Best-selling cookbook author Ina Garten has a few constants in her life: a love of cooking and serving up delicious meals to close friends, an enquiring mind that has led from a career in policy analysis in D.C. to running a prepared food store on New York’s Long Island, a cookbook and television empire spanning two decades and a 50-plus year marriage to Jeffrey Garten, the man she refers to as “the best friend anybody could ever have.”

The couple — already familiar to fans, cookbook readers and viewers of Ina’s TV show Barefoot Contessa — celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in December 2018 and to honor the occasion, Ina posted throwback images to her Instagram account featuring the couple during courtship, leaving their wedding ceremony and from the early years that followed, many labeled #loveofmylife. Two years prior, Ina had released her tenth cookbook, basing it around her husband, filling it with his favorite recipes she has perfected over their years together, and naming it simply Cooking for Jeffrey.

The pair met when they were teenagers

The romance began in 1963 when a 15-year-old Ina visited her brother at Dartmouth, where Jeffrey was a fellow student. “He saw me on the street and then sent me a letter with a photograph of himself in it,” Ina told People, recalling that on receiving the missive she ran through the house saying, “Mom, Mom, you’ve got to see this picture of this guy. He’s so cute!”

Ina married Jeffrey five years after that letter and photograph arrived. He had served in the military and was now working in the State Department in Washington, D.C., where the newlyweds based their lives and Ina worked as a policy analyst in the Office of Management and Budget during the Carter administration. But analysis left Ina wanting, and she soon cast her gaze to the east, and to the work of creating delicious, memorable food.

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Jeffrey and Ina Garten in 2011

The couple says spending time apart has helped strengthen their bond

When she took over a small, prepared food business in Westhampton Beach, New York, Ina lived in a rented room during the first year as Jeffrey commuted to Washington. It was 1978 and Ina says she was “sure it would be a one-summer thing.”

“I didn’t know how to hire people. I didn’t know how to slice smoked salmon; I didn’t know how to choose brie,” she told The New York Times in 2007. But at the Barefoot Contessa — named for the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner — her baked goods and prepared dinners were a hit. “It was just such a high to see someone you love and knew so well find the place and find a kind of work for which the sky seemed the limit,” Jeffrey told the Times of his wife’s newfound career.

Spending time apart has never been a concern for the couple, appearing only to strengthen their bond regardless of distances between them. Soon after they married, Jeffrey was sent to Thailand on Army deployment for a year and later spent a stint in Japan while working for Lehmann Brothers in the 1980s, ahead of teaching on the Yale campus. Calls, letters and faxes gave way to emails as a way to keep in touch. 

As Ina grew the Barefoot Contessa retail business — first in its original Westhampton Beach location and then in East Hampton where the couple also settled — Jeffrey was busy in finance and academia, shuttling between Long Island and Washington, D.C., then New York and Connecticut. Appointed dean of the Yale School of Management in 1995, Jeffrey held the position for a decade before moving into the role of dean emeritus. He has also penned six books on economics.

Having children, Ina has said, never really entered the picture, allowing them the freedom and ability to focus entirely on each other. “I really appreciate that other people do and we will always have friends that have children that we are close to but it was a choice we made very early,” she said on The Katie Couric Podcast in 2017. “I really felt, I feel, that I would have never been able to have the life I’ve had.”

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Ina and Jeffrey Garten in 2015

Jeffrey became a popular guest star on Ina's cooking show

Teenage Ina had first delighted in cooking amidst the pages of Julia Child's cookbooks, but it was as the proprietor of Barefoot Contessa that she honed her culinary skills, even if success meant comfort food over experimental dishes. “In the beginning I was making all these complicated things, veal stuffed with prunes and Armagnac,” she said to The Cut. “Nobody bought it. And then I started making roast chicken and roast carrots, and that’s what sold.” After putting the business up for sale in 1996 her life was once again at a crossroads: What to do next?

Keeping the focus on her passion for cooking, Ina invested her time and money to translate her culinary retail success into the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Published by Clarkson Potter in 1999, it was a hit with novice and experienced cooks alike. The lush photography paired with Ina’s relaxed, breezy tone attracted a new, much wider audience than those only locally aware of her abilities.

Ina’s fan base grew exponentially with the launch of the televised version of Barefoot Contessa in 2002. Originally filmed in the couple’s East Hampton home before shooting moved to the specially redesigned barn on their property, Jeffrey makes frequent on-screen appearances as a recipe tester and enthusiastic diner. Television audiences couldn’t get enough of Ina’s approachable, can-do attitude to cooking and entertaining, alongside the voyeuristic glimpse into her idyllic Hamptons life and self-described “stress-free” marriage. Cookbook sales soared as a result with a new title released on average every two years over the two decades the show has been a mainstay on television.

Jeffrey happily trusted his wife with the sight-unseen refurbishment of the Paris apartment they now visit on a yearly basis each anniversary and treat as a second home. But even while apart, Jeffrey often sends his wife five or six texts a day. “I love looking at her schedule. I can envision where she is and what she’s doing, and it doesn’t feel like we’re apart,” he told People. “If I could be with her seven days a week, 24 hours a day, that would be my ideal.”