Carla Hall: It takes me 45 minutes now to get to the restaurant, because people are stopping me: "When is the place going to open? When is it opening? We looked in, when is it opening?" Like oh, okay, so I’m not walking now from the subway to the restaurant. But they care, you know? So it’s exciting.
Greg Morabito: The most exciting restaurant in the world is the one around the corner from your apartment that hasn’t opened yet, you know?
Carla: Right! But they’re all like, "Oh, we’re so excited. Are you going to have a place for our strollers?" No, we’re not, it’s small.
Helen Rosner: It’s the curse of Brooklyn. It’s like a little stroller parking lot.
Greg: Well this might be a good time to introduce our guest, Carla Hall. Welcome to the Eater Upsell studios, Carla.
Carla: Thank you, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Helen: It’s super exciting to have you. Carla, you’re the one of the many hosts of The Chew on ABC. How many of you guys are there now —
Carla: There are five.
Helen: Like eleven?
Carla: Oh, eleven, oh my god! Sometimes there are eleven, actually. On our thousandth episode there were like, I think, forty.
Greg: Hold up. A thousand episodes?
Carla: A thousand episodes, can you believe it?
Greg: I remember when The Chew was announced like a long—
Helen: 2011, right?
Greg: It seems very long ago in my mind. But a thousand episodes, wow.
Carla: We celebrated one thousand episodes yesterday. It’s been five years, so we’re in our fifth season, and it’s crazy. It’s Michael Symon, Clinton Kelly, Daphne Oz, Mario Batali, and myself. We became really fast friends, and I think that’s the secret to our longevity: We are really friends. And yesterday, we’re celebrating our one thousandth, we come out, and the audience is only friends and family. And right when we walk out, we just got really teary. It was really emotional and I didn’t expect it.
Helen: Oh, that’s really beautiful. I mean I think, in certain types of work environments, you form these incredible bonds. We work in journalism, one of the most beleaguered professions in the world, and you wind up becoming family with the people you work with 'cause you’re fighting the same fight together. And I imagine it’s kinda the same thing.
Carla: Yeah, yeah.
Helen: Maybe less of the threat of constant industry collapse when you’re on a TV show, but —
Carla: Well, no, but — exactly that.
Carla: Because the shows don’t last. I mean you had the revolution come and go. The FABLife is on, but it’s going to go. And you had Katie Couric, and Meredith Vieira, and all of these great shows and great hosts, but they don’t last. TV is really hard, and we didn’t think we were gonna last. And that first frenetic week of the shows we were like, oh my god. And you know, Clinton Kelly tells the story — he calls his agent: "This is not gonna last. Can you look for the next thing?"
Helen: I mean the idea of The Chew was very audacious when it was announced. This idea of a daily, hour-long show that’s cooking segments, but it’s also a talk show. And it was this really interesting zeitgeist-y hybrid of morning TV and food TV. For those of us on the outside, especially people like Greg and I who chronicle the world of food, you look at that with a little bit of a raised eyebrow, right?
Helen: Because I think we’re always a little skeptical of something outside of food culture slapping the word "food" on it in order to seem cool, because food has become so cool. And so we’re like, "Oh great, they added the word ‘food’ to a morning show." But then it worked.
Helen: It worked, and it’s great.
Carla: It’s really about food.
Carla: And the whole thing is food, life, and fun, and I think the unique thing about the show is that we get to have celebrities on — home cooks as well — but we get to have celebrities on, and you get to see them cook. You get to see how they are in the kitchen. There’s no other show that can put them in this environment, really, so you get to see another side of people that you wouldn’t normally see.
Helen: Did you ever watch Martha Stewart’s old show, where she would like —
Carla: Yeah, yeah. With the hair.
Helen: I mean the Snoop Dogg episode, and like —
Carla: Oh no, I didn’t see that.
Helen: Oh my god, so she had Snoop on her show and they made brownies together.
Carla: What? Snoop? Fo shizzle!
Greg: I remember that show. That was a good one.
Helen: Well that was, for me, the episode that blew it open. Where I was like, "Oh man, celebrities cooking is brilliant." It’s a brilliant model.
Greg: This is what I wonder about The Chew. It seems to have as many moving parts as a late night show, like The Tonight Show. And it moves fast, there’s always a ton of stuff, and in the midst of all this: cooking.
Greg: Which I know is not easy for television. So after doing a thousand episodes, is it a challenge? Do you have to stay really focused on it every day, or do you guys get into a groove with it and it’s like, "Okay, here I am, I’m doing this thing again," you know?
Carla: It’s a little bit of all of that. And I’ll tell you why. Just to think of interesting things constantly. In this one thousand shows, there were 327 pasta recipes that Mario did, but 47 of them were macaroni and cheese. Not that Mario did, but that we did, right? So sometimes we are like, "Oh my gosh, how are we gonna make it new? What are we gonna talk about?" And that becomes very challenging. And also, I do Southern comfort food, baking. Michael does meat, Midwestern. Mario does Italian, Clinton does sort of entertaining, and Daphne does the healthy side of things.
