Metro Weekly

“Top Chef” skyrocketed Carla Hall to fame, but her definitive southern cooking continues to steal the show

Hall will break bread at a special Story District on July 27

Carla Hall — Photo: Melissa Hom

Carla Hall is as surprised as anyone by her career trajectory. After finishing near the top on two different seasons of Top Chef, and emerging as the audience-voted Fan Favorite during season eight’s Top Chef: All Stars, becoming a celebrity chef and culinary star remains a novelty for her.

“Sometimes I look at my life and I pinch myself because I’m surprised at this path,” she says. “I would have never thought I would be here.”

For one thing, Hall didn’t grow up cooking in the kitchen. “I grew up eating,” she says. “I loved eating.” Hall didn’t start cooking until a few years after graduating from Howard University, during the years she spent working as a model in Europe.

“When I was staying with friends in Paris, they would have these Sunday suppers, and the girls were cooking and I was like, ‘Oh, this is what happens in a kitchen,'” Hall says. She soon taught herself how to cook, partly as a way to thank her friends and also to reminisce about her Nashville childhood. “I would go and get cookbooks and then I would cook for people just to thank them for letting me couchsurf,” she says. “In hindsight, it was a time of recreating the Sunday suppers at my grandmother’s house. I missed that and I missed home. So this was a way of being with people that helped me not miss home so much.”

Three decades later, the 55-year-old Hall has become a popular guest at cooking and food events across the country, and it doesn’t take a molecular gastronomist to understand why. In fact, it’s hard to think of many contemporaries quite as engaging, ebullient, and infectious. She is as unpretentious and genuine as they come — or to use an appropriately Southern-steeped food metaphor, you could say she’s full of beans and sweet as honey. Of course, the Top Chef vet has also become something of a regular presence on television. In 2015, she won an Emmy Award as a co-host of ABC’s The Chew, the daily food-themed offshoot of The View, which ended its seven-season run last year.

“I wouldn’t have the other successes that I have had if it wasn’t for Top Chef,” Hall says. “Without a doubt I am very grateful for that.” She learned many useful skills from her stints on the show, none greater than the boost it gave her to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think that’s a life skill that you learn so much about yourself that you’re going to use over and over and over again.” More specifically, rather than shy away from a nervous-making situation, Top Chef helped Hall. “I embraced the nerves,” she says.

On Saturday, July 27, Hall will embrace those nerves head-on at Story District’s Breaking Bread: Stories by Celebrity Chefs and Industry Insiders. Fellow Top Chef alum and James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwauchi of D.C.’s Kith and Kin will join Hall on stage along with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan, veteran journalist and former chef David Hagedorn, plus four other culinary experts, all sharing food-related personal stories.

“I’ll be talking about one of my experiences when I was on Top Chef: All Stars and the first time that I made an African dish, pretty much, in public,” Hall says. “When I get up and talk to people, it’s pretty nerve-racking and scary. Even though people assume, ‘Oh, you do television all the time,’ it’s something very intimate and it makes you feel very vulnerable to be on stage telling a story in a succinct manner.”

A few weeks ago, the longtime resident of D.C. hosted the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s RAMMY Awards. It was a breeze, in comparison, “because that is not telling a story. It’s not eight minutes of being up there and people saying, ‘entertain me.’ It’s pretty easy, I feel, to be in the moment and present.”

By contrast, in situations such as at Story District, “there’s a point in the storytelling where you’re holding back part of the story and you’re having to tell it in the present, where you’re actually feeling the emotion of the story. And that makes it difficult to tell it.

“The thing is, I wouldn’t be nervous if I didn’t care,” she adds. “I just care too much [not] to share the story and to do it and Story District justice.”

Carla Hall — Photo: Melissa Hom

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with how you got to D.C. — and how the city became your adopted hometown.

CARLA HALL: I went to Howard [then] I left in ’86 and I went off to do whatever-whatever. My sister was still living in D.C., and I moved back in 1991. So I’ve been in D.C. ever since.

MW: You studied accounting at Howard. Did you want to become an accountant?

