PORTLAND — Eliot Cutler may have been the headliner, but he knew who was the star attraction.

“I’m here for her, too,” Cutler said after he and Ina Garten, the Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa,” chatted and took questions before more than 200 people Friday at the Portland Co. on Fore Street.

Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, and Garten, who turned a small specialty food store in New York into a burgeoning cookbook and television show empire, first met in the late 1970s in the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter. Cutler was the associate director of the office and Garten analyzed nuclear power issues.

There were plenty of questions about her story and a handful about Cutler’s positions on the environment, education and the economy.

But most of those who forked out $50 — or $250 to attend a private reception with the two — have, to put it charitably, clearly not begun to focus on the gubernatorial campaign.

“I’m a huge fan of hers and I don’t know anything about Eliot Cutler, to be honest,” said Jeremy Young of Freeport, clutching a “Barefoot Contessa” cookbook for Garten to sign. “Definitely, if it had not been for her, we would not have turned out for this.”

Linda Knight of South Portland said she, too, was there more to hear Garten and get her signature on a cookbook than to consider policy options. But she promised to pay attention to Cutler to determine “if I spent my money wisely.”

Matt and Susan Lelansky of South Portland said the event, which also featured a lunch of salmon, summer squash, zucchini and salad, was a win-win for them.

Both support Cutler’s bid and also are big fans of Garten.

“I’m here for a little of both,” Susan Lelansky said. “This was a nice event for getting to see her.”

Most of those attending checked in at a reception table, got their name tags and then went straight to the book table, where an assortment of Garten’s cookbooks was displayed. People shelled out $37.75 for each and a few had two or three copies in hand for Garten to ink.

After the private reception, limited to 50 people, Cutler and Garten casually recounted the beginning of their friendship at the OMB and her abrupt turn toward a new, more lucrative career.

Garten said she saw an ad in The New York Times for a small specialty food store, visited it with her husband and made a low offer. To her surprise, it was accepted.

Then she went to tell Cutler she was leaving.

“I said, ‘You’re going to buy a shop called The Barefoot Contessa?’” Cutler said, mimicking his incredulity. “Who knew?”

“She went from baking yellowcake (uranium used in nuclear fuel pellets), to baking chocolate cake,” Cutler cracked. “Uranium to flour. It’s all the same.”

Cutler did use the opportunity to pitch some of his policy ideas, including a couple linked to Garten’s expertise. He said that Mainers buy only 4 percent of their food from local sources and if that figure was increased to 10 percent, it would produce thousands of jobs and put millions of dollars in Maine farmers’ pockets.

He also said lower-cost electricity would allow more farmers to use and heat greenhouses, with more fruits and vegetables produced locally year-round.

Cutler said he and Garten planned to dine in Portland on Friday night and would stop at the Portland Farmers Market in Deering Oaks this morning before Garten flies back to New York.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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