Carla Hall, the Howard accounting major turned model, turned chef, took a summer off from her Silver Spring catering company to compete as one of 17 cheftestants on season 5 of Bravo’s popular Top Chef. Hall has made D.C. proud, cooking her way into the final three.
On the eve of part two of the season finale, Hall dished with us about her rising star, what a Top Chef season in D.C. might look like, and her perfect world.
The final episode will air, with either Carla or competitors Hosea or Stefan being named Top Chef, tonight on Bravo at 10 p.m. (re-airing at 11, 12, 1, and several times this week). And if you need to catch up, the season marathon starts today at 10 a.m.
You’ve gone from caterer to reality TV star with millions of people watching/talking/writing/rooting for you over the last year. Now tomorrow’s the final. Is it surreal to be where you are?
It is surreal. It’s humbling to have people send me emails and say that I inspired them for saying something or doing something, and it’s just me. It’s kind of like, “Ah, but you know, I’m just Carla.” And they’ll say, “Oh my God, a celebrity!” I’m like “No, I’m just Carla.” It’s a little surreal.
Tom Colicchio said that he didn’t think you’d make it half way though the competition, but you grew stronger and stronger and made very good dishes along the way. After a shaky start, you really seemed to get on a roll as the contest went on.
I don’t blame Tom. I read some of the blogs and they say “Oh gosh, you should get kicked off.” And quite frankly, it wasn’t that I disagreed with them. I was never delusional about a bad dish that I put forward. I was always probably my hardest critic on any dish that I put forward that I wouldn’t be proud of. I think a lot of times I was mostly concerned about the taste and unfortunately when you’re watching a show, you’re thinking visually and about what it sounds like, but have no idea what it tastes like. Until we get scratch and sniff you have to believe the judges.
And I think it got to the point where I was at the bottom for “restaurant wars” and I thought I was going home and I didn’t. Once you survive that, you feel like you’ve hit the bottom and the only place you can go is up. It’s like, “You know what? I have nothing to lose. I already thought I was gonna go home.” You get that out of the way and you’re not as scared. That fear of failing actually prevents you from doing really well. And I think once that fear goes away you’re free to do your food. And I think that’s what happened to me.
In terms of being your own harshest critic it seemed like you were often criticizing perceived failures of your dishes, and sometimes the judges didn’t even share your criticisms. Was it a helpful strategy for you or part of you personality to be so hard on yourself?
I think sometimes I did need to shut up. A lot of times I’m really gonna pick something apart, so that when I pick it apart for my clients I will exceed their expectations. And if I exceed their expectations then it will be a winner. Even if I fall short of my expectations, it will still be okay for them. And I think that I need to learn not to voice my expectations that I want to exceed.
When I think of a strategy or a strategizer, I think of Stefan. I think Stefan definitely has a strategy. He’s really good at assessing what the task is and looking at the competition. For me, I was my biggest competitor. I wanted to do stuff for me. If I went home for a dish I was proud of I would be okay with that. And I really did mean if I loved it and I wanted to put my heart into it the judges would taste that.
And while Stefan was strategizing, you’ve gotten through your own way. You’ve picked up of late while he’s stumbled.
Every day when I got up I’m like, “What do I need to do to calm myself down to do my food? To not second guess myself?” And I think if I trust myself, I do really well. If I’m not confident or if I’m second guessing myself, I don’t do well. And so, my challenge was to believe in myself and not think that the other guy’s gonna be better than I am. I feel that I definitely have skills and I can make good food. But to put the heart with that and the skills makes great food. And that’s what I was always trying to do.
Were you surprised at all with the finalists? Did anyone go home too early or too late?
Everybody is really good. I would have definitely thought Jamie would have been there. I think Arianne, who is really good at meat unfortunately went home on the lamb. And I think sometimes people ended up staying and the perception is, “Oh their food isn’t that great and they’re staying.” But it’s more than cooking. I think there was one show where Fabio said, “This isn’t cooking. This is rushing.” And he should coin that phrase because a lot of times that’s what it felt like. You don’t have time to develop anything in your head and execute. You’re executing, developing, and presenting in one fell swoop. And so I think the people who lasted are those who were fortunate enough to be able to do all of that on that day by having a good day and pleasing the judges.
