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Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines flavor as “the quality of something that affects the sense of taste” or “the blend of taste and smell sensations evoked by a substance in the mouth.” That sounds right.
Yet, for one celebrated chef, flavor tells a much deeper story that often is ignored. “Without the story, you really don’t know the dish. I want to express that fact, to encourage us to be curious about other people,” says Carla Hall, host and executive producer of “Chasing Flavor.”
Chef Hall’s culinary curiosity and genuine love for people, food, travel, history and culture inspired her to explore some of America’s most popular dishes. In the new six-episode Max series premiering February 1, the award-winning author and Food Network personality chases down the origins and history of favorite foods in the U.S.
She travels from coast to coast and five other countries in search of the stories behind the flavor of some classic dishes. “I love that there is an element of history and a trail of discovery to connect cultures in surprising ways to particular dishes,” Hall comments. “There are things I discovered that I didn’t know, and I want to share that with the audience.”
Chasing Flavor and Coping with Feelings
Hall’s travels for “Chasing Favor” took her on a culinary adventure with unexpected discoveries, historical confirmations and emotional connections. In one of the six episodes, the Nashville native’s interest in hot chicken reignites her feelings about recipe origins and ownership.
“I remember wanting to open up my hot chicken place in New York. I remember being criticized by someone in Nashville, saying you’re stealing it, you’re taking it,” Hall recalls. “I understand why they’re saying it shouldn’t be outside of Nashville, but that isn’t how food works.”
The hot chicken episode gives viewers a revealing look at who actually created the spicy fried chicken dish. Chef Hall describes the emotional impact of meeting the Black family that served the first hot chicken in Nashville.
“I learned a lot about the Prince family and the Jeffries and how they are holding on to their recipe and their legacy as a family. And that was emotional.”
The “Chasing Flavor” host and executive producer interviewed André Prince Jeffries, who started running the Prince Hot Chicken business in 1980. The restaurant received an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation.
It also made Eater’s 2019 list of 38 essential places to dine in America. Yet the Prince family watched as the dish they created in 1930 became a moneymaker for restaurants across America and Australia.
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“During that episode, talking to Mrs. Jeffries, I was crying. The crew was crying. It was so personal,” says Hall. “I think that made the show. It represents so many voices and threads that it makes me think differently about recipes, people and cooking.”
The “Chasing Flavor” series reinforces the importance of origin stories and why Black people and other originators should get credit for their creations. While the Washington, D.C. resident recognizes the importance of preserving the Prince’s legacy, Hall wants her audience to understand that dishes and recipes travel.
“Yes, there is a point where there is a cultural connection to a recipe, but it also came from so many other influences. So recipes are fluid in that way.”
Following the thread of hot chicken took Hall and Food Network chef Eric Adjepong to Accra, Ghana. They explore the spices generations of Ghanaians used to flavor chicken. Hall explains why tracing hot chicken to Africa matters.
“I want the viewers to see that without knowing the culture, you really don’t know the dish. It’s very short-sighted and does not honor the legacy of food and how it travels.”
Another leg of the “Chasing Flavor” journey gave Hall the chance to explore the origins of American barbecue. A trip to Memphis and a plantation triggered emotions again surrounding the history of Black people’s culinary contributions being ignored for centuries.
Yet there is more to the “barbacoa” story Hall tells as she traces the history of wood-smoked foods to Indigenous people. “It was less about barbecue as we know in this country, like pork and beef, and more about low and slow cooking because this is how the Indigenous people, the Taino, fixed their fish.”
How Chasing Flavor Came to Be
The idea for the six-part series developed out of a 2019 dinner conversation Hall had with her literary agent, Janis Donnaud. The celebrity chef told Donnaud and her husband, Peter Gethers, about the question she always asks car service drivers from other countries.
“Instead of saying, ‘How are you?’ I’ll ask them what their favorite dish is. I watch their demeanors change because I’m asking not just how you are but who you are through food.”
Gethers thought Hall’s approach to getting to know people was interesting, but he said nothing to her that night. She shares how the dinner discussion led to the Max series. “Weeks later, I’m getting a call from the CEO of Original Productions, ‘Hey, I hear you have this amazing way of talking to people, and I think it’s a show.’”
Months of brainstorming with the team at Freemantle’s Original Productions gave birth to the new show on Max, the streaming service owned by Warner Bros. Discovery. Hall and the production team started shooting the half-hour episodes in late 2020.
They first traveled to Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles, New York, Charleston and several other American cities. Along the way, they documented the links between families, cultures and the foods Americans adore.
“This is a huge country, and as a people, we don’t know each other,” Hall suggests. “It’s just really nice to go and see not only the topography but also the different cultures within these United States.”
Next, the “Chasing Flavor” team conquered the challenges of pandemic travel to track the international origins of America’s hot chicken, shrimp and grits, chicken pot pie, tacos al pastor, and other dishes.
“We started with dishes that are quintessentially beloved by Americans, like ice cream. That was the first one that we knew we wanted to do.”
After sampling delectable ice creams in New York and Philadelphia, Hall and the production team traveled to Italy and Turkey to trace the lineage of the dessert. The chef learned how Italians make gelato and the Turks make dondurma, a frozen treat with a stretchy, chewy texture.
While in Turkey, Hall connects Mexico’s tacos al pastor and the vertical spit Turkish people in Bursa invented in the 1870s to roast and carve meat. One of the most memorable moments of that trip is not shown in the series, but meeting a father and son who make carving knives meant the world to Hall.
“They presented me with this knife in a ceremony, and again, it was another emotional moment. This knife has walnut wood and blue epoxy because Bursa is on the sea. It was honed with olive oil. Everything about it is unique to that place.”
Chicken Pot Pie Connections
One of the first dishes Hall learned to make was chicken pot pie from a Julia Child’s recipe. Hence, she was especially curious about the origins of that dish. She made a startling discovery in an episode of “Chasing Flavor” shot in Rome.
“That original recipe was from Rome in like the 16th century. I was just blown away. It was chicken in a pastry pot, so chicken pot pie was a very literal dish.” The chef mentions that the ancient Roman pastry pot was not edible and then laughs as she tells how her attempts to replicate the dish have also turned out inedible.
The “Chasing Flavor” host hopes to have better outcomes by making the flaky pastry crust she tasted on her first trip to Jamaica. In that episode, Hall shows how Jamaicans influenced the crust used for pot pies and British pasties.
The chef expresses her reaction to the spicier, more colorful Jamaican pastie. “I thought it would be like the ones from Cornwall, boiled meat, rutabaga and turnips. I couldn’t hide my surprise. I actually said, ‘I don’t mean to offend, but I am surprised at how good this is.’”
Deeper Understanding of Diverse Influences
Hall’s original series on Max is not her first foray into cooking and diverse influences on popular dishes. Her 2014 “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World” contains 130 recipes celebrating the international flavors of soulful dishes.
”I wanted to look at the beauty of the differences in that book, taking one ingredient and showing it in four different ways and four different cultures. That’s really how that book came about.”
The “Chasing Flavor” journey allowed Hall to delve deeper into the diverse influences on American cuisine. “This was my first time going to Jamaica. It was my first time going to Ghana. I extended what I started in my soul food book by talking to people about their food, their family history, and the people who brought the recipes to them and other countries,” adds Hall.
The number of viewers could determine whether there is a second season of “Chasing Flavor.” As an executive producer for the show, Hall is proud of the team effort that delivered an exceptional series.
“Everybody felt like this was their dream job, and I think that is what made it special. We were all in the same place and having this amazing experience. I think people will feel it when they see the show.”
Chef Hall hopes that while she stays busy appearing on Food Network and QVC, the “Chasing Flavor” audience will take time to explore the people, history, and cultural influences behind popular dishes in their own communities.
“They can’t take the dish without the people, so I hope the series will make them curious about other things. I’m hoping they will travel within their communities and accept not only the food but the people and the culture because you can’t separate them.”