Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Up Close & Personal with The Chew's Carla Hall

They say life is a journey of discovery. Some of us find ourselves early in life and we spend our time focused on goals we set at an early age. For others, the journey takes us down diverse paths as we search for who we are, trying to find the passion or direction that finally fulfills. For The Chew's Carla Hall, her inspiration and passion came later in life, transforming and shaping her into the lovely lady who graces our television sets each day. She is full of joy, laughter and an infectious enthusiasm for life and things culinary.

Carla grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Her influence early on with regard to food came from her two grandmothers, Thelma and Freddie Mae. Carla explained, "Back in the day, we did not eat out very much, we ate at home. I remember every time we went to my grandmother's house for Sunday supper. We went there after church every Sunday and to this day those are still my favorite foods. She made a lot of food. But, I was not interested in cooking. I was into the eating," she laughed. "Being from the south, every holiday or life event is all around food. Weddings, births, deaths, what we did is eat." As an Italian, I fully understand that philosophy. For southerners, as well as for folks of my heritage, the heart of the house is the kitchen. I asked Carla what her favorite food her grandma made and without hesitation she answered, "My Grandmother Thelma made this amazing fried chicken. Her recipe was so simple, just a bit of salt and pepper, but it was so tender and juicy.
Nowadays we'd probably call it organic. But back then, everything we ate was more simple and good."

"Thelma was the one who cooked lots of food," she continued, "and we would eat with her during the week. Grandma Freddie Mae's house is where we went on Sundays. That was more of an 'event' with more of the 'holiday foods'. She would make this corn bread, but she would never put it into the oven until we were on the inside of the door to her house. Now, we came to her house every Sunday right about the same time, but she would never make that cornbread until we were all inside that door. She would never start it before, no matter what. For me, as a kid, it was torture actually because we knew that we wouldn't eat for another 20 minutes and it seemed like longest 20 minutes of my life. I used to wish that my parents could call her and say we were on the way, so it would be ready when we got there. It wasn't like it was a surprise party or anything," she laughed, "she knew we were coming, but it was about her always wanting things to be perfect, with the bread coming fresh out of the oven while we were there."

In high school, when picking a career direction and major in college Carla chose accounting. She explained that she really liked her accounting teacher, which influenced her decision on a major. But, her true passion was for the theater and the performing arts. She loved performing. "I did theater and performed from 12 to 17. I loved it. I was on track to go to a conservatory and major in theater. I wanted to go to Boston University and it was the only school that I applied for. Unfortunately, they were going to defer my admission. I was shocked!" she exclaimed. Hall then followed her sister with a late admission to Howard University, where she received a degree in accounting. Interestingly enough she has been quoted as saying, "I knew as soon as I passed my CPA exam, I wasn't going to be an accountant." She decided to go to Europe and model and it was there, traveling through Europe, that awakened her passion for food and inspired a new career path. I asked her to expand on the experience. 

"My whole thing with the accounting was that I did not want to wake up one day and find I hated my job." She explained, "I really did not know what I wanted to do. People asked 'were you afraid?' I was actually, but I was not afraid of going to Paris. I always knew I could come home. I was afraid of waking up at 40 and hating my job. I was on a quest, on a journey to figure out what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. When I was at Howard I had done some modeling and I had some girlfriends with whom I had modeled when in college. Looking back," she continued, "my intention was to figure out what I wanted to do and modeling was that bridge between what I didn't what to do, and what I would eventually do.

It was during this time in Europe that the seed and love of culinary was awakened in Carla. I asked her to explain. "First of all," she offered, "I was in a foreign country and there were a lot of American models. On Sundays, we all got together and we would do this big brunch. It was all about the food and making food that made us all feel at home (America). We would make things like Buffalo Wings, or Macaroni and Cheese. I remember running to the market to get turnip greens before they would throw them away, because they would cut them off and sell the turnips, but would throw away the greens. It was all about  a reminder of home. The girls would all compare 'my mom made it like this,' etc. and I had no idea how anything was made because as a kid, as I mentioned, I was just waiting to eat the food, not paying attention to how it was made. I became fascinated. I started buying cookbooks. I gave myself the time to figure it out. Not having to worry about a job allowed me to really figure it out at my own pace. I was having an experience and I realized it at the time. Yes, I was running around, looking for modeling jobs but, I knew this was not going to be my career. I allowed myself the time to really learn about cooking. I got to travel and make food, taste and explore the food of Europe. When I came back to the States, I lived with friends, not having my own place, so I started making food and cleaning. My way of paying them back was to cook for them."

