Celebrity chef Ina Garten said she knew almost immediately that she was tired of owning a food store and that it was time for a change.
"It was really simple," she said. "Somebody asked for a pound of chicken salad, and I wanted to cry."
Garten, the author of eight cookbooks and the host of "Barefoot Contessa" on the Food Network, spoke at the Blair County Convention Center Wednesday as part of the Penn State Altoona Speaker Series.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Celebrated specialty food store maven and bestselling cookbook author Ina Garten signs an autograph for Fr. John Byrnes of Cresson during a VIP reception prior to her talk at the Blair County Convention Center as part of the Penn State Altoona Speaker Series Wednesday night.
The series benefits the Penn State Altoona Future Fund, which provides emergency financial help to students in crisis.
Known for her style of making complex cooking simple, Garten offered advice to aspiring cooks, peppered with the story of her rise to fame.
Garten was originally a nuclear policy analyst for the Ford and Carter administration, writing papers on budgetary policies.
"It's amazing that they'd leave that to 25-year-olds," she said. "Shocking really."
But she always had a love of cooking, she said, and when she knew she was ready for a career, it seemed to be the next logical step.
Garten purchased the small store in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., that would become the namesake of much of her brand - Barefoot Contessa.
She worked the store's previous owner for a month to sharpen her business sense before fully taking over.
"For the first week, I thought this was the worst idea I ever had," Garten said.
The shop expanded twice before she sold it to two of her employees.
What to do next, though, wasn't easy, she said. Garten spent a lot of time doing nothing before, on a whim, she decided to start writing a cookbook, "just as something to do," she said.
"The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" was released in 1999. Her most recent eighth work, "Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof," was released in 2012.
Garten said she selects recipes for the books by trying them out with her assistant. She gives her assistant a copy of the recipe and watches her cook it, adjusting the steps to make sure the average home cook can do it.
"I learn something every single time," she said.
A gameplan comes in handy for entertaining, as well, and Garten said she keeps them for smaller dinners or bigger, holiday functions. She said some aspiring cooks get caught up in the idea that they have to cook everything, that they forget to enjoy their own party.
"It has to be fun for everyone," Garten said. "That's the first thing."
A question-and-answer session was held for those in the audience at the end of the presentation. A VIP reception preceded it, to thank corporate sponsors and to allow the people who helped put the series together to meet Garten.
VIP Tony Benoni presented Garten with a homemade chocolate cake, as she finds homemade gifts to often be the most heartfelt.
For Garten, gifts and food aside, the key to good entertaining is the people.
"It's really about bringing together the people that you love," she said.