It’s no surprise that Carla Hall was voted Fan Favorite on Top Chef All-Stars last season. Who didn’t love the Washington, D.C. chef’s laidback style and sense of humor and whimsy—not to mention her homey-yet-sophisticated Southern-inspired cuisine? Since her first appearance on Top Chef Season Five and the Bravo show’s “masters” version, which pitted previous contestants against each other, Hall has been busy building a line of mail-order foods through Alchemy by Carla Hall, doing special events with Top Chef alumni and preparing to host The Chew, a daytime talk show on ABC that will replace “All My Children” beginning September 26. Hall will be talking (and cooking) with fellow hosts Mario Batali, Iron Chef Michael Symon, nutrition expert Daphne Oz (Dr. Oz’s daughter) and What Not To Wear’s Clinton Kelly in a similar format to The View. (Get it—The View, The Chew?)
She’s also actively involved in The Life Well Laughed Project, an effort to motivate communities nationwide to live healthier lifestyles by The Laughing Cow®, makers of Mini Babybel® cheese and The Laughing Cow cheese wedges. Until July 15, you can visit LifeWellLaughed.com and enter the 12-digit code on any package of Laughing Cow wedges or BabyBel cheese, and The Laughing Cow will donate $250,000 to health and wellness programs.
We had about 20 minutes with the busy Hall—call it a quick-fire interview—to cover a lot of ground.
Spryliving.com: Are you still tight with any of the Top Chef contestants? You may not have been having a good time together, but you sure looked like you were.
Carla Hall: I tried not to take the whole thing too seriously—I mean, I took it seriously, but not too seriously. I’m good friends with Ariane who was on Season 5 with me, and talk to Antonia and Tiffany D. And when you do these special events and dinners, you get to see everyone again. In fact, I have a dinner coming up with Richard Blais, Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn, Antonia. It’s kind of like a little fraternity.
Tell me about Alchemy.
Alchemy really came about when I was trying to open a café. It became really political with the building, so I decided to dissect the business and do the parts I can do now. So I created a line of products, starting with the cookies. They’re petite cookies, all about portion control and small bites, because my philosophy is to say “no” to nothing and “yes” to moderation.
Is it possible to be a foodie—let alone a Southern foodie—and still be a healthful person?
I love comfort food, I grew up eating it. But the first person I knew who started doing lighter comfort food was my grandmother. My grandfather had a heart attack, and she modified her traditional foods to be lower fat and lower sodium. We had a big garden, so we ate fresh foods. We didn’t have a lot of sodas or chips or junk food in the house—they were treats. I still treat them like treats. I’m very conscious when I’m eating them. But even our mac n’ cheese and fried chicken—we had that about twice a year on special occasions.
Local sourcing and cooking what’s fresh takes the ability to improvise. Any no-brainer techniques or prep methods for home cooks that work for all kinds of different ingredients?
You need to know how to make soups. It could be a pureed soup, or a stock with chunky vegetables and proteins. Or learn to sauté. This is also a good opportunity to get to know the farmers. When you see an ingredient you’re unfamiliar with, ask them—what do you do with this? Fruits are kind of a no-brainer, but don’t forget that you can sauté fruits and have them with meats. People ask me all the time about the show—how do you all think so fast? We have formulas in our heads already, so you have to think of foods in that way. Learn to make a soup, sauté, take greens and sauté with a little oil. Toss vegetables first in a bit of oil and then put them in a hot pan—you’ll use less oil and they’ll cook faster. Then just put a squeeze of lemon juice on them.
How about advice for busy moms who have picky kids to feed?
I say start where they are. Kids love pizza—we make these mini pizzas with whole wheat pitas. So it’s a pizza, it’s familiar—it’s not like you have to sell them on something completely new. Also, get them involved in making the food. And have fun—food is so much more than ingredients and techniques. If you ask me what’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten, I would have to think about where I was, who I was with, what we were doing—all of that is important. It’s not just the food.
I know you’re really into yoga and meditation. On your website, your bio says that, for you, “the preparation of dishes is a mindfulness practice.” What do you mean by that?
When I’m in the kitchen, peeling and slicing vegetables, I’m mentally there—peeling and slicing vegetables. I’m not thinking about anything else. I may not always have the time to take an hour in the morning to meditate and center myself, so I do it throughout the day. While I’m cooking, I’m centering myself.