For the past six years, celebrity chef Ina Garten has been a fixture on The Food Network, where, on her "Barefoot Contessa" show, she shops, cooks and entertains, demonstrating for viewers that simple is not only easier - it's better. Not surprisingly, her casual elegance carries over from her kitchen to her garden. I spent an afternoon with Garten earlier this month at her East Hampton home, a 3,500-square-foot shingle-style house set on 2 beautifully maintained acres, with a studio-kitchen (recently built in a separate building she calls "the barn"), where she also develops new recipes and writes cookbooks. The gardens behind the house are formal, yet casual, with mostly purple-, blue- and green-flowering plants randomly placed within perfectly trimmed boxwood frames connected by gridlike walkways. Annuals, perennials and vegetables share the space, while the herb garden, behind the barn, boasts lush plantings including rosemary, chives, thyme and catmint, which one can smell immediately upon entering. Garten is as warm and unpretentious in person as she is on TV, and she seems genuinely honored that her kitchen and herb garden have been chosen by House Beautiful magazine as "kitchen of the year'' and re-created for public display this week at Rockefeller Center. She offered me cookies and coffee, and I sat with her in the barn and chatted about her life and gardens.
What came first for you - cooking or gardening? Definitely cooking.
When did you start gardening? When I moved to East Hampton in 1985, I rented a house that had woods behind it, and I just started clearing the woods and underplanting. And one day, a local nursery started delivering trees and my husband said, "I think you need to buy a house," because it was a rental. I was landscaping a rental!
Do you still tend your gardens yourself? I did for a long time, but I just don't have time now. I started the way I started my stores, in a small garden, up to my elbows in dirt, but now I have so much else going on, I have terrific people to do it.
What's your gardening style? Organized but messy. I have very tight boxwoods, but inside them, it's messy. And when you have something that's messy, it's important that you have a very tight color palette, so it has blue, purple, orange - and lime green to give it life. But if you start adding all sorts of pinks and other colors, then it looks just like a big bowl of M&Ms, which is OK, but not in the garden.
What's growing now? I have verbena bonariensis, lime green alchemilla, lime green nicotiana, salvias, irises, roses and rows of hydrangeas that I use for cutting. I also cut snapdragons and dahlias. And I have vegetables and orange nasturtiums.
Which are your favorites? Always hydrangeas. And on the side of the house, there's a huge long row of beach roses called Blanc Double de Coubert. It's a very fragrant double-flowering white beach rose. It blooms prolifically around Memorial Day weekend and then a little bit during the summer and it takes no work whatsoever. I love blue, lime green with a little bit of oranges. I love the flowers on the chives, they're just gorgeous. I have carrots that are fantastic - they're red on the outside and yellow on the inside and they're so sweet and delicious. My favorite are the English cucumbers. My favorite thing in the herb garden is my fig tree; this is its second year, and I'm hoping we have figs this year.
Do you cook all your meals at home? No. Do you? Does anybody? I either go to a restaurant or to somebody's house or I cook.
I see you snipping herbs on your show. Do you eat what you grow in the herb garden? We use the herb garden all the time. The show is a very small part of my life. It's just about two or three weeks, twice a year. The main part of my business is my cookbooks, so what I do every day is test recipes for my cookbooks, and that's what we use the herb garden for.
What's your favorite herb garden ingredient? Fresh thyme. I like thyme with lemon. I like thyme with garlic, and I'm known for my roast chicken, which is a very simple roast chicken with lemon and a big bunch of thyme in it, and onions. That's the thing I probably make the most.
What's your favorite item in the kitchen? WAAsthof knifes and All-Clad pans. You can't do anything without either one of them. They're really good quality, they're really simple and you don't need a million of them. You just need some, and they last a lifetime, both of them.
On your show, you're always either dining al fresco or in the house with a bunch of friends. Are you really eating and are they really your friends? They're absolutely really my friends. We're really eating. We're really having a party. A lot of people ask me, "Is that really your husband or is that your TV husband?" It's really my husband. I think if you make it up, it looks made up. When I'm filming a show, I invite people over and I say, "Come for a party," and we actually really do have a party.