Table Talk with Ina Garten

The Barefoot Contessa knows how to party.

Ina Garten

courtesy Clarkson Potter/Publishers

For Ina Garten, there was only one step between her former job analyzing nuclear policy for the Ford and Carter administrations and becoming an internationally known food personality. It happened in 1978 when she crossed the threshold of Barefoot Contessa, a small food shop in New York's Hamptons that was for sale. Her big purchase led to a small dynasty; Garten is now an entertaining guru, with three cookbooks and a Food Network show devoted to teaching viewers how to host a party with ease and panache.

Here, she talks about how she gets ready for company.

How do you plan a menu?
The first thing I do is plan to make two things and then assemble the rest. I make something like risotto and maybe some wonderful roasted asparagus to go with it. Then I go out and buy a dessert. That way, I keep the focus on spending time with my friends.

How do you plan your guest list?
We all have friends who are really great at a party, and we have other friends who are better one on one. So I invite my boisterous friends to a party, and I'll invite my one-on-one friends to a quiet dinner. I tend to like dinners of four to six people, tops.

What staples do you always have on hand?
The recipes I make are really simple; they don't have some spice that you have to go to India for. I always have flour, sugar, different kinds of vinegars, olive oils, pasta, bottled pasta sauces. If I'm going to make lemon cake, I'll go out and buy lemons. Each recipe has just two or three ingredients that I have to get, which makes it simpler.

Ever had a party theme you'll never repeat?
Haven't we all? I invited 20 people who didn't know each other and made omelettes for everybody. I spent the whole time in the kitchen. It was horrible. It was one of the first parties I ever had, and I think it took me two years to have a party again!

What are your top five tips for a successful dinner party?

1. Have great music playing as soon as the guests arrive. Some of my favorites include Café Atlantico by Cesaria Evora, Roxy Music's Avalon, and any of the Café Del Mar compilation CDs.

2. Collect everything you need for drinks, and set it all out on a table in the living room.

3. Plan a menu that allows you to enjoy the party. The key to a really good party is a host who is having fun.

4. Serve dinner in the kitchen; it makes guests feel like family.

5. Allow your guests to help out. Let somebody serve wine and somebody else help clear the table. When people say, "Can I help?" instead of saying, "Oh, no, no, no, you just sit," let them help. Then everybody feels like they're on the A-team.

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