Born in Nashville, TN, Carla Hall grew up surrounded by soul food. As a professional chef, Carla first won over audiences when she competed on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef: All Stars and shared her philosophy to always cook with love. She believes food connects us all, and strives to communicate this message through her work, her cooking, and in her daily interactions.
Carla spent seven years co-hosting ABC’s Emmy award-winning series, The Chew, and currently brightens the mornings of millions as a Culinary Contributor on Good Morning America. She has starred as both a host and judge for cooking shows on Food Network and Netflix. In addition to her television personality, Carla is an accomplished cookbook author. We were thrilled to chat with Carla about her new children’s book, her favorite holiday traditions and more!
Q: What are some of your most loved dishes from childhood and how have they shaped your cooking today?
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would’ve had a very different answer. One of the things that I loved most is my grandmothers’ food—both my grandmothers. One cooked a lighter version of soul food than most people are used to, primarily because my grandfather had hypertension and he was a doctor. The other one made fried chicken—and still a lot of vegetables—but she was the “fried chicken grandma.”
One of the dishes I really loved was my grandmother’s smothered pork chops. She cooked them “low and slow” so by the time we ate them, they would just fall apart. We never really found the secret to that sauce. I also loved her cornbread because it was like the dinner bell. She never made it ahead of time so once we were inside her door, I knew we’d be eating in twenty minutes. Whenever we went to my grandmother’s house for Sunday supper, there were a number of dishes. Two meats, several vegetables and we always had pickles on the table. If you look in my fridge, I always have pickles and vinegars because they add balance and cut through rich food.
Q: What’s your food philosophy and how has it evolved at all over the years?
I talk about cooking with love. A lot of times people don't know what that means, but for me it’s about looking back to my ancestors. Over the last several years I’ve been focusing on how that love translates to my history, my culture and how I project that food into the world. It’s more than just a plate of food, it’s about finding and sharing our contributions and looking at soul food much broader than most people look at it to see how the grains, legumes, and vegetables that have influenced our food.
Q: Can you give us an example of a dish that is uniquely Carla?
In a crazy way, it would be sorghum- a sorghum salad with roasted cauliflower. It doesn’t seem like a traditional soul food dish, but sorghum is a grain that comes from Africa, and it’s really a modern take on soul food. It’s shows how I’m loving myself and my culture at the same time.
Q: You went to business school, had a career as an accountant, then a runway model, then a chef. How did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
When I went into accounting, it was because I loved my accounting teacher, but accounting wasn’t really a love of mine. When I went to Howard, I just kept going because I was influenced to get a big job at a big accounting firm. For me, it was getting off the path of doing what was expected of me. I’d been living my life for everybody else, but what do I want to do? I didn’t know what that was, so I quit my job and went to France.
I did fashion shows earlier in life to meet people, so, when you see it like that, it’s not as random as it sounds—okay, maybe it’s a little bit random! Food sort of got wrapped up into my time in France. This woman named Elaine Evans would have all of us models over for Sunday, which reminded me of Sunday suppers at my grandmother’s house. When I look back on my life, the influence that my grandmothers had helped me throughout.
Q: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
For sure my grandmothers, even though they weren’t around by the time I got out of culinary school, and I started working. They influenced my tastebuds without realizing it. Because they were gone by the time I was cooking, I only had my food memories and relied on my taste memory rather than a recipe. So often when I talk to people and they’re trying to recreate something somebody else made, they’re so reliant on the recipe that they forget their other senses. I had the benefit of going to culinary school, so it was much easier for me to try and recreate it though technique.
Q: You were a finalist on Top Chef! What was it like competing on the series and what did you learn from that experience?
I didn’t do it for the sake of being on television, it was very much a personal challenge. When you do a competition show, you're isolated from your family. You are just in a bubble, a pressure cooker. A bubble of producers just trying to make a show. I was so afraid to be me and do my food, but I realized when you’re at the top and the bottom you get feedback but when you are in the middle you get nothing. Being on the bottom a few times, I got so much feedback for my own personal growth that I took it to heart. I heard Padma Lakshmi say that I was one of the few chefs that when they told something, I took that to practice in the next challenge.
When you’re up there and you think that you’re going home, you’re nervous and scared. My heart was beating out of my chest that I would die up there! But at one point I said, “wait a minute, what is the worst thing that can happen?” I’d never seen anybody die on a cooking show! In that moment, I realized nothing horrible could happen, and so, I treated it like school, I treated it like if I go home tomorrow, I’ll still go home with all this information and I’ll go on and I'll cook. That was a point that I really started turning everything around and picking my food because I didn’t feel the pressure to beat someone. The one thing I walked away with was being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Q: Did that experience help with how you interact with people you’re judging in competitions?
100%. I always want to give them something that if they go home and I’m honoring what they do. Whether you, as an audience, get to hear everything that I say… I want them to leave with an honest, yet constructive takeaway.
Q: What’s Christmas like for you and your family?
