But what really comes through—whether she is signing a cookbook for a long line of people or engaged in one-on-one conversation—is her genuine warmth and interest in others. She wants to know your story; she wants to make a connection.
That’s the gist of her newest cookbook, “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World” (Atria Books, 2014). She was greatly bothered by the poisonous and divisive atmosphere in Washington, D.C. (where she lives with her husband, Matthew Lyons, and stepson Noah) around the 2012 election, and wanted to remind people about the important experiences we share. To her, the immediate solution was food.
We talked at length about the connections and shared experiences that food provides, her instant chemistry with her co-hosts on “The Chew,” and her cooking process. Ladies and gentleman, in her own words, the inimitable Carla Hall.
Make It Better: Cooking means connection to you. Was that your impetus for this book?
Carla Hall: I just want to connect the world. [With this book], I just envision that at this very moment…I mean, RIGHT NOW…people are cooking a similar dish. They’re making this dish, but with different flavors, different spices. Right at this very moment, they’re cooking. They’re doing exactly what I’m doing, but they’re putting something different in there. It gives you chills, because it makes the world so much smaller. It connects us.
One of the reasons that people loved you from the very start, why they rooted for you (on “Top Chef”), you have a special ability to reach out to people and find the connective tissue. And you have that special TV sparkle.
You know, I’m comfortable with who I am. And I thank my mother for that. When I was a kid, I was painfully shy. And she put me in theater, and I think that saved me. In theater, you’re taught to celebrate yourself, dare to be different, dare to be you. In doing that, you’re on stage…I did a lot of children’s theater. And there, it’s OK to be goofy. It’s OK to make faces. If people were teasing me for being gangly and awkward, OK, great! I’m gonna use that. I think that’s where my sense of humor comes from. Give me something to use…I’m gonna laugh at myself. It disarms the person who’s gonna jab you and put you down.
There’s something about being a performer and the immediate gratification of applause, and I find that with cooking as well. You make something delicious, and everyone claps and says, “Yum!”
Yes! Exactly. And so you’re constantly looking for that connection. When someone tells you a story about their favorite dish, you learn more about that person than if you were to ask, “How are you?” You are looking inside of them to figure out what’s going to make their heart sing…to figure out their food memories and give them a new one. That’s what I loved about catering…giving people memories. And there’s real power in that. I may never cook for you again, but in this moment, and from this point forward, you will remember this meal and I will be part of that memory. It’s a wonderful thing.
When did you start cooking?
In my 20s. It was back when I was modeling, and we had Sunday brunches and everyone was in the kitchen talking about their food. Before, I was never in the kitchen when the food was made. I was playing outside, and I was like, call me when it’s ready and I’ll come enjoy it. That’s one of my biggest regrets: I was never really in the kitchen cooking with my grandmas. But I have the food memories of what it all tasted like. And [the grandmas] never sat down with us, but always hovered around the table watching everyone eat. But [at Sunday brunch], people were talking about how their mother made this or that. So I became really interested in making food and started buying cookbooks.
“The Chew” is in its third season now. Was it instant chemistry with co-hosts Mario Batali, Clinton Kelly, Daphne Oz and Michael Symon?
Yes, it was instant. We did a “chemistry test” with other people, but the five of us were only together for 20 minutes before they were ready to announce us as a cast. It just worked. And I remember when we came together to do the promo shoot, and it just felt like the best play date! It was so much fun.
Can you tell me about your process for developing a recipe?
In this book, the whole veggie section is made of all my favorites. So I might think, how are other people using spinach around the world? Butternut squash I generally think of as American, but looking at my spice chart, I was wondering how someone else might approach it. So I did it in a tarte tatin with the crust on the top. I start with the flavor profile, and then go from there. Am I going to add spice? Salt? What other flavors can I add? That’s what’s in my head. One of the worst things about recipe testing is you want to be in the flow, but you have to measure everything. Genevieve Ko, my co-author, is writing things down as we go along. A lot of my cooking is intuitive, and so I’m feeling and tasting and thinking about my inspiration, which can be a person or a recipe.
For example, Michael Symon had done chiles rellenos on the show, and did the batter in a unique way, and Mario and I were just, “Wow.” So I started thinking about how I could use the technique, and you want to take notes, but we’re in the middle of taping, and I’m supposed to be paying attention…(laughs)…but it’s something like that, the inspiration. Next up is a sweets cookbook because I have all these ideas in my head.
Where is your test kitchen? Do you work out of your home?
We make sure that all of the recipes are done in a home kitchen, either in mine in New York or D.C., or in New Jersey at Genevieve’s. We don’t want to use kitchens where it would be professional equipment that wouldn’t work the same as our readers’. And we actually make it a point to get all the ingredients at a grocery store. Because, really, my books are about being accessible. It’s not about what I know, but about inspiring you to cook and getting you back in the kitchen.
I want people to get this book dirty. I want people to pass them down and say, “This is where I got that recipe that we have every day, or every week…This is where I found the recipe I brought to the family reunion.” If somebody uses my cookbook and they have just three recipes that they go to all the time, then to me, it’s a success.
Because a lot of times, people buy cookbooks just to have them. But I want people to actually use mine. No need to forage and smoke your own pine needles to use in this dish—not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of cooking, it just isn’t mine.
Carla’s Favorite D.C.-area Restaurants:
Carla’s Favorite NYC Restaurants: