Chef Carla Hall Celebrates Coming Home to Her Culinary Heritage

Chef Carla Hall - Soul Food

With a personality that lights up television screens with charm and humor, it is a stretch to imagine Carla Hall in what could have been the celebrity chef’s chosen profession. Just picture the six-foot tall woman with a crown of salt and pepper natural hair sitting behind a desk crunching numbers as an accountant. Thank goodness, the Universe had another plan.

“I just got on this path and everything about it led me to one thing after another, including being on ‘Top Chef,’” says the “GMA Day” food contributor, Food Network judge and cookbook author. The latest stop on Hall’s journey through culinary expression is her cookbook released by Harper Wave in October, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration.”

Book cover of Carla Hall's Soul Food
Photo credit: Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

“This book was really about me going back and saying unapologetically, I love soul food,” Hall says.” I’m not going to call it Southern. I’m not going to call it comfort food. I am going to call it soul food because soul food deserves to have a lane in terms of cuisine.” The Howard University graduate who majored in accounting traveled a long road away from her culinary heritage before celebrating soul food in her third cookbook.

As a matter of fact, Hall got into modeling and ended up living in Paris and London in the late 1980s. She started a lunch delivery service on a fluke that astounded those who knew about her few forays into the kitchen. “My friends were even saying, ‘Wait. You have a lunch delivery service? Who’s cooking?’ They couldn’t believe it.”

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Hall’s unchartered excursion into cooking and catering eventually landed her on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.” The pressure of “being out of her league” prompted the D.C. resident to make dishes that brought comfort to her soul. “As a caterer, I was making things that people wanted me to make. On “Top Chef,” I was making things that really were reminiscent of my grandmother’s Sunday suppers,” Hall says.

Grandmother’s Sunday Suppers

The chef’s fondest food memories revolve around the trips to her grandmother’s house on Sundays. The soul food suppers brought people together. On holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, the feast of meats, vegetables, breads and desserts doubled. As an adult and novice chef, Hall shied away from food traditions viewed as unhealthy. “I just think that the lens is really small because when you say you love your heritage and love the food that came out of your heritage, and then you hear this food is going to kill you, what is that saying about your heritage? What is there to be proud of?”

The pride and love of soul food permeate the cookbook Hall declares she could not have written five years ago. Her involvement with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., also contributed to her change in perspective. The culinary ambassador for the museum’s Sweet Home Café learned so much about the African Diaspora and the connection to African-American foodways that she now shares it with pride. “I said I have to get with the program, the program of loving us and loving ourselves. I think that the more that you see that you have to be proud of the more that you can love it.”

Following Bigger Footsteps

Many of the lessons Hall picked up at the museum came from food curator and cookbook author Jessica B. Harris, James Beard award-winning authors Michael Twitty and Toni Tipton-Martin, chef-restaurateur and cookbook author Alexander Smalls and others.

In “Carla Hall’s Soul Food” the chef and co-author Genieve Ko present recipes for everyday living and special occasions that reacquaint home cooks with the fresh, flavor-rich foods African- Americans prepared from their gardens and farms before and after slavery, along with grains from the African Diaspora that are making a comeback, such as sorghum and millet. “I want to reclaim it,” Hall says with passion. “I want to reclaim all the goodness about it, and imagine if my ancestors were coming over today, how they would be eating.”

Chef Hall broadened her definition of soul food with input from Tonya Hopkins, food historian and founder of The Food Griot. The new cookbook offers sweet potato rolls and other higher-fat dishes that are a part of African-American holiday celebrations. There are also inspired alternatives such as the spoonbread dressing that is lighter than her traditional cornbread dressing recipe. Her everyday recipes give more options for preparing less fattening foods, more like the dishes that graced the tables of our farming and fishing ancestors. “If you are living off the land, the rivers and the sea, this is what is available to you. You don’t necessarily put all that fat into everyday dishes,” Hall says.

 Seasoned by TV Pressure Cooker

“Carla Hall’s Soul Food” and the chef’s appearances on ABC’s “GMA Day” provide opportunities for her to teach the art of cooking. She landed the GMA job a few months after the cancellation of “The Chew,” where Hall appeared with other celebrity chefs for seven seasons. “I think that was my training ground. I thought I was going to get fired for two seasons,” says Hall. “We had 44 weeks of taping, so for 88 weeks, I thought I was going to be fired. I eventually got it.”

Chef Carla Hall- Soul Food
Photo credit: Melissa Hom

What Hall got was how to cook on television with the help of celebrity chef Michael Symon and co-host Clinton Kelly. The pressure cooker demands of the show strengthened her presentation skills and ability to multi-task. “It’s a three-ring circus. You are cooking. You are relating to the audience. You’re talking to your co-host. You’re saying a little about yourself. You’re doing all of this while teaching people how to make this dish.”

Hall took a different approach to her cooking segments on “GMA Day.” She wanted to avoid the rushed format that left audiences with very little they could grasp and practice. One way she does that is by teaching a specific technique, such as making a corn broth that can be used in numerous recipes. “People are so focused on making beautiful, pretty food without the technique. If you get the technique down, then everything else will follow. You’ll have the knowledge to support the creativity.”

Hall is thankful for the support she has received from the show’s staff and co-hosts, especially considering how missing her former co-workers hit her. “I don’t think a lot of people know this, but the first day I did the segment, I came home, and I cried. I cried because it was emotionally [a reminder that] I would have been doing the Chew.”

Lessons for a New Day

The closing of her New York City restaurant after one year might also have caused Hall to shed a few tears. One of the things she learned from the demise of Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen is that she could not be present all the time as much as she loved cooking for people. The chef also found out you need the right partner for it to work with someone else running the restaurant. She has not given up on the idea of making her food more accessible to the public. “It’s an honor to cook for people. When I know my energy goes into the food, I’m making what is going into your body, and you trust me, it’s an honor.”

Hall does see a need for more female chefs to operate restaurants with kitchens free of the #MeToo revelations about sexual harassment and discrimination in the food industry. It is her view that more restaurateurs should be women and men whose intention truly is to nurture people with their food. “When you get into I want to feed you, and I want you to be comforted by this food, it is really hard to have an environment in the kitchen that is hostile or mean toward women,” says Hall.

Coming in Waves

For now, being a television chef, cookbook author and culinary instructor occupies much of Hall’s time. She is proud to be part of a wave of Black chefs gaining recognition with culinary tributes to their food heritage. She applauds chef Edouardo Jordan with his James Beard award-winning JuneBaby and Salare in Seattle. She is thrilled that chef Kwame Onwuachi returned to his roots and success with Kith and Kin in D.C. “You’ve got to come in with a posse of all of these people who have been doing this work and come in a wave so that people take notice. You don’t take notice of one person.”

Chef Hall couldn’t be happier that food critics and restaurant patrons are paying more attention to Black chefs and the contributions they have always made, whether they were cooking on plantations, in hotels and restaurants or for catering businesses. She advises anyone wanting to become a professional chef today to leave the familiarity of home to get more experience and gain an appreciation for your roots. “Everything you learn outside, get as much knowledge as you can. Increase your bandwidth and then come back and use all of that to create your own perspective of your heritage and your food.”

It is important advice from someone who followed the call of destiny by saying yes to opportunities. “All I know is that you follow your heart wherever the road leads you, and I’ve constantly done that, sometimes not knowing where it was going to lead me.”

You can follow Carla Hall on her website or on social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Enjoy her Spoonbread Dressing recipe online here and purchase your copy of “Carla Hall’s Soul Food” on Amazon.

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The joy of cooking became a part of her life when Phyllis was a child learning her way around the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. Her retirement from a demanding career in broadcast news has given her time to write about African-American chefs and restaurant owners as well as other black professionals succeeding in the travel and wine industries. Phyllis still loves to cook and try out new recipes.