Chef Interview: Carla Hall Chats with Yummly
The two-time Top Chef and former co-host of The Chew talks salt, soul food, and the future.
Many of you know Carla Hall from her days on Bravo's Top Chef or The Chew on ABC, but she was in the business of making comfort food long before the television camera found her. Before she impressed Jacques Pepin with her fresh English peas, or was struck speechless after cooking with Carol Burnett, she ran a successful catering company in Washington, D.C. where she worked every single day for five years to build her reputation and skills as a brilliant cook. It's that brilliance that drew Yummly to her to help us launch Yummly Pro, our premium subscription. She taught us a lot through her Soul Food Classics collection, but we sat down with her to get to know her a little better, talk about food and her latest cooking adventure, and what the future holds.
Yummly: I LOVE the recipes you did for Yummly Pro. They’re recipes that I want to make again and again. The Glorified Grits are SO good. When you’re coming up with new recipes for classic dishes like the grits or the banana pudding from your cookbook, what is it you think about in order to make them different?
Carla Hall: I know that after doing a cooking show, people don't cook as much as they used to. So sometimes I come from the perspective of 'how can I give the people who don't have the foundation a bar' and then I think ‘how do I add something to it for people who cook.'
Y: Do you have an example?
CH: I make dishes that, as a cook, you can add something to, like the cream biscuits [from Yummly Pro]. As a cook you can envision any kind of vegetable with those. I'm only adding something so that somebody who cooks can think about the possibilities. But it's simple enough for the people who don't cook, and I really want to give them the technique of how to make something.
Y: How do you react to people who turn up their noses at collard greens made without meat?
CH: They're turning their noses up at them because they haven’t had them. I have served them to people who eat meat in their greens and they’re like ‘I love these even better because they're lighter.’ You're not missing anything. With the smoked paprika and with the vinegar and the garlic you don't miss the meat. What you get is a very flavorful and balanced dish. As a Southerner going to a restaurant, I just want the vegetables. I don't need to have a meat accent in every single thing that I eat. If I get a meat, that means that you should not be putting meat in my greens.
Y: You have a lot of experience cooking without meat?
CH: My husband was a vegetarian for 5 years so I was also making dishes for him. And sometimes I just want vegetables. I need to have some respite from meat, and bacon doesn't make everything better.
Y: So when it’s barbecue season, what do you make on the grill to accommodate your husband and other vegetarians to give them the same satisfaction as a burger or hot dog?
CH: I just think ‘How can I make something that is just as delicious for you as people who are meat eaters.’ Any kind of root vegetable … like sweet potato baked and then grilled. I love the smokiness of grilled vegetables but I love roasting them whole … then throwing it on the grill so that it gets that char, and then putting barbecue sauce on that so you can cook it until it's soft.
Carla Hall showing off her sweet potato for Yummly Pro
Y: While we're on the subject of dietary restrictions, I know you don't drink. How do you do mocktails?
CH: I do a sweet tea soda. The reason I do the sweet tea soda goes back to teaching people about [thinking of the possibilities]. I do a tea simple syrup, put that with sparkling water and you have your own homemade soda. But then it could be anything. If I use tea and you never thought about that, now all of the different teas that you have can be a potential simple syrup. It’s putting the power back into the home cook.
Y: In recipes that call for wine or other alcohol, what would you suggest to cooks who don't want to cook with alcohol?
CH: I might use apple juice. But when you think about wine it's going to give you that tanginess. I might put [in] a little lemon because it gives you the acidity but it also gives you the sweetness of the apple juice. If it's red wine you might want to do even a vinegar that’s going to give you some of that. If you do a little bit of juice — let’s say an apple juice with apple cider vinegar, it's going to give you that balance that a white wine will give you.
Y: Along those lines, you talk a lot about "building flavor." How would you go about teaching home cooks how to build flavor?
