Millions of people are fans of Ina Garten, known for her “Barefoot Contessa” Food Network show and cookbooks.
Audiences adore her because she makes entertaining seem easy and approachable. How does she make hosting a sophisticated dinner party look so simple? By sharing useful information like a coveted friend who has the scoop on all the secret sources in town. Her advice on cooking (add coffee to chocolate desserts to make them more chocolate-y) and decorating (use monochromatic blooms to create a harmonious floral arrangement) will never steer you wrong.
So when Garten spoke about entrepreneurism in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s “Ideas of March” series, the at-capacity crowd knew they were in for a treat. Indeed; now that it’s April, Garten’s words continue to inspire.
“I don’t like to sit in a classroom; I like to do,” Garten told her audience of college students and fellow entrepreneurs. “I like not knowing what’s coming. I love solving problems. I love making decisions.”
Instead of delivering a presentation, which is essentially what Garten does with each episode of her cooking show, she held a conversation on stage with Kansas City food writer and philanthropist Mary Bloch.
“If you love it, you’ll be really good at it,” Garten said of entering the business world.
While working as a policy analyst in 1978 in the White House Office of Management and Budget, Garten felt creatively unfulfilled. She spotted a New York Times ad for a gourmet shop in the Hamptons called “Barefoot Contessa.” Although she had a passion for food and entertaining, she’d never run a business before.
“You can always stand on the side of a pond and find a million reasons not to jump in,” she said. Intrigued, she made a low offer and was surprised it was accepted.
Garten said learning from role models is critical. Hers were Julia Child and her love for French cuisine, and Eli Zabar with his Manhattan food empire.
Garten built up the “Barefoot Contessa” store and sold it to two employees in 1996. She began writing cookbooks that became bestsellers, leading to her own Food Network television show in 2002 — this is when she really became famous.
Garten’s shows feel authentic because she has her real friends over for meals and parties. Many of the episodes feature her husband, Jeffrey, who as a Yale international business professor, is no slouch himself.
Garten declines offers to launch a magazine and endorse products because she “wants a life” and intends to protect the business she has built. She initially turned down the television series, too, but producers kept nudging. That willingness to let yourself go outside of your comfort zone, she said, can be the key to bigger and better opportunities.