But the thing is, I don’t want to have to do Southern food all the time. I mean, there’s a big world out there, and I think this season in particular, we came back and we said, "Look, let’s really teach cuisines of the world. We are not just these one-dimensional people or cooks." So that’s been really fun. And also there is power in what we do, and if there are millions of people watching — like on the Food Network, right? They don’t do fish, they don’t do a lot of fish, and I think that’s why people are uncomfortable with fish. For as long as the Food Network has been on, with so many amazing shows — I think, like, let’s do more fish to make people more comfortable!
Greg: That’s awesome. I don’t know how to cook fish in my own home.
Helen: You can make it in the dishwasher.
Carla: Yeah, you can put that whole fish in a dishwasher, wrap it up.
Helen: You just, like, wrap it up in foil, you put it on the top rack of the dishwasher, you run it on hot, and you have like a perfectly —
Greg: That’d be great if I had a dishwasher, to be honest with you.
Carla: I know, in New York — my dishwasher doesn’t even work.
Helen: There was a story that we ran on Eater a couple of years ago about this organization in Washington DC called DC Central Kitchen. And our reporter told this very moving account of a speech that you gave at one of the graduation classes where you talked about grappling with those categories that the producers may have put you into. And you told this, I thought, very candid and very powerful anecdote about feeling angry when Michael Symon was assigned to do a segment with Gladys Knight —
Helen: And you felt like, you know, that should’ve been yours. How has that evolved for you?
Carla: I think I talk about that story a lot, and I talk about my challenges in life because I’m very candid and open about sharing them. And it’s because if I share mine, somebody else will learn from my challenges. And that one was really hard. Basically Gladys Knight came on, cooked with Michael, and I mean it’s not like she wanted to cook with Michael. The producers put her with Michael, and they made a smothered chicken dish. So I was like, "Aw snap, wait, what?" And when I went into her dressing room just to meet her before the show, all of her people were like, "Oh my god, Gladys was so excited to come on the show. She loves you. She watches the show everyday" — and I wasn’t cooking with her. Gladys Knight is from my generation, I’m fifty-two, so listening to her, you know, my hero, from the South. So I was like, "Wow." And I called a meeting with the producers. Some other things had happened prior to that, so that was kind of like the last straw. I believe that frustration is the ability to do work. If you are frustrated enough, you will move somewhere, right?
"I believe that frustration is the ability to do work. If you are frustrated enough, you will move somewhere."
Carla: So the way that I moved, I called a meeting with the producers, and I said, "Look, there are two things that are wrong with this. Either you didn’t think about me cooking with her, and that’s a problem ‘cause you didn’t think that I would want to cook with her. Or you didn’t have me cook with her because there’s a problem with my interviewing and I am not up to snuff, and that’s your report card because you have not helped me get there. So either way, this is your report card, and you’re failing." And this was my perspective, and I just went on and on and on. And it was at a time when we were, Daphne and I were told — oh my god, I’m probably gonna get fired for this.
Helen: We’ll bleep out the next ten seconds.
Carla: It was this whole thing of, you know, we weren’t growing as quickly as the guys. And it’s like, you’ve set us up to be really great backup singers. When you go to a show, and that person is at the center of the stage, do you know who the backup singers are, what they love to do, who their parents are? You don’t know them, but they basically heighten that person. They backup that person so that they can look good at the center of the stage. And we didn’t feel that we were put at the center of the stage. Now, this was probably a year and a half ago, and looking back now, it was my lesson. I had to get to the point where I was frustrated enough to move into my authenticity. And when I look back at those segments, I wasn’t as good as I could be, but I didn’t feel like they were helping me get there either. So once I got what I call the screw-its, but I use another word —
Helen: We can say it on here.
Carla: Oh, okay. You have to get the fuck-its sometimes.
Carla: And so in that meeting, I said everything that I wanted to say because I knew that I didn’t want to go home wishing I had said something else, and I said, if I get fired, that’s okay, but I’m gonna go out being me and telling you exactly how I feel. And they looked at me, and they were like, "Okay! All right! Here she is! Thank you for showing up." It was crazy.
Greg: Were you nervous going into that meeting? Were you like, this is big?
Carla: I wasn’t nervous. I was mad!
Carla: I was mad and I remember crying and I didn’t care. I didn’t care about being that woman who was crying, and so often people are thinking, "I don’t want to be perceived as this." I didn’t care. I had the fuck-its. I was like, "I’m gonna go in. I’m gonna tell you exactly how I feel. And we’ll see where the chips fall." And so many people are afraid to do that, but at the end of that, I got to me. I got to who I was, and they actually appreciated it.
Helen: I feel like when you cross the fuck-it cliff, it’s just like — everything becomes clear, you know exactly what’s happening, the world kinda goes into slow motion, and you’re like, I know who I am, I know what I want. Fuck it.
Greg: So how did your experience change since then?
Carla: So after that, I actually started doing more pieces, and the thing was, I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t get to practice. You know, if you’re on the bench at a game, and they’re like, "You’re not good enough" — I’m never gonna get good enough because I can’t practice. So they allowed me to practice more. And then they’re like, "Well, why are you so good?" I said, "Because I got to practice."
