A Few Minutes With . . .
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THE journey to fame for the animated, personable Carla Hall took a circuitous route from her days as an accountant to her popularity as co-host of ABC’s The Chew, the award-winning, food-related talk show that focuses on cooking and lifestyle topics. Born and raised in Nashville, the graduate of Howard University and L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md., was thrust into the spotlight when she was awarded “Fan Favorite” by viewers of Top Chef, a competitive cooking show on cable TV’s Bravo. Her philosophy of “cooking with love” is showcased in her new book, Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes From Around The World, where (in more than 100 recipes) she puts an international spin on some everyday favorites by adding enticing and flavorful spices from other cultures. In many of the recipes, she transforms tried-and-true classics using such spices as fresh basil and oregano, cilantro, curry, cumin, turmeric, lime, tyme and cayenne pepper. As part of her nationwide tour to promote the book, she stopped at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville and other Chicago locations to talk about her latest book, co-hosting The Chew and realizing the power of comfort foods.
You studied accounting at Howard University, graduated and later earned your CPA. What was it that led you to becoming a food specialist?
Hall: “I freed myself. I didn’t like it [accounting]. I was working in it, got my CPA and one day I said, ‘I cannot do this. I’m afraid of being 40 and hating my job.’ That was my biggest fear. I worked at Price Waterhouse for two years. I left accounting. I had been modeling at Howard University, and modeled a little bit in Tampa, and when I left accounting I met these girls who were going to Paris to model, and I said, ‘I think I’m going to do that too.’ I quit my job two weeks later, and modeling was a bridge between what I didn’t want to do and what I eventually wanted to do. And I had no idea what that was. So I was open to whatever came about. My model friends were cooking, having their Sunday brunches, and I was in the kitchen while they were cooking. Before, I was never in the kitchen, so it was like ‘Oh, so this is what happens.’ I became fascinated, started buying cookbooks and that kind of started the whole cooking thing.”
Were you surprised at how popular you were on Top Chef?
Hall: "I was. There was a Top Chef event at the Girl & The Goat [restaurant in Chicago] when it was announced (“Fan Favorite”), and I continue to be so blessed and so amazed at how many wonderful fans I have."
Carla Hall, co-host of TV's The Chew, is front and center at Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville to promote her book, Carla's Comfort Foods.
So many viewers say you came across as such an authentic and down-to-earth person. How did you carry that over to The Chew?
Hall: "I try to cook things that people want. On Top Chef I made foods that I wanted to eat, and I think that’s why people could relate to me. Hence, my book, Comfort Foods. I make foods that I want to serve people if they were coming to my home."
What makes the group at The Chew such an entertaining team?
Hall: "We’re friends. We’re having fun, and we’re friends. It’s true chemistry."
Describe your philosophy of “cooking with love.”
Hall: "I talk about cooking with love, and that is about my love for food and the way that I nurture people. It comes through me to you. I consider myself a cook, and I really come from the place of the home. But I take my background of working in kitchens and working with food to share with you how to make something because I want you to toot your own horn."
In your book, Carla's Comfort Foods, you focus on the role food plays in our lives and how there are so many similarities among different people of the world when it comes to food.
Hall: “We’re all connected through food, and the dishes in this book show that we’re more alike than different. Sure, I grew up with grits, but it’s served as polenta in Italy. Something as simple as a great dish shows how we’re all really very similar. I love seeing––and tasting––how home-cooked food works in uniting people. This book is all about how as people we’re very similar. In a polarizing, political climate, I wanted to show how, through food, we’re very similar and how we should celebrate our differences. In food, those differences are spices. I can have a smothered chicken dish from the South that’s smothered with milk gravy, but if you change the ingredients you’re in another part of the world. If you take the milk out and add habanera peppers and tomatoes and bananas or plantain, you could be in West Africa. If you take the milk out, add heavy cream, mustard, white wine and tarragon, you could be in France. At the end of the day, they are all smothered chicken dishes."
Hall, born in Nashville, autographs her book (left) and later talks with a fan about her recipes.
Co-hosts of The Chew include (left to right) Clinton Kelly, Hall, Daphne Oz, Mario Batali and Michael Symon.
What’s a good choice for a simple and tasty weeknight dinner that can be really comforting?
Hall: “I find a chicken dinner––regardless of its seasonings––the most comforting meal. The one condition I have for a proper chicken dish is to start with good chicken. Look for birds that are sustainably free-range, fed an organic feed and raised without antibiotics. Ideally, get a local bird that’s really fresh. Once you’ve done that, the rest is easy.”
As a food specialist, what kind of food is special for you?
Hall: "I love Indian food. As a matter of fact, at the end of this book I had too many Indian dishes because I was throwing everything in because in Indian cuisine they know how to use spices. For example, there’s a recipe for Palak Paneer: Creamy Spiced Spinach with Fried Cheese. I teach you how to make that, which is basically ricotta [cheese] and you press it into a sieve, it gets hard and all the water comes out and you cut it up into little cubes and you sautée it. Who knew?
In your opinion, what will be the indicator that convinces you this book is a success?
Hall: "If there are three recipes that people are doing all the time, then I feel the book is a success. Those recipes become a part of the fabric of that family. They are creating these food memories, and then you’ll change it [to suit your tastes] and you won’t need the book anymore because now it’s part of you."