HALL: I didn’t want to be an accountant, I was an accountant. Nobody wants to be an accountant — that’s so important to say. I wanted to be an actor and I ended up, instead of going to Boston University, going to Howard and majoring in accounting. And then I worked in it for two years at Pricewaterhouse in Tampa, Florida.

MW: Why didn’t you pursue acting at Howard?

HALL: You know what? I didn’t even think about it. I wasn’t accepted to the fine arts program in Boston, and as an 18-year-old, I was like, “Okay, maybe it’s a sign.” And my mother certainly wasn’t going to convince me to major in theater, now, was she?

MW: I guess not. What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?

HALL: I thought it was a joke when they called me and asked, “Do you want to do this?” And [then it became] a cool thing to audition for, after they put my name in the hat. I never thought I would actually be chosen, and then I was. I was surprised at every turn. Once I said I was going to do it, it became a personal challenge.

MW: Is there a way to prepare for that?

HALL: I think it’s hard to prepare for. The only thing you can prepare is [that] you’re a seasoned chef when you come on the show and not to second-guess yourself. You have no idea what challenges are going to be thrown at you. I think if you’re not comfortable in your cooking abilities and techniques, you shouldn’t apply. It’s just be in the moment and make food that you like. I think people, especially young chefs, they go on trying to impress and do things they think the judges will like, and there is no heart connection. The people who cook with heart make the best food.

MW: You went to Maryland’s former L’Academie de Cuisine and had worked in the local industry prior to competing on Top Chef.

HALL: Right, I did. I had already worked in the industry for about 15 years. I worked in restaurants for a few years and then I worked at the Washington Club and then I had my own catering company. So by the time I was on Top Chef I was already 44 years old.

MW: Are there any restaurants you’ve worked at that you want to call out?

HALL: I worked at a lot of hotels. I worked at the State Plaza Hotel and the Henley Park Hotel, at their restaurants, and I worked at the Washington Club, which is now, I think, a condo at 11 Dupont Circle.

I think today, the driving force of any property, be it a hotel or an airport or even a sports arena, is the food. That’s what brings people in. So it’s very different today than it was 15 years ago when I was in the game. I think it’s changing all the time. Look at the African American Museum, [a] museum that was built [with] a state-of-the-art kitchen. [Other] kitchens in the Smithsonian were retrofitted for the food service.

MW: You helped develop the museum’s Sweet Home Café.

HALL: Yeah, I’m the culinary ambassador. And I’m still involved. I just get to tell people, “Hey, go have Chef Jerome Grant’s food! It’s amazing!”

MW: Much of your work over the past decade has been on TV as part of food-oriented talk and cooking shows. That obviously suits you.

HALL: It does. I like it because I use acting, food, my love of people — it all comes together when you’re on a cooking show. I love teaching classes and cooking classes. Right now I’ve been going around with my friend Chadwick Boyd doing biscuit classes, and it’s been super fun.

MW: Speaking of biscuits, I have a friend who’s attempted to make yours several times without ever achieving the quality of those you made at MetroCookingDC a couple of years ago. I was wondering if there’s a common mistake that people make when they try to follow your recipe?

HALL: I feel like I want to make biscuits with your friend. A lot of times people don’t know how to measure the flour, quite frankly. They don’t aerate their flour, they don’t mix it before they measure it. They are not exacting and measuring. They tap their cup. I could probably list five different things people do just with the flour alone. Because if you measure your flour properly, it should work. You don’t tap. But also, you know how many thousands of hours I have making biscuits? You’re not going to make them right the first 10 times.

In my latest book [“Carla Hall’s Soul Food”], I’ve given you all of the tools to help you make a biscuit if you follow them. Also, sometimes the butter’s too warm. People don’t understand why butter should stay cold. Or they don’t use full-fat buttermilk. The buttermilk in the grocery store is nonfat buttermilk, not full-fat. So that means that you need sour cream. Or they’ll use milk and put lemon juice in it. That’s not buttermilk. I can think of a number of things that people would do that they think don’t matter because I made a suggestion in the recipe. No, that’s the recipe.

MW: Given you’re making full-fat buttermilk biscuits all the time, I have to ask, how do you stay so fit and thin?

