Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, was originally scheduled to come to Milwaukee Nov. 2, but her appearance was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. Thankfully, the show was not cancelled and Garten made her first-ever trip to Milwaukee on Thursday night for a chat at the Riverside Theater.
The stage consisted of two leather chairs, a rug, a lamp and a table with Garten's new book, "Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust," propped up on display. Off the bat, Garten addressed the postponement of her show, saying, "I'm sorry I'm late."
Nancy Stohs served as the moderator for the event, having collected questions in advance, stating the name, age and location of the person who submitted it. This approach was a bit rocky at the beginning as the questions were often unrelated so that there wasn't really any progression or tie-in to the previous answer. Also, Stohs seemed to be focusing on the next question to read and wasn't really listening to Garten's answers. Instead it seemed like she was just waiting for Garten to stop talking and moving to the next question as soon as there was any pause.
Garten's natural charisma helped cover some of the early blemishes. While Garten quickly bonded with the audience, it took longer for her to develop chemistry with her on-stage counterpart. This was finally achieved when Garten commented "I love that everybody has their age," joking about an unnecessary element that prefaced each question. This broke the ice on-stage and helped forge a good rhythm that stayed pretty consistent until near the end of the show.
Along the way, Garten shared her thoughts on a wide range of cooking and entertaining topics. While she was pretty consistent in offering practical advice, some of her suggestions were not cost effective for those with a food budget. In one instance, she recommended that the best way to discover your favorite type of an ingredient (such as olive oil) would be to buy four or five different brands and perform your own personal taste test. While this tip makes sense, there were a few instances throughout the night where money was not factored in to her advice.
Some of the questions revolved around Garten's television show, and it was very interesting to learn that she was initially not interested in having a TV show. According to Garten, the Food Network misread her disinterest as a negotiating tactic and sweetened the deal. She also shared what she considered the funniest behind-the-scenes moment of the series. While carving a duck for the program, the task was proving to be difficult and "a word might have slipped out that rhymed with duck."
When asked if her husband Jeffrey ever helped her in the kitchen, Garten quickly dismissed the idea of his assistance and said "his job is to appreciate it." She revealed that there was only one dish that she'd made for her husband that ended up being a disaster. A ground beef and corn casserole apparently turned out so awful that it is still a running joke between the two. Garten commented that one awry dish over the course of their marriage was "not bad for 44 years." The audience was also surprised that Garten doesn't really cook anything just for herself, preferring to only cook when it can be appreciated by someone else.
Appropriately as part of her book tour, Garten was asked about her own cookbook collection and if she had any recommendations. Garten strongly endorsed purchasing cookbooks from specialty food stores. The "Loaves and Fishes" series of cookbooks by Anna Pump were specifically recommended, as well as Sarah Leah Chase's books, such as "Cold-Weather Cooking."
With about 15 minutes to go, it seemed like the Q&A hit a wall when Stohs stopped relying on the notecards for questions. Perhaps she ran out of fan-submitted questions, but after pausing and saying "let's see..." Stohs started asking questions very similar to ones that had been answered earlier. After she'd retraced her steps a few times, Garten tried to engage Stohs in conversation about Wisconsin's food and asked for the native's expertise. This unexpected attention really seemed to frazzle Stohs and the audience chimed in with answers to Garten's inquiries while the moderator mulled over what her response should be.
Nevertheless, the event was certainly a hit with the audience, and a copy of the new book was included with the ticket price. After having Giada earlier this year and with more top chefs scheduled to speak in Milwaukee, there is clearly a local fanbase and passion for these chefs and their cooking.
At one point, Garten was asked if she was already working on her next book. Garten confirmed that she was, but didn't want to give any hint what the theme or focus of the book would be. Instead, she coyly asked the audience, "Will you come back and I can tell you next time?" The Riverside crowd replied with a resounding yes and thanks to her charm, her return is already being anticipated.