We pretty much have the same menu for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Celebration dishes like collard greens, mac and cheese, candied yams, turkey, cornbread, dressing and gravy. Unless my sister forgets to make the gravy —I mean who does that— I still haven’t gotten over it, it’s been ten years. The holiday is a time for tradition. I don’t go crazy, we may have one new dish, but for the most part, it’s a very traditional Christmas dinner. My nephews and niece are getting older and I want them to understand what we had growing up. They can change it later if they want, but I’m sort of maintaining what would've been there if my grandmothers were still alive.
One thing we have started doing in my family is having the younger people make and take ownership of that dish. It can be from somebody else’s cookbook (but pick one from my cookbook) but pick a dish and bring it. It has just changed how they feel about food and how they feel about the pride of making stuff from start to finish. These are kids who didn’t grow up up cooking so it’s really nice when my nephew says, “I’m going to do barbecue chicken legs,” and I’m like “Okay, we’ve never had that for Christmas.” But everyone’s together in the kitchen, telling stories over a few days.
Q: Tell us what inspired this shift, from cookbooks to a children’s book?
I thought I was going to write a memoir, and then this story about my childhood came out while prepping for the memoir. Everybody was saying “you should do a cookbook for children,” and I thought, I’m probably not going to do that. I’m on the board of the Pajama Program, where I read books to kids, so it was a natural progression for me. It has to be one of the proudest moments of my life, and I think it’s because it's so unexpected that sometimes when people give you a chance and fight for the thing that’s not expected, it means a lot more. And that’s what this feels like to me.
Q: Adult or child alike, what are some of the things you hope people gain from reading ‘Carla and the Christmas Cornbread’?
One thing I’m hoping is that kids will want to make the cornbread, or be excited to cook, or get into the kitchen with an adult. The other thing I’m hoping is that kids recognize that Santa doesn’t necessarily have a color, but he should be in your own likeness. As a child growing up in the sixties, we didn’t get that, and I think that that’s one of the messages (whether people will get that or not) it’s just to see Santa in a different light than we normally see Santa in.
Another thing is that I hope families remember stories told by their elders. One of the things that I wish I had done more of was record the stories that my grandmother was telling. Cherish the elders in your family. That story time is so important.
Q: Tell me about Biscuit Time, your love for biscuits and the recipe that you’re famous for. What makes them so special?
I think Biscuit Time is the one place where it’s not just about breaking bread together but making bread together and coming together over something that is so simple.
Your hands are in it, there's the history of it but every time we teach a class, it’s less about the food than it is the time coming together, the story time. People are always talking about their families, their grandparents, or somebody, during that session. I’ve made biscuits with strangers in New York, and I’ve literally walked up to people and like, ‘do you know how to make a biscuit?’ Because—well, one, I’ve had some bad biscuits in New York, and you need to know how to make a good biscuit or recognize one. So, I’m doing the Lord’s work with my Biscuit Time.
Q: From books to TV appearances, podcasts, charity work and more, how do you find balance?
There is no balance--you have to choose. When I’m working, I’m all in. When I’m not, I’m off. As devastating as COVID was, it was amazing to be at home with my husband. I was home more during that time than I was in the past eight years. It recalibrates things - you pivot and see what’s important. I’ve had to learn to say “no”, no matter how much something is helpful and amazing to other people, I cannot do everything. As soon as I understood that--the pressure was off.
Q: Knowing that there’s no balance, how do you keep the momentum going? How do you keep your positivity, your energy and your appetite for fun?
I do things that I like. I align with brands that I actually use, so I’m not forcing myself or turning it “on”. If I don’t like something, I don’t work on it. I also work out five times a week with an accountability partner. That is probably my saving grace.
I also love learning new things. I remember when I was on The Chew someone would say something and I would be like, ‘oh my gosh, I’ve always wanted to do that!’ and Michael Symon would say, “Carla, you always say that.’” I’m like, ‘Because I always wanted to do that.’ Like race car driving, I’ve always wanted to do that, so I got to go out with AJ Allmendinger. I’m like a kid in life with a playground, and that’s what keeps me happy, that’s what keeps me youthful, and that for me is the secret sauce.
Q: Are you a meal planner? How do you approach weeknight dinners?
I am a meal planner. But I’m not the one who does the cooking around the home—my husband does. I do the holidays. We tend to eat very plainly at home. Chicken, veggies, brown rice mixed it up with spices, fresh herbs, citrus and ginger. That’s how we do meals during the week.
Q: Do you have any kitchen gadgets that you swear by?
Hands down a microplane and a foldable box grater.
Q: Okay, last question, tell me about Recess and how that started.
It started during COVID when the protests were happening—and people were stressed, I was stressed—and I was like, you know, I need a recess. At the time, I took out a ball for 10 minutes and took a break every day and people started following along. We put so much pressure on ourselves. It was so fun and just also getting to move. So many people said to me, “Oh, I don't move enough” and so it was about dancing or in a chair and standing up, or seated exercises.