HALL: Can I just tell you, I have gained 20 pounds since The Chew ended. I don’t know whose body this is. I don’t even know. And it’s not about size, because people see me as being thin. My barometer for being fit is, can I run for a train, a bus, or a plane and not induce asthma? [Laughs.]

MW: And you’re not meeting that test these days?

HALL: Yeah, I’m not in shape right now. I have some stuff I need to do. Me and my husband, we’ve agreed to start this whole life challenge to get back in shape.

MW: How did you survive The Chew without putting on weight?

HALL: With The Chew, I had a regular schedule. That was the key. I had a regular schedule, I danced during the breaks, I was always moving. And with a regular schedule, you can have regular exercise. I had a routine. I don’t have a routine now.

Carla Hall — Photo: Melissa Hom

MW: How was your experience with The Chew?

HALL: I loved it. It was so much fun, working with people that I got along with. And we were really friends. So it felt like play. And I got to meet celebrities and regular people, and the kitchen was the common denominator and the great equalizer. So we got to show celebrities cooking like everybody else, you know what I mean? No other show could do that.

MW: It was a rare daily show on television all about food and food-related stuff. Would you like to revive the concept, or do something similar in the future?

HALL: No, I think it had its time. As they say, you can never go home again. But there will be something else. I’m pitching a show soon, so we’ll see. Hopefully I’ll have something that people will see me on that’s mine versus other shows that I love doing — the Halloween Baking Championship, Beat Bobby Flay. You know what? He’s the one who beats, it should be Beat Down by Bobby Flay. Oh my God, how does he keep winning? He’s so talented.

MW: You need a show with your name in it, is that what you’re saying?

HALL: Yeah.

MW: Do you feel like you’ve faced challenges being a woman in such a male-dominated industry?

HALL: I don’t really think about myself as a female in this space, because I’m so tall — at six feet, I’m taller than even the guys. And I was also older when I got into it, so I had very nurturing male chefs. I was in really nurturing kitchens. I had friends who were going for the premiere kitchens to work for particular chefs, and I was more interested in the work environment. So when I was looking for a job, one of the first questions I asked was, “Are you a screamer? And I don’t mean personally.”

MW: You mean does he scream at his coworkers?

HALL: Yeah, that’s what I meant. And [the chef] was like, “No,” and those were the kinds of kitchens that I always looked to be in, because I don’t thrive well when people are screaming. I always had really good work environments. Now, in terms of other times when I was working in other kitchens and events, I never had problems. And I also don’t drink, so I didn’t go out late. I was never part of that crowd.

MW: Mario Batali was a former co-host on The Chew. Were you shocked when you heard about the allegations of sexual harassment and assault lodged against him?

HALL: I was shocked by some of the allegations when there was the hearing, which he was acquitted. But everybody — a lot of people in this industry — there’s rock star status, and partying, and all of that, that people had talked about and was written about years ago. So I don’t think anybody was surprised per se. Also, because this was somebody that I’m working with, I didn’t have that kind of a relationship with him. We had a very different kind of a relationship, a very supportive and warm relationship with his family. I always say that when you read about somebody who you don’t know personally, that information is 100 percent of what you know about that person. When you know them, what you read is about 25 percent of what you know about that person. Because the other 75 percent, or whatever it is — the greater percentage is your personal relationships with that person and their family.

MW: Were you hurt or sad when you lost him as a cohost in late 2017, which precipitated the show’s cancellation in May 2018?

HALL: Well, he was segueing out of the show, so we knew that that was happening. And he had two more shows to tape, because he was busy doing other things. So we went into season seven knowing that that was going to happen, and it was because it was a decision that he had made. I think the hardest part was the network taking the show off when they knew that was the case. I mean, they knew that he was coming off the show. So when they canceled the show, that was a decision that was made that, I think, was short-sighted. I do feel that way. We were shocked by that decision.

The spiritual side of me was like, “Everything happens for a reason.” And to be the weirdo — because you know how I overshare — I had talked to a psychic. The first thing that I thought when I got the news was, “Oh shoot. Oh my God. I saw this psychic in season two, and I asked her, ‘Is this show going to end? Am I going to get fired?’ She said, ‘No. This show’s going to go for five more years.'” And it did. That was the first thing that I remembered. I was like, “Oh, wow.”

