By Jordan Wright
February 25, 2009
I caught up with “Top Chef” finalist Carla Hall at CulinAirie’s FoodWorks Kitchen on 14th Street, minutes after the finale of Bravo’s hit show. She was swarmed with local devotees, who, despite her runner-up result, adore their down-to-earth “homegirl”.
“You totally won!”, “You were great!”, “You came out the best!” “We love you Carla!” were the typical buzzbites surrounding their culinary heroine’s impressive performance. She took it all in graciously and with refreshing charm.
Many of her fellow chefs and food industry leaders from the DC chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, who count her as one of theirs, feted her as though she were royalty. And really it was her night. After weeks of intense battling she was reaping the well-deserved kudos.
Here is my “Top Chef” finale night’s interview with Chef Carla Hall.
Jordan Wright – Everyone in the DC area I’ve spoken to, has told me that to them you are the “Top Chef”. Clearly they love you and want to know if your plans include staying in Washington.
Carla Hall – I want to open up a kitchen downtown partnering with Sandy Jones. We want to have a catering kitchen in back, a chef’s table in front and cooking classes. Some retail space too…the best of all worlds.
Sandy Jones – Carla does fabulous cookies and we’ll have her whole cookie collection. The sweet and the savory cheese cookies too.
JW – You must have all kinds of people calling and clamoring for you.
CH – That’s true. A lot of people are calling. The world is my oyster right now! But I want to make sure I stay true to myself. It’s really important to me.
The response from everybody in this city and across the nation has been amazing. The viewers that have been inspired by things that I’ve said on the show…I’m really humbled by that. It’s just me stating my beliefs, but it seems to have radiated out to people and that makes me really happy.
I went on “Top Chef” to show people a different way of competing…that when you compete with love, everybody wins. It’s amazing!
JW – What are your interests in the ingredients of the future?
CH – Sandy and I were talking earlier about experimenting with things, but really, I want to honor simple ingredients. Everybody is searching for something they’ve never seen, but they overlook something like peas. I really like peas. Simple…and so mundane…but memorable if done well. It doesn’t take molecular gastronomy, or 1,000 things on the plate, or foam or foie gras.
JW – Some of the leading chefs I interview are saying this too.
CH – I think that when you have the best ingredients, you will succeed.
When I teach cooking classes I want to empower people. I say, “Don’t put me on a pedestal. I want to show you how to do this. I want to give you the tools. Forget about the recipe. I want to tell you what to look for when it’s done.” You have to look for that golden color. “Does it spring back? Is the temperature right?” When you don’t have a stopwatch or it isn’t working properly or your oven is off, you can still have a great meal. I think that’s really important for people to understand.
Also to understand their palate they need to know if they like things salty or bitter, sour or sweet and to know how to be able to adjust. You need to balance these things.
I tell my students, “The power isn’t in the author of the cookbook or the chef on television. You have the power! You can change the recipe!”
JW – Did you find that the other contestants were well-rounded chefs. That they could prepare everything from beginning to end?
CH – Well, I do want to honor every chef that was on the show. If they went home it just meant that they had a bad day or messed up. You have to have consistently good days to stay on. It’s sad to see someone go home that had a bad day.
JW – What was the trickiest part for you? Was it the timing, the quality of the ingredients, the challenge itself or trying to navigate an unfamiliar kitchen?
CH – First of all, when the clock starts, you have nothing in front of you. There are no tools or food. You have to get everything for yourself. Then you have to think about what you are going to prepare. When the clock starts what they are saying is, “Go and be fabulous! And don’t get sent home.” It’s a lot!
Sometimes you have two hours or three, or 300 people to cook for. You have to take all those things into consideration. I think it was Fabio who said a few weeks ago, “This is not cooking! This is rushing!” But I think it is the thing that helps us as chefs. It pushes us to a point that we would never want to be pushed. And so, I think, where is our excellence? Pushing us beyond what is comfortable. That is what I am grateful for. I was fortunate to have gone through the entire process…more than those that left earlier on.
JW – This is your big night, Carla. All your admirers feel as though you’ve won!
CH – Honestly, when I was at Le Bernardin I felt like I’d won. That was a turnaround for me because that’s when I finally started doing my food. When I felt like I was in the flow, because I like doing the food in my way. There’s nothing worse than being in a competition, except you could be sitting at home, but you’re doing something you never might have done and it’s because somebody else did something worse than you did. Winning to me was feeling good about what I did!
This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by chef and food writer Jordan Wright.
Owner of Alchemy Caterers……..teaches at CulinAirie.