Six years, five months and three days. That’s how long it took to cook every single one of Ina Garten’s 1,272 recipes from her books and television show. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d last more than three months, but Garten’s recipes hooked me. They were easy to follow, delicious and finally broke my microwave habit.
This project started on a whim, but over the years, it’s changed me in ways I never anticipated.
The first and most obvious way is the confidence I’ve gained in the kitchen. This project was my cooking education. Much like Garten learned how to cook by making her way through the books of Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, I went from cooking mostly with items found in the frozen-food aisle to cooking bright and fresh meals mostly from scratch by following Garten’s sage advice. It taught me that really anyone can cook — especially if your teacher is the Barefoot Contessa!
Over the years, my food styling and photography have improved. I went from having virtually zero cooking ability to now dipping my toe into recipe development. Although so much has changed for me in the kitchen, one thing has remained a constant — I still can’t keep my kitchen clean to save my life.
But this project was so much more than getting my cooking education. It also helped me in ways that weren’t so obvious.
When I started, I was feeling a little lost. I’d just turned 30, moved to Harlem, New York, and was still the insecure, anxious, unconfident person I had always been — something that I was often able to hide, but nevertheless was still there. I couldn’t see my path forward and felt as if I were rudderless.
In what I can only describe as kismet, around this time I stumbled on Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” and it sparked a desire to learn everything I could about food and cooking. I didn’t know it then, but I had found my passion and a clearer direction forward.
I soon began my Instagram account @storeboughtisfine, which provided much-needed structure. Committing myself to a project where I could see steady improvement and gain knowledge, while people enjoyed following along, helped me feel like I was on the right path. Slowly, I realized the confidence I was gaining as I worked my way through all of these recipes was helping me feel more self-assured outside of the kitchen (therapy probably helped, too!).
The lessons I learned along the way have completely changed my outlook on life.
Aim high, keep expectations low.
I started this project with zero expectations of where it might lead. I just wanted to learn how to cook and have a little fun in the process. At the time, I didn’t have the confidence to ask for the things I wanted in life — often feeling like I didn’t deserve any of it. As the project started to pick up steam, I was also naïve enough to think that if I worked hard, opportunities would just fall into my lap. It wasn’t until I started taking initiative that those opportunities started to appear. I first got to write for TODAY by reaching out to an editor, thanking them for mentioning my account in a story and asking for the chance.
Once paralyzed by the fear of rejection, I would have never reached out to Garten to see if she would cook the final recipe with me, but learning to be OK with either answer helped me ask. (And she said yes!)
While aiming high is key, it’s just as important to have low expectations. No one owes you anything. I came very close to getting my own digital cooking show, and when that fell through, maintaining those low expectations throughout the process helped me bounce back. You have to remember that a “no” or an unanswered email is likely the worst outcome and definitely not a reason to give up.
Authenticity is key.
Before authenticity became a social media buzzword, Garten was a prime example of someone who attracted people by being herself. Having spent a short amount of time with her, believe me, nothing is an act — she is as warm, genuine, and encouraging as she is on television. Authenticity is something you can’t fake.
I learned early on that the more I was myself online — sharing my odd sense of humor, discussing my kitchen failures and giving honest takes on Garten’s dishes — the more people were enjoying it. It may seem obvious to some, but I’ve spent a lot of my life needing to be liked rather than showing up as I am. However, as the project progressed and I saw myself improving and others enjoying my work, I was able to quiet that imposter syndrome voice that’s been my constant companion. Since there is so much impossible perfection on social media, people crave relatability. After all, isn’t it exhausting being someone you’re not?
Let your freak flag fly.
People are going to think you’re odd any time you deviate from what’s deemed “normal,” but why not embrace your eccentricities? It’s where so much of what’s interesting in this world happens. Every time this project comes up, it’s met with either immediate excitement or a concerned look of “Why on Earth would you do that?” While some see obsession — and there may be some of that — I see passion. If I tried to be appealing to everyone, this project likely wouldn’t have been of much interest to anyone.
You’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
I’ve always been a little sensitive — especially to criticism — but this project has given me a new perspective. I was advised not to read comments about the project, but I couldn’t resist. While so many were complimentary and kind, there were a number of remarks like “Get a life,” “Who cares?” and “How sad and lonely he must be.” To be honest, it is hard to read negative comments, even if they are from complete strangers, but I soon realized that these comments said way more about them than me. Accepting that not everyone is going to get or like what you do has provided a perspective that I’ve taken into my day-to-day life and prevented unwarranted negativity from dragging me down. It’s not always easy but it’s certainly become easier.
Take the leap.
I had no idea where this project would lead, but I started anyway, and it slowly grew and gave me stability and direction. I’m reminded of an analogy Garten often shares about trying something you’re unsure of. She compares it to a pond, saying people are often scared of what’s in the pond and spend too much time standing at the edges wondering whether it’s hot, cold, shallow, deep, etc., when really, the only way to truly find out is to jump in. So take that leap — it could help pull you out of a dark place or lead to opportunities you never knew existed. You’ll never know until you’re in it.
In reality, this project wasn’t a cure-all — I still have insecurities, anxiety and moments of doubt, but they no longer dominate my life. I’ve come a long way. This journey has allowed me to connect with so many people who share my love of food — and, of course, Ina Garten — and taught me lessons that will steer and shape my life for many years to come.