Ina Garten Reveals Her Key to Success

·Food Editor

On Sunday, March 29, entrepreneurs, food writers, editors, and cooks of all ages came together to celebrate women and food at Cherry Bombe magazine’s second annual Jubilee conference. Panel topics included heavy hitters such as world hunger and how to give employees with criminal records a second chance…right alongside lighter fare such as the best dishes to serve at a dinner party and how to make sure fun work stays fun.

Photo: Ina Garten/Facebook

Ina Garten’s culinary career began with the purchase of a specialty food store called Barefoot Contessa in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., and without any formal training. She has since grown a veritable empire of Barefoot Contessa products, cookbooks — she has over 10 million in print — and an Emmy award-winning show; that success is in part due to the fact that Garten’s recipes work and her food is fantastic, and in part due to her warm, friendly nature. Her latest book, Make It Ahead, has spent a mind-boggling 17 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Here are a few highlights from her Q&A session with writer Julia Turshen at Jubilee.

On making a career change: Garten was formerly a White House nuclear policy analyst. “I knew how to do this and wanted to find another cliff to jump off. Someone said to me: ‘Type A people think they can find new jobs while doing something, and they can’t. You have to just stop — you have to get good and bored — and then figure out what’s next.’ I had one of the hardest years in my life; I just couldn’t figure out what to do next.”

“I knew I wanted to have my own business. I needed to get up in the morning, make my own decisions, and see if they worked. An interior designer friend and I sat down and thought: ‘OK, we want to do something that we’re excited about, we have to make money or it’s not a business, and we want to be able to drop everything and go to Paris at a moment’s notice.’ And then we fell over laughing, because that job doesn’t exist!”

“But once it was in my brain, it just kind of worked out. And what’s happened has been so astonishingly better than what I could have imagined.”

On “working scared”: “I’m willing to work really scared. I always think it’s not going to work out — that’s just in my DNA — and it always turns out better than I can imagine. Part of what you need to do is work through being scared. It’s OK to be scared. It’s actually that nervous energy that really works.”

“There are all kinds of reasons not to jump in the pond. But you don’t know what’s in there unless you go in. You have to get in the pond.”

“If it wasn’t scary, everybody would do it.”

Her guiding principle: “Fun is the most important. If you do stuff for money, it never works out.” At the first Barefoot Contessa store, Garten says, “the sound of screen door sounded like summer, we had samples out, the music was cranked up — probably Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett or something old — everyone was happy. … We had fun. We used to work all day and had parties all night. I was like the ring leader. … I go on vacation and I can’t wait to come home. I love the people I work with and I like what I’m doing.”

What she looks for when when hiring: “Happy people. Happy people who are really motivated and care about quality.”

Her work ethic: “I just do the best job I could possibly do that day and then I go home and have a good time.”

On writing: “Writing for me is the hardest thing in the world. I always think I have nothing to say. So I sit at a place that makes me happy, which is a long table that looks over the garden … I sit there, and think I have nothing to say, but I just start and then all of a sudden it’s done. I don’t trust the process; I just find a pretty place to be. … After I’d written a few books, I thought I’d written all the recipes I know. I couldn’t imagine writing more. I said to [my husband] Jeffrey: ‘I kind of scraped the bottom of the barrel on this one.’ And was only after two books! But now I sit down and have 100 ideas. It gets easier as you go.”

On social media: “I was late to social media, at some point my [partner] said, ‘You have to do Facebook.’ I thought, ‘I’m busy, and this is just another thing to have to do.’ But it’s just like that pond. I thought, ‘You can’t say no until you’re in the pond.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it for you.’ And I have to say I absolutely love it. It keeps me active, thinking, and it takes me to places I wouldn’t have gone. And it’s incredibly effective in reaching an audience.”

Her kitchen necessity: “Two dishwashers is the key thing. I’ve been doing that for 25-30 years. I have one on either side of the sink, and it’s critical. I am the messiest cook!”

Parting words: “I’m just really interested in this. I hope it doesn’t end. I hope I can keep doing it for as long as I enjoy it.”

Editor’s note: Yahoo Food Editor in Chief Kerry Diamond is co-founder of Cherry Bombe Magazine.

More women in food you need to know:

Alice Waters and 25 years of slow food

Naomi Pomeroy on French food holidays

How one woman’s restaurant helps feed a city’s hungry