For the last three weeks, Jenny Ross’s cooking, baking, and hospitality students at East Hampton High School have been testing out the recipes and researching the career of one of East Hampton’s most well-known culinary celebrities: Ina Garten.
The lessons culminated Tuesday with a virtual visit from Ms. Garten herself as she Zoomed in to the gleaming new commercial kitchen classroom where the students spend two periods a day learning all aspects of the culinary arts.
For almost an hour, Ms. Garten imparted lessons on cooking, baking, business, the business of cooking and baking — plus life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.
“Do what you love. If you love it, you’ll be really good at it . . . and it feels like fun,” she said.
It was a message that immediately resonated with a group of high school seniors who later said they are feeling lots of pressure to choose a college, a major, and a career. But it’s okay, and essential, Ms. Garten told them, to spend your 20s exploring the world and gaining experience in different jobs to figure out what your calling is. “You’ve got lots of time. When you hit 30, you’ll feel like you know what you want to do.”
For Ms. Garten, who told the students that she has never had any formal culinary arts training, building her career was kind of like “jumping off a cliff to figure out how to fly.”
“I’ve always said I never make a long-term plan because you never know what’s going to happen. If you make too long-term a plan, I feel like you get locked into something,” she said. “What I do is make a short-term plan and I’m open to whatever happens along the way. . . . I’ve done really well because I’ve been open to things that I didn’t expect to happen.”
She famously did not set out to start a culinary empire. Instead, she married while still in college during an era when, she told the East Hampton students, “women weren’t expected to do much” professionally. While her husband, Jeffrey Garten, was working on his graduate degree, the couple lived in the Washington, D.C., area. Ms. Garten took a job with the White House Office of Management and Budget in President Jimmy Carter’s administration and began working on a master’s degree in business administration.
After a while, she said, she did not find it fulfilling. Her husband encouraged her to find something she loved to do. When she saw an advertisement in The New York Times for a small specialty food shop for sale in Westhampton, called Barefoot Contessa, something clicked. She decided to buy the business, and Mr. Garten was on board.
“One of the things that is really important to me is he really encourages me to do what I love . . . to do things that are good for me,” said Ms. Garten, whose 10th cookbook was titled “Cooking for Jeffrey.” She later continued, “I’m really here because of that. I really encourage all of you to find partners who are positive and supportive, and who believe in what you believe in and give you the freedom to fly and follow your own dream.”
Ian Burge, one of the students, asked Ms. Garten what she wishes she had known before going into this industry. She paused with a thoughtful smile on her face before answering with more pearl onions of wisdom.
“How much fun it is,” she said. “I should have done it sooner.”
She also launched into advice on the practical aspects of the business. “You need to care about the business part of what you’re doing as well as the creative part, the culinary part. If you don’t take care of the business, you don’t get to do the fun stuff.” For example, she said, “When I had Barefoot Contessa, I used to do catering. It was really hard — that is a really hard business. In the summer I did private parties. I decided to take an overview look. In the summer the catering was 95 percent of my work, but over all only 5 percent of my business, and I said, ‘That’s not smart.’ “ Shortly after that, she said, she cut out the catering.
Ms. Garten had more to say in response to Ian’s question. “Also, the culinary business is really hard. It’s not an easy business. If you love it, you really love it, but if you don’t find yourself energized by it, then it’s really physically exhausting. It’s long hours. You’re not done until you’re done. Go in with your eyes open.”
There’s no substitute for gaining hands-on experience in the field, she said to the students — some of whom are already doing just that, like Ava Zeledon, who works at Carissa’s The Bakery and started a pickling business last summer with two friends, and Georgia Bunce, who works under the pastry chef at Nick and Toni’s. “You learn what works and what doesn’t work,” Ms. Garten continued. “You can really form your own opinions about what you like to do. I don’t care where your education is, it’s important to get that experience.”
She joked that she has “a 20-year attention span.” After 13 cookbooks and a robust TV career, Ms. Garten said she’s got a memoir in the works. “I don’t even know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” she said. “I just know what I love to do. I do it as well as I possibly can do today, and I leave the door open for things I couldn’t possibly have imagined.”
For Armando Rangel-Guzman, one of the students, hearing Ms. Garten speak was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” As a nonnative English speaker, he said he “loved the way she answered the questions.”
“I really liked how she said your 20s are for figuring out what you want to do,” Ian said. “It took a weight off my shoulders.”
“Over all, it was a really good experience,” said Ava. “It was really interesting to hear her say we’re already a step ahead.”