The Career Path Ina Garten Was On Before Becoming A Chef

Emmy and James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef Ina Garten is famous for everything from her roast chicken to her stylish scarves to the specialty food shop on Long Island called The Barefoot Contessa. Perhaps what food-loving fans do not know is where her career began. Garten isn't a culinary school grad or even a restaurateur, and in fact, her entry into the workforce had nothing to do with food at all. At one point early in her professional years, Garten was an employee of the U.S. government.

Her tenure as a nuclear budget analyst straddled the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and it was during that time that she began to feel an itch to do something different. Her husband Jeffrey Garten — who would go on to become a sort of food icon in his own right, appearing frequently on Garten's television show "Barefoot Contessa" as an appreciative diner and adoring spouse — also worked in Washington, in the State Department. And he was apparently very supportive when she told him she'd found her calling and it was in New York.

The common threads between cooking and government

So why the career pivot in the first place? Ina Garten explained to Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the podcast "Wiser than Me" that her husband advised her to choose something fun, believing that would be the most motivating factor for his wife, and that she would be happier in the long run if she was doing something that could keep her interest. It was upon finding a specialty food shop for sale in West Hampton Beach on Long Island that Garten saw the potential for that kind of fun in a food-related career.

But Garten's work at the White House may not have been completely unrelated to the food world that eventually became her life's focus. Nuclear policy is, after all, in the realm of science, as is the culinary arts. "I'm totally aware of it," she told Louis-Dreyfus regarding the synergy between the two fields. "It's not an accident. If you enjoy science, cooking is another kind of science." 

She went on to make one important distinction. "If you work in science, you end up with nuclear energy ... in cooking, you end up with a chocolate cake," the cookbook author explained. "I'll take the chocolate cake any day!" Garten also explained on the podcast that her recipe testing process is extremely precise as well, and about calibrating a replicable formula for cooking success.

Garten's post-career pivot success

Ina Garten sold her store to the manager and chef back in 1996, but she has continued to stay the course of doing what pleases her most. Despite interest from investors who hoped to capitalize on her shop's success or brands that have approached her to represent their products over the years, she has eschewed other career paths and opted not to build an international food retail empire. Instead, the celebrity cook has dedicated herself to her dreams of creating cookbooks and sharing entertaining ideas.

Though it may seem unusual, one can trace her path from the hallowed Washington halls of government buildings to the home kitchen from which she teaches the simple, home-style cooking that has become her signature. Garten sees the power of focused, informed work that yields reliable results — down to a science. In following her path toward a more fun career, she has written more than a dozen cookbooks (and even has a memoir on the way). 

So for those who have put her many recipes and hosting ideas to work — maybe by discovering the secret ingredient she swears by for roasted potatoes or benefitting from one of her 11 tips to help you up your cooking game — Garten's professional pivot is one for the books.