I seem to be one of the few people in the world — or at least at Jones Hall — who don't know much about Ina Garten, the fabulously successful cook book author and Food Network star of the popular Barefoot Contessa cooking show.
But I was certainly in the minority amid the thousands of fans who filled the Houston performance hall to be part of an intimate conversation between Garten and Houston Public Media TV 8 host Ernie Manouse Wednesday night, sponsored by Society for the Performing Arts.
Manouse, as usual, did a great job of interviewing Garten — using no notes, no less. But the evening's real stars were Garten's devoted fans, who lined up at two microphones on each side of the large hall and asked thoughtful questions.
One fan confessed she had cooked all 650 recipes from Garten's cookbooks. After her house was flooded during the Memorial weekend deluge, another fan said she told her contractor, "Make my cabinets white like the Barefoot Contessa."
A young man explained to his idol that he has an interview with the Food Network on Monday and asked for advice. "Be yourself as much as possible," Garten said. "Do exactly what feels right to you as if you were talking to a friend, explaining to them about what you're doing and you will be great."
One Houston woman, who dubbed this "Our Week of Ina," said she and her pals plan to gather to cook a four-course dinner based on Garten's favorite recipes and asked what she would suggest.
"I'm always for real simple things," Garten replied. "Maybe, one from the Barefoot Contessa Parties!, like the Filet of Beef with Gorgonzola Sauce, and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes (with) maybe some kind of potato gratin to go with it. And the French Apple Tart."
Before the talk, Garten mingled with about 75 ecstatic fans at a cocktail reception sponsored by SPA in a downstairs rehearsal room. She went from table to table, hugging fans and posing for photos, for close to an hour, her down-to-earth style exactly what they were expecting.
But even these fans, who know just about everything there is to know about Garten, gleaned some tidbits even they might not have knows about their hero as the evening progressed, such as:
1. She's a Swiftie
Garten told a questioner that, while cooking in her own kitchen, she listens to Taylor Swift "all day, every day."
2. She's salty
Garten said the most underused ingredient in the kitchen is salt and pepper.
3. Richard Avedon didn't like the look of her first cookbook
Garten told the audience a story she said she has revealed publicly, about her good friend, noted photographer Avedon's reaction to her first cookbook. "I had him over to dinner, and he said to me, 'It's the worst (book design) I've ever seen.'
"Because it was Richard Avedon, who was such a genius — somebody else I would have been offended, but with Richard I sat closer to him on the sofa and said, 'I need to see what you are seeing,' because I was starting on my second book.
"What I realized as he was talking is he writes art books — his photography was art — and I write cookbooks. The more I thought about it, I realized that's different from what I do. (What I do) is very accessible."
What she has done since her first cookbook, which became a sleeper hit after it was published in 1999, is to feature recipes anyone can cook. "I wanted you to look at the recipe and think, I could actually do that," she explained. "That was the book I wrote — a simple book with simple recipe things you wanted to make."
Eight more popular cookbooks have followed, with a new one due out next year. Her cooking show, which was launched in 2002 on the Food Network, continues with new episodes and several repeats each weekday.
4. She doesn't get paid to endorse products
"I just don't do it, because I want to talk about whatever I want," she said to loud applause. "I don't want anyone to feel like I endorse Nielsen-Massey (a type of vanilla extract) because they paid me. I want to say it for no reason than I really like their product."
That hasn't stopped the offers coming in, including some odd ones. "People have asked me to do a line of clothing. Clothing? I wear the same thing every day," she said, attired in her uniform of a long shirt and slacks.
"Someone asked me to do a line of fertilizer. Why would I endorse your shit?" she said, as the audience roared.
5. She says it doesn't matter if you cook electric or gas
Garten said it doesn't matter if the stove is huge or small, "you can cook on it." And she doesn't have strong feelings, as some cooks do, about gas vs. electric. She said she heated up an electric stove and a gas stove "and they both got to 350 degrees in exactly 10 minutes."
"There's a myth you should bake in a electric oven because it's more even and on a gas stove but I can't tell the difference," Garten said. "You can really cook on anything."
7. Leave your eggs out overnight
Eggs should be room temperature when used for baking, Garten told a questioner, so she leaves them out of the refrigerator overnight. (And they should be extra large.) "When you beat eggs and sugar at room temperature, it incorporates the ingredients better and makes a huge difference," she said.
5. She says you don't have to drink 8 glasses of water a day
Trends in food are ridiculous, Garten said, adding that it's a myth to drink 8 glasses of water a day. "It turns out the original research said drink 8 glasses of water a day, 'most of which you get in your diet.' In fact, it's just a fraud.
"Whoever was writing it up at the time wanted to make it sensationalist. Now everyone walks around with a water bottle drinking 100 ounces a day when you don't have to.... I think the (best) thing we can do is eat unprocessed food, eat real food.
"If you cook, you eat better food."