Carla then moved to Washington, D.C. to be with her sister and it was there that she and a friend opened a lunch delivery service as a fluke and, as she put it, "I became 'The Lunch Lady' for 5 years. I made sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches," she remembered chuckling, "I made cakes and biscuits. I had this whole little concept. Mostly turkey, no beef or pork. Healthy salads and such and on Fridays I would make something special. We called it 'The Lunch Bunch.' It was originally The Lunch Basket, because that's how I originally delivered the food. I started with a few clients which then turned into more clients and at its height I probably had about 25 regulars. I bought a used mail truck for about $200. It had one seat and a cooler in the back. It was hard work." 

Fueled with a new passion for culinary, Hall then attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland where she completed her culinary training, going on to work as a sous chef at the Henley Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.. She also served as Executive Chef at both The State Plaza Hotel and The Washington Club, and has taught classes at CulinAerie, Sur la Table and her alma mater, L’Academie de Cuisine. I asked what she took away from those years working the line and she explained, "I liked the action. I also liked that at the end of the night you felt like you had accomplished something. You made it through. Being a morning person, I never experienced the culture of hanging out after the shift though. I was older. And," she laughed, "I was tired. I went home and went to sleep."

This is where Hall explained to me that she knew she had finally found herself, her direction and her career path. "I knew because it was hard work, yet I still wanted to do it. I still was enthusiastic. That was truly when I knew this was it. I did not spend many years on the line," she offered. "I went from the restaurants to catering quite quickly. Now that I am planning on opening my own restaurant though, it's a different mindset. It will be my name, my concept, so I really want to make sure that I know every aspect of the business; front of the house and back. I won't necessarily be the chef, but, they will be my recipes, my name on the door and I want to be able to jump on that line anytime they need me to. In any capacity. If my name is on it, there is no way I am not going to be involved in every aspect."

The conversation finally came around to her 'big break,' television and Top Chef. I asked her how it all came about and she explained, "When I did Top Chef, I really wasn't thinking about a career on television. For me, it was a personal challenge that happened to be on television. I didn't do it to get my name out there. None of that was on my mind. It was game, a personal challenge." I asked her if she thought that she was at a disadvantage as a contestant, coming from a catering background while most of her competitors were coming with years of experience on the line in a restaurant. She immediately replied, "A lot of the chefs, when you look at the challenges, the advantage that they had as a restaurant chef was that they had a lot of dishes on their menus that they do over and over again, day after day. They have the muscle memory of doing those same things over and over again. The advantage to a catering background when you have a challenge is, you have to move the food all over the place. You never know where you'll be cooking. You constantly have to be prepared for change, cooking in a different location. Catering gives you that ability. I think that it basically evened the playing field." She continued, "For me, catering is about service, thinking on your feet, on the fly, talking to the client. Many of my competitors were surprised that I was still there, that I stuck around. Top Chef is not only about the food, but how you handle the pressure as a person. How you dig deep and keep going."

We then moved to The Chew, which, as I write this, is one of the top shows on tv. With fellow hosts Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Daphne Oz and Clinton Kelly, the show has taken America by storm. I asked Carla to bring us through how she came to be one of the hosts and she explained, "Folks think that I just got The Chew because of Top Chef. The reality is that right off Top Chef All Stars I was one of 170-200 other people who auditioned. They were looking for 5 people. They put us all together for twenty minutes and we had great chemistry instantly. It's so popular now that people actually get upset sometimes when we take long breaks in between shooting the show, but we really need the time to rejuvenate. To do a daily show, the energy and intense focus we have to bring to keep it fresh, funny and interesting is daunting. It takes a lot out of you, so we do it in what we call semesters, so that on breaks we get to recharge the batteries."

With such a intensive shoot schedule, coupled with personal appearances, a new book tour and working on a new restaurant concept, I asked if her schedule takes a toll on her family. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Matthew Lyons, and stepson Noah. "It's hard, we live in D.C. and my husband is there, he works for the FDA. I am here in NYC. We try to see each other as much as possible, mostly on the weekends. We take turns. He comes up here (to NYC) every other weekend. I go to D.C. unless I have appearances."