You told your friends you were in the Bahamas this summer. Week to week you can’t tell anyone if you’re staying or going and if you’re in the finals or not. How hard was that to keep the secret?
It wasn’t hard at all. All I knew was if I did not keep the secret I would owe someone at Bravo a million dollars. A million dollars will keep your mouth shut. For me, if you want me to keep a secret, you should say that if I don’t keep it I will owe you a million dollars. I don’t have any problem keeping my mouth shut, because I don’t have a million dollars. The success of the show is dependent on us not talking about it. I didn’t even tell my husband because I wanted him to enjoy it. Also I didn’t want to tell him something that he had to keep a secret.
If you were in charge of creating a Top Chef season in D.C., what would it look like?
I would definitely incorporate the Hispanic culture here, the Asian culture, especially the Vietnamese or the Thai. We have a huge and beautiful farmers market scene in D.C., starting with the Dupont Circle Market. Definitely something in the Capitol. You have all of the government agencies. I don’t know how to incorporate that, but it would be great to do some type of event just related to…well, we could never do something with the President, but maybe something on the Hill.
I guess we would do something in Baltimore of course. Something in Annapolis. You have seafood in Annapolis. You have the Chesapeake Bay that you could highlight.
In a November interview with Capital Spice you mention favorites at Central, Sonoma, and Nicaro. Do you have some off the beaten path recs to offer?
I go for pho a lot actually. But it’s like, which pho? Is it Pho 75 out there in Rockville? I like a good hot dog. I used to go to Johnny’s Half Shell but they’re not there [on P St.] anymore for a good hot dog.
Where do you do your food shopping? Can you go to the store or anywhere with out getting stopped and stared at these days?
I do a lot of shopping at the Whole Foods in Silver Spring and yeah, I get stopped all the time. If I’m going to a movie in downtown Silver Spring we have to go a little bit earlier because getting from the parking lot to the movie theater, I’m asked to stop and do pictures. I don’t mind. People have been really, really nice and very supportive and it takes two seconds for me to shake their hand and take a picture and I really appreciate everybody’s support.
Have you been catering as the show has gone on? How has people’s response to your work changed?
People are very excited. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing. Some of my existing clients are like, “Oh my gosh, we’re not going to be able to afford you now,” which is not necessarily true. This is not the time to raise prices. But we’re getting a lot of calls. A lot of weddings. I didn’t really do so many weddings in the past; we did a lot of corporate things. People are wanting some of the things that I prepared on the show, but also trusting some of the ideas and letting us create dishes for them. And that’s the one thing about catering, is that you can just step in and recreate. You really do end up reinventing the wheel just to stay fresh, unlike in a restaurant, which is really nice. You do things over and over and you get very proficient. But in a catering company as soon as the event is over the next client wants something totally different, so you switch gears every time.
With the Mardi Gras challenge, did you resent having an extra competitor? Was there any guilt for winning the challenge since Jeff had to win or go home and you could have come in second?
Ha. ABSOLUTELY NOT! I love Jeff, but there was no guilt. I was really excited. I enjoyed having him come back. I thought that those of us who knew we were stepping back into the finals had a chance to think about it and kind of do our homework. But Leah, Jamie, and Jeff had no idea and so they didn’t have that prep time. I was really happy about Jeff winning [the Quickfire]. His dish was really good. But I was also gonna do my best to do my food. It just so happens that it won.
And you won the car, too. Have you been driving it or did you have to wait until last week?
Oh yeah, that. I won the car! I don’t have it yet. But I’m excited. I didn’t go to the Super Bowl. I sent my husband and my stepson and they had a fabulous time. They were sitting at the end of the field for the last touchdown. They were really excited.
Fabio seems to have books, television, and who knows what else in the works. Other chefs are back in their restaurants working. I read Jeff says he doesn’t have any business offers. If you can share, do you have anything new up your sleeve?
Lots of people are calling, but what I really want to do is to have a kitchen in downtown D.C. where it’s catering in the back and then the front would be a flex space and I would be able to do a chef’s table and classes if I wanted to, and have some retail space with my Sweet and Savory Petite cookies. And continue the catering, but have other exciting revenue streams. People ask me, “Will you have a restaurant?” No, I will not. But if I could have my druthers, I would have people come in and do a tasting with me. I’d tell them when they could come and I’d tell them what they’re gonna eat. That’s the perfect world, right?!