On her Food Network series Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten appears to have a picture-perfect marriage with her husband, Jeffrey: She’s often in the kitchen whipping up one of her famous roast chickens, and he comes home with a bottle of wine, an appetite and a smile.
This dynamic, they say, isn’t put on for the cameras. Ina, 70, spends most of her days at their home in East Hampton, N.Y., testing recipes for her show or upcoming cookbook (her latest, Cook Like a Pro, hits shelves on Oct. 23), while Jeffrey, 71, a professor at the Yale School of Management, commutes from Connecticut and acts as her eager taste tester when he’s at home. “He’s just the best friend anybody could ever have,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on stands Friday.
Still, she says, there’s one side of Jeffrey that viewers don’t get to see on the show. “He plays this adorable kind of doofus guy who comes in and goes, ‘Oh this is delicious, what’s in it?’,” she says with a laugh. “But in reality he’s extremely smart, and has very interesting ideas on the world and the economy,” she adds. “His career has spanned government, academia, banking, and writing—he’s authored many books—I’m still just in awe of him.”
The pair, who are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on Dec. 22, say their romance began in 1963 when she was 15 and visiting her brother at Dartmouth College, where Jeffrey was also a student. “He saw me on the street and then sent me a letter with a photograph of himself in it,” says Ina. “I just remember running through the house and going, ‘Mom, Mom, you’ve got to see this picture of this guy. He’s so cute!’”
After that first letter, Jeffrey’s gift for the written word would come to play an integral role throughout their relationship, as they were often continents apart. After he was sent on an Army deployment to Thailand for a year shortly after they were married, “I wrote to Ina every single day,” he says. “During the whole year I was only able to call her once.”
Ina saved all the letters. “I was recently reading through them, and I came across one that said, ‘I’d love to take you to Paris, and we won’t have enough money for a hotel, but maybe we’ll go camping,’” Ina says with a laugh. They did (see below). Now Paris is their home away from home, a place where they spend their anniversary every year (and which has inspired many of her most famous recipes, like this roast chicken with radishes).
Before she made a living through cooking, Ina was a nuclear-budget analyst at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C., under the Jimmy Carter Administration—a career path that was inspired by Jeffrey, who was working at the State Department.
“We were part of the first generation where there was a fork in the road for a lot of women, whether to pursue their careers or stay at home,” says Jeffrey. “Ina was a cross between the two. She would send me brownies in a shoe box when I was in college and make me sweaters, but it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t also do something really interesting professionally.”
Adds Ina: “He just thought I was really smart and that I could do anything. He was the first person I knew who thought that about me.”
Though she rose through the ranks in a prestigious field, Ina eventually realized that this wasn’t her calling. “I thought, ‘That’s not who I am. That’s who Jeffrey is,’” she says. After discussions about their future, in 1978 the couple bought a specialty-food store in West Hampton, N.Y., called Barefoot Contessa—a move that would ultimately lead Ina to a career as a celebrity chef.
Distance once again tested their love when Jeffrey’s job at Lehman Brothers relocated him to Japan in the 1980s. “For a couple of years we commuted between Tokyo and the Hamptons,” says Jeffrey. Once again letters helped keep them connected—this time with slightly updated technology. “He used to write me notes all day, and he would fax them to me at night so when I woke up in the morning, I had them,” says Ina.
Now they’re settled into their Hamptons life, where Jeffrey travels only a few days a week. “When we’re not together, I’ll send her five or six texts per day,” says Jeffrey. “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. If I could be with her seven days a week, 24 hours a day, that would be my ideal.”
Neither says their marriage has been hard work. “Our relationship is just so stress-free, and we have a wonderful time together,” Ina insists. “It’s not like we have highs and lows, and we have to work things out.”
She also acknowledges that being able to focus only on each other has made it easier for them. “We have more freedom because we decided not to have children—that’s made a huge difference,” she says. “Every year for many years we had that conversation. It would keep coming up and we would say, ‘Oh, let’s just wait.’ Eventually, we said, ‘What are we still having this conversation for?’”
Throughout the distance and changes of address, their unconditional support has remained constant. “We’ve had the good fortune of growing up together in a very compatible way,” says Jeffrey. “We’re like two vines that grew and wrapped themselves around one another.”