I then broached a subject that is a bit controversial and I gave Carla the option of discussing it or not. Recently, she had launched a Kick Starter campaign to help raise money for kitchen equipment for her upcoming restaurant opening and throughout the industry and public it was met with mixed reactions. Some approved while others thought it was not appropriate. As this is Up Close and Personal, I wanted to give Carla the chance to respond in a neutral atmosphere. She graciously
offered, "I definitely would not do it again. I was shocked at people's reactions. I was shocked that people assume that because you are on television it automatically means you are rich. I was shocked that folks also believe everything that they read. There are these websites, solely for entertainment purposes, that supposedly tell you what your favorite tv or film stars are worth and they had a ridiculous number claiming I was worth millions. For instance one of those site lists me as white," she laughed, "I mean to look at me, do I look white?" She continued, "It was a surprise to me, that with my new found celebrity, the public believes that they really know you. And frankly, they don't. I had to get used to that."

It was here that Carla and I discussed why I do these interviews. You see, there is a persona that tv presents to you all that sometimes gets confused with reality. Now that's not to say that the personality or person you admire on tv is being disingenuous. I just mean that  tv doesn't always allow, depending on the format, the opportunity for all of our favorite tv stars true personality and all the info about them to be presented. Here with these interviews, my hope is that you get to know a bit more about the true person, behind the persona. She explained that though she has discussed it here, at the time she chose to remain silent about it and not respond publicly to her detractors. To me that was a sign of class. "It was hard not to respond, but I felt it was the right way to handle it. Another lesson I learned was there were many people who were actually supportive and understood why I did the campaign and I said to myself, 'Why should I let the 1% who had something negative to say, overshadow the 99% who were positive about it.' I really believe that when you do something you have to analyze the lesson that may be presented, take the reactions from the source and either dismiss it or pay attention to it. The choice is ours. But that is easier said than done." She continued, "It did hurt to hear and read the negative comments. I think that sometimes people forget that you are not just this persona on tv but you are a real person with real feelings. I think that what Social Media has done is given a voice to a lot of anonymous people without a face. I doubt some folks would say what they said online to my face. I had to remind myself that an opinion offered without facts is just someone name calling." I have to agree with Carla here. As one who's public life, from and now this blog and twitter, has revolved around social media. We have to realize that there are folks online, trolls they are now called, who are out on social media just looking for opportunities to hate or make fun. It's become part of the game, as it were.

I then moved the topic to something a bit more sweet, Carla's commercial endeavors. In addition to her cookbooks, Carla's Comfort Foods and Cooking With Love, Comfort Food That Hugs You, she has a line of baked goods available on her website and stores in 8 states. Bite-size cookies that look like a snack, but pair boldly and beautifully with beer, wine and tea. Here you’ll find familiar flavors with a surprising twist, such as the Pecan Shortbread with Vanilla Salt and Goat Cheese with Dried Cranberries with a hint of rosemary. Carla's artisan cookies are made in small batches, packaged by hand and contain only the finest ingredients—European-style butter, unbleached sugar & flour, couverture chocolate, artisan cheeses, fresh nuts, premium spices. I asked about her expansion into the restaurant business. She explained, "We are currently looking for space and hopefully late spring early summer we'll be launching Carla's Southern Kitchen."

To sum up I asked Carla about the whole experience, from Top Chef to The Chew, what's on the horizon and what has been her biggest lesson and had the biggest impact on her. She thought for a moment and answered, "Remembering who I am. My prayer everyday is about my keeping my authenticity. Regardless of people knowing me or not knowing me, it's about who I am and making sure I don't change. Fortunately I came into this notoriety later in life, at age 42. I think it's really hard to grow up in the public eye. If I have one advantage it's that, I hope, I grew up well before the tv fame came, I know who I am and I try to make sure that the person I am is who I present to the general public. I am who I am and I feel that's a blessing.  Being older, I also take it all with a grain of salt. This (fame) can go as quickly as it came. What's also important to me is to maintain something of my own. I think that's why I maintain the cookies because if The Chew went away today, I have the cookie business to fall back on. If I did not, I have to say I'd be really nervous."

We who know Carla also know how much she loves to dance. It is almost as signature to her as her Hootie Hoo! I asked if she could choose what the soundtrack to her life would be, her answer summed up everything I have come to respect and expect from this vivacious lady. "Anything with a beat, especially R & B, something that keeps my feet moving, especially forward."

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this in-depth chat with Carla as much as I did in bringing it to you. I look for more fun, frolic and great culinary things from this lady and I know we'll all be watching and enjoying as she brings us along on her adventures.

To find out more about Carla, her products, cookbooks and where she might be appearing live near you, visit her website at and connect with her via social media here; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Till next time,