In a year, Carla Hall closed her first restaurant and had her talk show “The Chew” canceled.
She lost Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen for a number of reasons, not the least of which was opening a high-volume restaurant in an out-of the-way part of Brooklyn.
The loss of the show, which she had co-hosted since 2011, was more complex. ABC cited business reasons in canceling the culinary- and lifestyle-themed show, but the ending came amid faltering ratings and serious allegations (and admission) of sexual misconduct against co-host Mario Batali.
Everything that comes next for Hall is a new chapter. Hall, who gained fame after appearing on “Top Chef,” is developing ideas for a new show in the hopes of returning full-time to TV. She’s the weekly food contributor on the new “GMA Day” afternoon talk show, which replaced “The Chew”’s time slot.
And she is launching a new cookbook, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration,” a journey through the South as well as Hall’s memory.
“There are a few ideas I’m working on,” Hall said in a phone interview. “I’m excited about it. My next gig will be be in television. I never thought I would be on TV again after ‘Top Chef.’”
This weekend, Hall’s next gig is headlining the ninth annual TerraVita food festival, held in venues around Chapel Hill and Carrboro Oct. 17-20.
She will launch her book Oct. 18 at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro — days before it is published around the country — at a talk with local cookbook author Sandra Gutierrez.
The next night, Oct. 19, she will cook at a tribute dinner to Southern food icon Edna Lewis, also at Fearrington Village, where Lewis was once the chef.
TerraVita, in its ninth year, features a showcase of regional culinary talent — from chefs to brewers and cocktail makers. There are panel discussions and special themed dinners, culminating in the Fall Fete on Oct. 20, a tent packed with 45 chefs and foodmakers sharing samples.
Defining soul food
As an author and chef, Lewis deepened the country’s understanding of Southern food, giving it place and history and sophistication beyond the stereotypes.
Hall said she first heard of Lewis, an African-American chef, after culinary school. Her school had focused on French technique and recipes. As an African American chef, Hall shied away from cooking the dishes she ate growing up in restaurants or at her grandmothers’ tables. But Lewis complicated what Hall thought she knew.
“This was the first time I saw soul food and black people make food that is elegant,” Hall said. “I started to see soul food in a different way. The first time I saw her book, I thought, ‘Is this soul food?’ I had a very narrow view of what soul food was. I was just starting to chip away at that idea.”
In Hall’s book, filled with 150 recipes, she defines soul food as the food prepared by black cooks, distinguishing it from broader Southern food. The term is largely beloved by the diners and chefs who use it, no matter their race. But Hall says it’s sometimes limiting, conjuring images of fried foods or greasy, fat-slicked vegetables, often dismissively.
“The people who were cooking were black people, slaves,” Hall said. “It wasn’t until the ‘60s, the late ‘60s, that we get this term. ... I see soul food as a cuisine, like Italian, French, Chinese. It never really gets its proper respect ... I feel like soul food has never had that moment.”
Hall didn’t grow up at her mother’s apron strings. Her grandmothers were great home cooks, she said, but she didn’t learn from them, either.
It wasn’t until appearing in season five of Bravo’s culinary competition “Top Chef,” amidst the bright lights, that Hall said she really started to mine her Southern food memories. It started to inform how she cooked going forward, eventually into her first restaurant, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, a counter-service hot chicken restaurant she opened in Brooklyn.
“I popped out loving food, but I didn’t learn cooking from grandmothers,” Hall said. “I was always trying to recreate the foods I remember Granny making.”
Hall grew up in Nashville, a city in the midst of rapid growth and change in the wake of shiny new development and booming music and food industries. She calls the new look “Nash-Vegas,” quite different from the town she left. Within all that redevelopment, a trend sweeping the South, including in Durham, Hall said she wishes the process was more thoughtful. She would like more attempts to preserve some of the old while building the new.
Hall acknowledged a similar papering over can sometimes happen in new Southern restaurants, ones that never pay the proper respect to the history of the food.
“The important thing that has to happen is the recognition of where you’re getting these recipes,” Hall said. “There’s a very interesting history you don’t want to tell. You don’t want to say it because it came from slavery, you don’t want to be embarrassed. Be embarrassed and move past it. You have to give credit to where these things came from.”
Diversifying the kitchen
Hall served as the host of this year’s James Beard Awards in Chicago, which saw a number of high profile awards go to African-American and female chefs after years of largely rewarding white men. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported the James Beard Foundation announced organizational changes aimed at diversifying the awards.
Hall noted that one year is a small sample size, but that this year feels like a moment of change. She said the most important changes could come from restaurant hiring.
“The kitchen is changing in terms of temperament,” Hall said. “I think when you make the chef the rock star, it comes with certain behaviors.”
In some kitchens, those behaviors have fostered a culture of sexual harassment that have gone largely unchecked or challenged. In the last two years, as part of the larger #MeToo movement, a number of high-profile chefs have been accused of sexual assault and harassment. That includes Batali, Hall’s former co-host, New Orleans chef John Besh and former “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella in Washington, D.C. (Isabella and Hall appeared together on “Top Chef: All-Stars” in 2011.)
After allegations against Batali were published by online food publication Eater, ABC suspended and then fired the famous chef from “The Chew.” The show planned to forge ahead, Hall said, with herself, chef Michael Symon and fashion consultant Clinton Kelly. But ABC ultimately pulled the plug after seven seasons.
Hall said she has had some contact with Batali since then and that he’s working through his issues. Of Batali’s alleged behavior, Hall said she hadn’t witnessed it herself.
“I didn’t have those experiences,” Hall said. “He was generous with his knowledge of the industry. ... I feel for the women who had to go through that. I believe them. It’s tough, when you know the person in a different environment.”
For TerraVita details and tickets go to terravitafest.com
▪ The East Meets West Dinner at the Carolina Inn on Oct. 17 is sold out.
▪ On Oct. 18, Hall will be part of a discussion at 3:30 p.m. at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village followed by a book signing. Tickets are $45 and include a copy of the new book.
▪ The Hill Fire Dinner, an evening of outdoor flame cookery, is Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Commons in Carrboro. Tickets are $80.
▪ The Sustainable Classroom, TerraVita’s day of food talks and demos on Oct. 19, features tastings and classes and discussions as well as walking tours in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Tickets for the traditional classroom are $85, and the walking tour is $100. Both are at 9:30 a.m., so festival-goers can only pick one.
▪ On Oct. 19, Hall will cook at the Edna Lewis tribute dinner at 6 p.m. at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro along with chefs Colin Bedford of the Fearrington House, Walter Royal of the Angus Barn and Sean Fowler of Mandolin in Raleigh. Tickets are $135.
▪ The Fall Fete, formerly known as the Grand Tasting, is Oct. 20 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Green at Southern Village. There will chefs and food makers with beverage pros slinging 60 different drinks. General admission is $80 and tickets for non-drinkers are $65.