CH: I think that when people cook without honoring their palate it's hard for them to build flavors because they're relying on the cookbooks to tell them what they like without tasting. So, I think when you build flavors you have to start with salt. It’s getting people comfortable with salt and then you're adding things on to that and using your palate. If you're building a sauce, or a soup, you have your onions and garlic and you add a little bit of salt — not enough for it to be salty but enough for that salt to go into those ingredients. Then I add unsalted stock and I might add tomatoes. You keep tasting throughout so that at the end you're not trying to season something where the salt is going to sit on top.
Y: Right! I noticed you did something interesting with the meatloaf. You cooked a little bit of it to taste before baking off the whole loaf. I think that was a brilliant way to test the seasoning.
CH: I'm all about testing, and I think that comes from catering because I have to think about the recovery before I need to recover.
Y: So you think cooks underuse salt — are there any other ingredients or vegetables that you think are underappreciated?
CH: I think it's celery. It's in soups and stews and sauces but I think grilled celery is absolutely delicious. As an ingredient itself people think of it as a healthy snack but I think it could be actually part of a delicious thing. I love grilled celery with cheese and toasted nuts which is amazing.
Carla Hall excited about her test piece of meatloaf for Yummly Pro
Y: Now let's talk about your long and winding career. You wanted to go to school for acting, but you ended up as an accountant and that led to modeling in Paris, followed by culinary school, a catering business, Top Chef, and The Chew, several cookbooks, and a restaurant. This all aligns with your personal six-word novel. Can you tell us your six-word novel?
CH: Say yes. Adventure follows. Then growth.
Y: A lot of your “yeses” (except for the safe starter career as an accountant) involved a lot of risk. Surely there was some fear when you said yes to those ventures — how did you overcome the fear?
CH: People don't know this about me, but a lot of times my saying yes to one thing is because I'm afraid of something else. So saying yes to accounting wasn't real. I really want to do theater so saying yes to accounting — which was the safe thing — was because I thought I was being rejected in theater. Saying yes to the modeling was because I was afraid of failing in my job as an accountant and literally being 40 and just hating my job. So a lot of times it was the lesser of two fears and I think it feels like it was brave to people on the outside.
Y: So after modeling in Paris, you started a catering business. How did you take that leap?
CH: I ended up moving to [Washington] D.C. with my sister and her husband. I was working for free and I started this lunch delivery service. It was literally a fluke in that I was making food for my sister's baby shower and a friend that I was living with when she was in Paris was back in D.C. She couldn't come to the baby shower so I offered to take her some leftovers. She said 'Great there's nothing to eat around here' and I said 'Well if you don't have anything to eat that means all the people around you don't have things.' When I got there … I had more food than I thought I was going to have. Then I started giving them this free food. After they had grabbed it, they said 'When are you coming back?' and I said 'Tomorrow.' After that, I started making stuff and I just went from door to door to hair salons, doctors' offices, flower shops along Kennedy street in Washington, D.C. I did that for 5 years. I was the lunch lady.
Y: How did you come up with the recipes?
CH: I drew from magazines a lot — the little magazines that would be by the cash register [at the grocery store]. When I did parties I would use those. I had Martha Stewart's cookbook and I had some of the cookbooks that I had gotten when I was in Europe. I was not bound by somebody's expectations of what I served so I would just serve all of these different things and play.
Carla Hall makes her chow chow for Yummly Pro
Y: You must miss The Chew.
CH: It was honestly one of the best experiences I've ever had. I grew tremendously. I got to work with amazing people and a very supportive production company. It was really amazing.
Y: Was there something on The Chew that you learned about cooking that was surprising?
CH: I'm never surprised at learning about food. My favorite time of the year was always Thanksgiving because we always had our perspectives about food. I would have a Southern perspective. Michael Symon [had] Eastern European and Mario [Batali] [had] Italian but everybody was bringing their perspective. Michael Symon [did] a stew with pork and cabbage and kielbasa and taking some sauerkraut and combining that with some of the stock in the blender and put it back in the soup and I’m like 'whooooooaaa.' That chow chow that I have in the South is like his sauerkraut in Eastern European food. I was constantly learning things. That's what I love about cooking. I mean if you're not learning you're just dying.
Y: One last question: What's your next career?
CH: If I had my druthers it would be acting. As it begins is how it ends.
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