some of the stand-in cheesecakes looked uniformly creamy and smooth, with the berries only gently kissing the uppermost section of velvety cheesecake. Others were soupy and rustic, with the sauce oozing all over the place, devouring what had once been a pristine white cheesecake.

For me, I’m not that picky when it comes to a cheesecake’s color variations. I just wanted to eat it. I’d have been fine with either version. Just give me a bite!

“Alright, cut a piece out Ina, dear,” the director would say, and (OMG! Ina Garten is handing me a piece of her cheesecake!) Ina would hand over the plate to me, saying one of her delightful Ina-isms in the process like Who doesn’t love cheesecake?

Exactly Ina. Who doesn’t?

I go to take a bite.

“Alright, cut. Let’s do that again,” the director would call out. My plate and bite was whisked away, while another cheesecake gets put in its place. No bite having been taken yet.

After a few more tries, I was finally able to enjoy my bite. And it was good. Very good, in fact. Still, I didn’t want to gorge myself, since the same stop and restart thing was going on with the other Ina fans in attendance.

After eating my entire piece of cheesecake, a piece of coconut cake, and a bit of pumpkin roulade, I was sadly realizing I was getting full (despite not really getting any dinner earlier). How could I not eat everything at site at my (probably) only time ever at Ina Garten’s house?!

Other desserts had similar TV concerns. The raspberries in the creme brulee turned black if they torched the top too much.

Of course, in the edited version that aired, these scenes are so fast I doubt you could even tell multiple versions were used. I guess that’s the point.

Before I knew it, the director told the assistants to take all the food away. “We need to do the final shot,” he said. Ina said a few final words, told us to have a happy Thanskgiving (which was actually two months later) and said she and Jeffrey were going up to bed. It had been quite a long day.

It was fun watching the special when it aired in November. Seeing how all the pieces came together was really exciting and gave me much more respect for the process of making a television show. All in all, it was an amazing, surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I was so honored to be a party of. I don’t know what else could top it! How bad can that be?

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  • Krysta

    So fun to read. I love Ina!