(Feb 10 2009) With a personality as big as her hair, and surely a fan favorite, boutique caterer Carla Hall, one of the top five finalists in this season's 'Top Chef' on Bravo, certainly brings something different to the kitchen with her warm personality and frenzied snippets on the "love" she puts into her food.
A dark horse of sorts (don't even go there), she snagged her first win only two shows ago -- with crawfish gumbo over grits -- and won tickets to the Super Bowl, which she graciously gave to her husband and 13-year-old step son. The next week saw the Howard University alum in the top three with strong European chefs Stephon and Fabio under the judgeship of famed chef Eric Ripert from Le Bernadin.
Hall, who says she loves comfort food but was classically trained in French cuisine, thoroughly impressed Ripert and effectively broke her out of her "desserts" pigeonhole. Quirky, spiritual and all about the "love," Chef Carla is the underdog many are rooting for.
In last week's show, when you ended up in the top three, you said that folks underestimated you. Why?
I think because I wasn't performing well in the beginning and it took me a minute to get my sea legs so to speak. I look at it like 'Jeopardy.' On 'Jeopardy,' if they have all the categories you know, you will do well and go on to win. And then you go on the next day and they have categories you don't know, because every chef doesn't know everything. I think for me, when it was finishing with French food – I know French food. Even though I chose to do comfort food, most people say, "Oh she's not technically or classically trained." So I think people made assumptions. And I'm okay with that. I make food that I like. And if you make food that you like, you'll do it well.
Did you ever think grits would take you to the top?
No. After I won, I said, "Gosh, I'm being me and not being pretentious." It was a turning point for me, because it showed I can be myself and be a winner. If I'm in a situation and I'm intimidated or afraid, then I'm thrown off my game. So my prayer was to be myself, and at that moment I was being myself and I didn't care what anybody thought about that dish. If I liked it, it was okay, and it ended up being the winning dish.
Talk a bit about the love that you put into your food. Where'd that philosophy come from?
I believe that you if you're enjoying something, a lot of your energy goes into that thing. It's 'Like Water for Chocolate.' A lot of times it's that passion and believing in yourself that people can taste. I believe that you can be technically correct -- there are a lot of chefs who are technically sound -- but the food is lacking because it doesn't have the love. And when I teach children I tell them, "If you're not in a good mood, the only thing you should make is a reservation." It is to teach them to love whatever they're doing. As a spiritual or metaphysical person, I believe in energy. If someone is doing something that they don't' like, it shows.
Describe your steps to chefdom.
It was a fluke, I was modeling in Europe when I started buying cookbooks. So I approached it from an intellectual perspective. And then I started playing with food. When I returned to the states, I started a lunch-delivery service, and I did this for five years. I took this basket around and made lunches for people, and then I went to culinary school. So I got the experience and then I got the technical training. And from there, I went to work in restaurants and I loved it. And I had to work really hard, but my biggest fear was being 40 and hating my job.
To cook or to eat? To eat, I would have at first said a burger, but, honestly, after going to Eric Ripert's [Le Bernadin], it would have to be fish. That and great sauces. I am a fan of great sauces.
What makes a great chef?
I think it's someone who trusts themselves and who is confident and also a person who listens. Being a leader makes a good chef because you have to execute your vision. So that being said, it has to be someone whose temperament is nurturing. And I think that's really important. If I'm talking about I want to put love in my food, and I'm yelling at someone, that's not going to get across to them. They're going to have some fear or resentment toward me. They're not going to put the love into the food. I think temperament is most important.
How'd you come to be such a dessert babe?
I love sweets, and I'm kind of a sugarholic. But I'm not a pastry chef, and I kind of got pigeonholed into that role. But I like desserts. It's a departure from what I normally do, so it's like playing. I think it was a way to play and relax myself and not be so stressed out about doing savory foods.
You honestly seem to be a happy, well-adjusted person. To what do you give that credit?
I just sit in the morning in mediation and I really try to be my authentic self, and if my authentic self is happy or if I'm upset, I really try to feel it because otherwise I try to project it onto someone else. And I try not to blame other people for anything that happens to me.
Want to Learn to Cook From a 'Top Chef' Contestant? Head to CulinAerie
'Top Chef' contestant Carla Hall (right) teaches frequently at CulinAerie.
Like many chefs, Susan Holt and Susan Watterson dreamed of owning a place. They just didn’t want to spend 18 hours a day in a restaurant. So the former instructors at Gaithersburg’s L’Acadamie de Cuisine, created what they knew best: a cooking school.
The recently opened CulinAerie is targeted at a new generation of foodies who think of chefs as celebrities and farmers markets as social meeting spots. Some of the hands-on classes have ethnic themes—Persian, Far East fusion—and other sessions cover basics cake making and knife skills. The calendar also features lunchtime lectures with talks on food writing, nutrition, and throwing a dinner party.
You can read the rest of the article HERE or go to culinaerie.com. Carla will be teaching a class on 2/25/09, so if you live in the DC area and have $170 to spare, you can take the "Simply Seasonal" class and let Carla teach you how to make Herb Roasted Chicken, Parsnip Tarragon Puree, & Sauteed Escarole w/Smoked Bacon. Sign up HERE!
Photo of Carla at DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program during the Black Heritage Day celebration in Feb 2008.
DC Central Kitchen runs a Culinary Job Training program, which prepares unemployed, underemployed, previously incarcerated persons, and homeless adults for careers in the foodservice industry. DC Central Kitchen also provides meals & snacks to nonprofit organizations such as shelters and youth centers, provides healthy food and nutritional education to low-income children and at-risk youth, and recycles & distibutes donated food that would have been wasted from restaurants, businesses, and private homes. Carla taught the class to make Groundnut Stew.
excerpt from Kitchen Memories: A Legacy of Family Recipes from Around the World
Carla Hall Lyons, a Washington, D.C., caterer, remembers family meals, and this dish in particular. She says, "Mashed sweet potatoes were everybody's favorite at our Sunday family dinners—with or without the almost-burnt marshmallows. It was a way for the kids to get away with a sweet before dessert was served. The addition of the plantains—an African and Caribbean staple—and the apples update this dish and add both sweet and tart flavor notes. The black-ripe plantains are sweeter and softer than both the green and the yellow plantains."
3 small sweet potatoes
2 black-ripe plantains
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and quartered plus extra slices for garnish
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
cinnamon sticks for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Place the whole sweet potatoes on a baking sheet, and bake until fork tender, about 40 minutes.
3. Line a baking tray with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Spray with cooking spray. Cut each end of the plantains off, and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the peel. Place the plantain pieces and apple quarters on the pan, and set aside. Halfway through the cooking time of the potatoes, put the plantains and apples in the oven.
4. Bake the plantains and apples until fork-tender. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them, and put the potatoes, plantains, and apples in a large bowl with the butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Mix all ingredients with a potato masher, beating until smooth and well mixed. Spoon mixture into a baking dish, and heat through before serving. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and garnish with cinnamon sticks and apple slices. Serves 8
SOURCES: foodreference.com & amazon.com
Carla Hall and her Husband Matthew Lyons, who works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Carla's personal pictures from Bravo.com:
Don't forget to vote for Carla in the fan-favorite contest: SOURCE: VOTE NOW!