MW: So you believe in psychics?

HALL: I believe that a higher power speaks to you through different mediums. So, yes I do, in a word. I’m that girl.

MW: On the topic of gender and discrimination, do you have any general thoughts about the #MeToo movement or the cultural climate we’re in today?

HALL: I choose my words very carefully. When it comes to food or anything, I think there’s male energy and there’s female energy. I am not about demonizing people for being men or women. I’m not about shaming people because they like a particular thing. I think everybody has their story to live, and I do think that there are predatory men. There are also wonderful men. I think that there are predatory women. I think that you can’t generalize. Sometimes in a movement, just like a movement for a particular diet, people jump on a bandwagon. And people who have nothing to do with a thing, or aren’t even passionate about a thing, jump on that movement just to be with the group, without thinking it through. So I’ve been very careful to make sure that my thoughts about things are my thoughts, and not the group’s thoughts. I choose to look at individuals individually.

With that said, I have been discriminated against because of my color. I think sometimes because I’m a woman, sometimes because of both. I ask myself, “What do I have to learn in this moment?” It’s not about anybody else. It’s not an easy thing to talk about, and I’m happy that women feel empowered. I think there are a lot of wonderful things that have come from this movement where women have felt empowered. But I won’t demonize men. I have a wonderful husband, you know?

MW: Of how many years now?

HALL: Thirteen. Lucky thirteen, yeah.

MW: Switching gears, do you remember the first person who came out to you? Or when you first became aware of someone who was LGBTQ?

HALL: There was a guy, a really great friend, when I was in grade school. I never liked when people called him [names] — this one bully of a boy called him a “sissy,” and I just thought he was sensitive. But the first time that I remember somebody being gay was when I was at Howard University — a friend came out to me. I’ve always felt like people should be able to live their truth, regardless of what it is. And I felt honored that he would tell me.

And when I moved back to D.C. and saw the High Heel Race and all that, I thought, “Yes!” And I was in the modeling community in France, so I remember the whole voguing thing. And even when I watch Pose now I think, “Oh my God, I remember going to this underground voguing party and just watching.” I had no idea. But it was amazing.

Pose is so well done, and I’m just so excited it’s bringing the heart and the understanding…and the awareness about kids who were thrown out of their homes because they’re not accepted. I didn’t realize the connection, but my sister, who is a teacher in Maryland’s Montgomery County system, told me that if a child comes to their school and they change clothes or whatever — they change their appearance — they’re not allowed to call and tell the parents. Only after seeing Pose did I understand why.

MW: Because it likely wouldn’t end well?

HALL: Correct. And because they don’t know that. So it’s just the privacy, that student’s privacy. Which is really great.

MW: It’s great but it’s also kind of sad.

HALL: Oh my God, I can’t even tell you! I have these neighbors, who live in my building, they’re partners, and they tell their families they’re just roommates. They’re in their 60s and they can’t live their truth. It is so sad to me.

MW: Do you have kids?

HALL: I have a stepson. He’s 23.

MW: Other than Story District, what else do you have coming up?

HALL: That’s it, in the short-term. I’m living life like everybody, hustling.

MW: Part of your hustling right now is promoting your book, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration, which was published last fall.

HALL: Yeah, it’s getting out and trying to educate people that soul food is more than just the 20 percent of heavy, fried celebration foods that you think of. It’s an agrarian cuisine. I think the Sweet Home Café in the African American Museum helps tell that story as well.

MW: I know that you’ve strived to include vegan and vegetarian options in your cookbooks, just as you did at your former restaurant in Brooklyn, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen. You’re not vegan or vegetarian yourself though, are you?

HALL: I’m not. But, you know, at all of these events, the Food & Wine festivals and everything, vegetarians pay their money just like everybody else, but they can only eat 15 percent of the food that’s presented. They just don’t have the choices. So I really try to think about everybody.

Because I don’t drink, I want interesting mocktails or zero-proof cocktails. So I really try to think 360 about who’s having my food. Granted, in our kitchen if you have celiac disease, I can’t help you. But if it’s in my power, whatever your restraints are, I hope to have something for you.

