ina garten
Photo: William Abranowicz
It's one thing to see Ina Garten blanching green beans on television, or beaming from the covers of her best-selling cookbooks. It's a very different thing to see her here, at her home in East Hampton, New York—or rather, in the vast, sunlit structure next door, which she calls the barn and which smells like fresh laundry and homemade bread. That is to say, it's a much, much cooler thing. The legions of cuisine hounds who ring in Saturday mornings with Barefoot Contessa, Ina's delightfully unfussy cooking show on the Food Network, have watched her whip up a whole host of delicious things inside this barn, from white-chocolate almond bark to chicken roasted with 40 cloves of garlic. But they haven't seen her do so in slippers.

I've come to Ina's inner sanctum to learn more about her unusual recipe-testing process, which she's explaining to me in the barn's kitchen—an airy space anchored by an 18-foot, marble-topped island, two tidy refrigerators, and a dining table that could seat a royal court. "I work on a recipe until it's exactly what I'm envisioning," Ina says. "Sometimes I nail it on the second try, and sometimes it takes 25. But once I feel it's right, I give the recipe to my assistant and have her make the dish. She's not a trained cook, so as she works I watch to see what mistakes she makes. It helps me recognize all those little instructions I forgot to make clear—like 'Cook on high heat' or 'Chop diagonally.'"

It is my great privilege to temporarily take the place of her assistant today, becoming, for a few exhilarating hours, Ina's culinary guinea pig. I'm relieved to learn that the cookbook from which most of today's dishes are taken—Ina's eighth, it hits stores in October—is called Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust. Her food has always been both miraculously simple and stunningly sophisticated, which is a line most chefs find difficult to walk. But this latest volume is designed to take both the ease and the elegance of her food to a whole new level. And thank goodness for that: As I explain to Ina, I'm a serviceable cook and an eager eater, but I lack the finesse, assuredness, and, to be frank, the attention span to really prepare things properly. In short, I tell her, "I love food, but I'm lazy."