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Ina Garten on How She Went From Being a Nuclear Budget Analyst to an Iconic Chef

The Barefoot Contessa took a leap of faith…and it paid off.

Believe it or not, Ina Garten wasn’t always the beloved cookbook author and TV personality that we all know and love. Before becoming wildly successful in the food world, Garten worked at the White House as a nuclear budget analyst. So what made her quit her prestigious job at the White House and chase her dreams? We get into that and more in Katie’s latest episode of Next Question

It all started back in 1981 during a seemingly normal day at the White House — where she was, at the time, helping write the nuclear energy budget during Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s presidencies. “I was sitting in my office one day thinking, I’ve got to do something else,” the professional chef tells Katie. That’s when she began looking through The New York Times’ business section when she came across a sales ad for Barefoot Contessa, a small specialty food shop in the Hamptons. 

Though she had never been to the Long Island beach hamlet before, she was immediately intrigued. “I went home that night and I said to Jeffrey, ‘You know, I really need to do something else.’ And he gave me the best advice: He said, ‘Do what you love. If you love it, you’ll be really good at it,’” she said “And I said, ‘You know, funny, you should mention it.’” 

The couple drove up to the small New York town to visit the small food shop, and it was love at first sight. “I saw this 400-square-foot store, and they were baking chocolate chip cookies and I thought, this is where I want to be,” she says. The couple put in a $20,000 offer to buy the store, and it was accepted the very next day. But, according to Garten, it wasn’t supposed to happen that way: she didn’t think her low offer would be accepted in the first place, but thanks to her husband’s encouragement, the couple went for it. 

“It just takes one person who just believes in you,” says Garten. “And for me, that was Jeffrey and my whole life turned around.”

As they say, the rest is history. Garten went from running a local grocery store and teaching herself how to cook to writing best-selling cookbooks and having her very own show on the Food Network. She’s now working on her 13th cookbook and her upcoming food series, Be My Guest, is due out sometime in 2022. 

“My philosophy of life is that you have to jump in the pond,” she tells Katie. “You can stand on the side of the pond forever talking about what the pond is going to feel like, but you have to get in.” 

For more of Katie’s conversation with Garten, check out the full episode of Next Question with Katie Couric. In it, the famed chef dishes some advice and even reveals some of her own cooking disasters.