Carla Hall is just an all-around awesome person. She’s awesome on TV as one of the hosts of “The Chew,” and “Top Chef” fans remember her as the fan favorite who cooked with love. Earlier this month, she was utterly charming and warm at the #BlogHerFood16 conference as the moderator of a discussion about becoming a celebrity chef with Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Lisa Lillien. She also hung out at the conference all weekend, taking notes and posing for pictures.
Her “cook with love” philosophy led her to culinary school and several cookbooks, and she just launched her first restaurant, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen in Brooklyn. I chatted with Carla recently about her surprising career path, her “woo-woo” philosophy, and how she found success by saying “yes.”
You went from CPA to model to celebrity chef. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an actress! But I didn’t get into Boston University, where I wanted to go to conservatory. I ended up at Howard University, because that’s where my sister was going. I liked my accounting teacher, so I said, “Well, if I can’t do theater in Boston, I guess I’ll major in accounting.”
I actually love numbers, and puzzles. I still love a good spreadsheet. But I got to the point where I was hating my job. I didn’t want to be 40 and hate my job. So I quit, and moved to Paris, and was modeling. I had started modeling at Howard. I just kept saying “yes” to experiences. I encourage people to do that. Say yes, and figure it out.
I was the opposite of you! I was a theater major, and moved to New York and did that whole starving-actor thing. I went to a 40th birthday party for an “actor” who hadn’t gone on an audition in ten years, and thought, “This can’t be me at 40.” So I moved home, and got a job doing accounting!
I can’t believe it!
How long did you live in Europe?
About two and a half years. My mother got sick, so I came back home. Once she was okay, it was time for me to figure out what I wanted to do. I started a lunch delivery service in ’91, which was a complete fluke. I had done the food for my sister’s baby shower. I told a friend I’d bring her leftovers. I saw a picnic basket that I threw the food into. I went to her work and she said, “This is my friend Carla, and she has a business.” And then every day, I made sandwiches and salads and went door to door. And I did that for five years.
Then you decided to go to culinary school. How did you like working at restaurants, versus running your own business?
I enjoyed the structure. I enjoyed getting a paycheck. Running a business, you’re paying others but there’s very little left for yourself.
What motivated you to become a contestant on “Top Chef?”
One night, my sous chef told me she had a dream I was on “Top Chef.” And that same night, I got a voicemail saying, “Hey, I’m calling from Magical Elves.” I thought it was a crank call, because what are the odds? So I wasn’t going to call them back. But I had the same message on another number. It was crazy! I didn’t seek it out.
And when they called me and said, “You’ve been selected,” I was like, “Oh no, I can’t do it.” Because my biggest fear is being judged. America saw me face my fear and get over it. At the judges’ table, during Restaurant Wars. I thought I was going home. And I realized, “I can get through this. No one has ever died at the judges’ table.” It was at that point that I started to do better in the competition, because when you’re on the top you get feedback, and when you’re on the bottom you get feedback, but when you’re in the middle you get nothing. And I started getting hungry for this feedback. And that’s when everything turned for me.
On the All-Stars season you did, you were a fan favorite. Your personality clicked for people. I love your philosophy of cooking with love, that how you feel when you’re cooking translates into the food. It’s kind of woo-woo, and I’m not always woo-woo, but I believe that. Did you always have that philosophy?
It does sound woo-woo, but when I look back at my life and about how I met my husband, I believe everything is a lesson. I was on Match for only a week and we met. And that was the man I ended up marrying.
You’re not going to believe it, Carla, but I also met my husband on Match, and I also just did a one-week trial.
WHAT? YOU ARE MY SISTER!
So you opened a restaurant, and you used Kickstarter. People don’t realize how much work it is to make those things work. What inspired you to go that way?
People think because you’re on television and have cookbooks, it makes life and opportunities a lot easier. It doesn’t. The decision to do Kickstarter was my business partner’s, but I knew if people knew I was doing this, there was no way I’d back out. My Kickstarter backers were my community of believers and supporters. It was so much work, and I cried when we made our goal.
So now, you’ve been on “The Chew” for five years. Does it film in LA?
It films in New York. It’s one of the most fun jobs. The first two seasons were incredibly difficult. On “Top Chef,” there’s a camera catching everything you’re doing, but you’re not talking to the camera—you’re just doing what you’re doing. But when you’re hosting a talk show, you’re talking to the camera, cooking, interviewing, connecting with the audience.
I love to teach, and I’ve taught hundreds of cooking classes. I knew I was having a disconnect doing the cooking demos, and that what I was projecting to the audience wasn’t the person I usually am when I teach. Every day, I thought I was going to get fired.
But five years in, you’re feeling pretty confident.
My moment was in season four. Gladys Knight had come on. She was cooking with Michael Symon, and he made a smothered chicken dish. As a Southern woman from the ’60s, who had been listening to this woman for decades, I thought it was a slap in the face. I was so upset that I called a meeting with the executive producers. I told them that either they didn’t trust me to do that interview, or they didn’t think that it would be important for me to do it. And either way, I needed to share my frustration with them. Because if I was going to be fired, I didn’t want to sit at home and say, “I wish I had said it.” At the end of all of that, the executive producers clapped their hands and said, “Thank you. Now we can get to work.” It was really about me, and coming into my own authentic self.
And from then on, you noticed a change.
Absolutely. And my performance changed, too. Now, every day I go to work, my prayer is authenticity. That’s the only thing I can offer that no one can take from me.
This is an edited version of a conversation I had with Carla—to hear the full talk (and to hear conversations with other awesome women), listen to the Who SheKnows podcast.