MW: You mentioned that you don’t drink. When and why did you stop?

HALL: I never drank, never in my life. My father was an alcoholic, so that may have had something to do with it. Plus, if you tell me one person who actually liked the taste of alcohol when they first drank it, I would not believe you.

I think my stubbornness protects me from peer pressure. I’m like, “I don’t have to drink that, I don’t care. Not doing it.”

I’ve never needed some substance to loosen me up. It’s funny, most people assume I drank before. And they ask, “Why don’t you drink?” I think that’s more about the person who’s asking the question than it is the question.

Carla Hall — Photo: Melissa Hom

MW: What is it about D.C. that keeps you here?

HALL: I love my neighborhood, Takoma, D.C. I love all of the culture and I love the feel of D.C., all of the different neighborhoods. I love that we have theater and the Smithsonian and we have music and culture and it’s approachable and you can get around easily, yet it’s beautiful. We have a great subway system. And we’re so close to other cities. Even though I have an apartment in New York, I work in New York, it’s so easy to get there and to Philly and Delaware and Baltimore.

MW: You’ve never had a restaurant here with your name on it, though. Although you do have a space, called Page, in Terminal A at National Airport.

HALL: That’s not really mine. It was a bait-and-switch. A bad experience. Don’t get me started, Doug.

MW: Okay, well, would you like to have a restaurant in D.C. that is truly yours?

HALL: You know, I’m not a restaurateur. I would need an operator. It takes more than just a good cook. I think at 55, unless there was a great operator and somebody was executing my vision, I couldn’t do it. I opened up the restaurant in Brooklyn and I loved it, I loved the experience. I know enough to know I wouldn’t do it without a great operator.

MW: I didn’t make it up there, but I remember reading a good review of Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen that made me want to go.

HALL: The food was fantastic. We had some of the best hot fried chicken I would dare say in the country. Our chicken was delicious, our ingredients were beautifully sourced, all of the sides were vegetarian. We were making cornbread and biscuits on the hour. We had these sweet potato rolls. We made all of our pickles in-house. It was delicious. But it’s never about the food, it’s about the location. We were fast-casual in a sit-down neighborhood. We needed traffic.

But it was still a great experience. I would honestly do it again knowing what I know now. I would do it again because I learned so much about myself, I became very proud of my food. And to have delicious vegan collard greens and to be nut-free — we had these crispy black-eyed peas. It was just wonderful. And I had a number of employees say “I am so proud of our food,” who did not come in saying that. They just thought soul food was soul food was soul food. But they left and were like “Okay, I understand what you’re trying to do and I’m so proud of what we did.”

MW: Are there restaurants you would recommend that you like to eat at when at home?

HALL: I like the Red Hen. The Mexican food at Cielo Rojo I love, oh my gosh they’re so good! Even if I’m home for four days, I’ll eat there twice. Where else do we go? Down to Hazel’s. The ramen place, Haikan, across from Hazel’s, I love that. And there are so many new restaurants that we try to go in and check out.

MW: What about soul food?

HALL: I’m trying to think, I don’t remember the names of a bunch of places. Isn’t that terrible? That’s so terrible! A lot of times when I’m at home is when I’m making the soul food. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the soul food that’s in D.C. But the difference is the soul food that I make is from states in the southeast — Georgia, middle Tennessee. The soul food that’s in D.C. is from North Carolina/South Carolina. My version is a balance between spicy and acidic and sweet — but less sweet. North Carolina/South Carolina, they’re a little sweeter in their sauces and the greens and everything. It’s just different. A reminder to people that all soul food is not the same.

Story District’s Breaking Bread: Stories by Celebrity Chefs & Industry Insiders is Saturday, July 27, at 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $50, or $175 for VIP seating and exclusive after-party with the show’s cast as well as complimentary food and drink. Call 202-888-0050 or visit www.thelincolndc.com. To purchase a VIP pass, visit www.storydistrict.com.

For more on Carla Hall, including recipes, merchandise, events, and details on cookbooks such as Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration, visit www.carlahall.com.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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