Greg: Yeah when I first read the list of all the participants at The Chew, I was like, Mario Batali and Michael Symon have been doing this for a decade, at least.
Greg: Carla and Daphne —
Carla: Clinton Kelly had been on too, so, right.
Helen: But you came out of reality TV, which is so different.
Carla: Night and day. It is so incredibly different, and yes, to your point, we had three people who had done television, and Daphne and I had not. And so we did media training starting the — I want to say the third season, which was great. Actually the one thing that the woman said to me, she said, "First of all, media training is about becoming the best you you can be. And secondly, when you’re looking into that camera, I want you to talk to your next employer." I was like, "What?!" And honestly for some people, that would cut them off at the knees, like, "Oh my god, I’m gonna get fired." For me it was like, all right. If I’m talking to my next employer, I’m like, "Hey, what’s up, I’m Carla Hall and you may want to hire me."
Helen: That’s brilliant. That’s genius advice.
Greg: That’s amazing.
Helen: Every job’s an interview for your next job.
Greg: Wow. That’s sage.
Helen: That’s like very deep. This is blowing my mind right now.
Greg: Yeah. It’s almost as profound as getting the fuck-its and having to do something.
Helen: This is good. You’re really career counseling us right now. Let’s keep going. I have feelings about my mother, can we talk about that?
Carla: Yeah, right, okay. I just saw The Meddler last night.
Greg: Was it good?
Carla: It was so good.
Greg: I love Susan Sarandon, so.
Carla: Yeah, I love Susan Sarandon, and I love Rose Byrne. And J.K. Simmons. I love them all.
Helen: J.K. Simmons weirdly looks exactly like my actual father.
Helen: Which is very bizarre, and whenever he’s on TV, whenever he’s on a commercial, whenever I see him in a movie, it’s very difficult for me to separate them out, and I develop deep emotional attachments to — which, you know, made — what was that movie where he was physically abusive towards the drummer?
Helen: That was hard for me to watch. I was like, "Oh no."
Carla: Oh right. Of course, you’re like, "Daddy, why are you being so mean?"
Helen: "Why are you doing this, daddy?"
Greg: So I first learned about who you are, Carla, and what you’re all about watching Top Chef.
Greg: And now here we are five years down the road, The Chew is huge, and you’re a huge personality on that show, and you’re doing so much. I mean, do you feel like you’re way more famous than you were five years ago?
Carla: I mean, I guess I am from you all’s perspective, but for me, I’m the same person. I mean, I take the subway. I talk to people. I still take UberPool, you know.
Greg: You take UberPool?
Helen: Do people in your UberPool recognize you as a celebrity and freak out?
Carla: No, you know what I do, actually I look at them because their names are on there, I’ll get in, and I’m like, "Oh hey, Ashley." And they're like, "You know me?" I’m like, "I know your name. It’s actually on my pool."
Helen: You turn the tables on them.
Carla: I know, I do.
Helen: Like, "Oh my God, are you Ashley??"
Carla: Right, exactly, that’s exactly what I do. And then they don’t want to say anything. And then right before they get out of the car, they’re like, "By the way, I’m a fan," and then they scurry away.
Helen: That’s really sweet. I love that.
Helen: Was there a moment where you realized you were famous?
Carla: I think it was the moment when I had done Top Chef the first season, so season five, and I’m in New York. It’s really cold. I have a coat on. I have a scarf up to my neck, right around my face. My glasses are poking out. I have on a hat. And somebody says, "Carla!" I look at them like, "Are you kidding me? Can you tell who I am?" And it’s the glasses, and my height. Also when people say, "Hootie-hoo," and I’m thinking it’s a friend, you know, and I’m like turning around like, "Who—" like W-H-O, instead of H-O-O. Like who, who are you?
Helen: It’s amazing that you have a catchphrase. Catchphrases are less popular than they were in an earlier era, I think, and yours came about so organically. I remember watching that episode of your first season that you were on Top Chef, and you were in the grocery store, and then it cuts to you sort of doing the confessional to the camera and you’re explaining that this is a thing you and your husband do.
Helen: And I was sitting with some friends, and we turned to each other, and we were like, "Oh shit, it’s a catchphrase!" It was so exciting to have another catchphrase in our lives.
Carla: My husband and I have a lot of them, and we crack ourselves up. We don’t ever crack other people up. But even when we come home, it’s like, "Hootie-hoo!" "Badadoop badadoop." You know, it goes on.
Helen: Like the secret languages of couples.
Carla: Yes, yes.
Helen: Which is beautiful and intimate, and then you turned it into this national phenomenon.
Carla: Yes, yes, and I respond to it.
Greg: How did you feel watching yourself on Top Chef, you know, for the first time? I mean, it had obviously been taped months before it came out.
Carla: Right. It was weird. I watched with my friends, I watched with my husband, so people would say, "Carla, I can’t believe you went on television and you were your weird self." So, yeah, that’s what I do. It was really weird. Also, it was hard to watch, and I remembered the stress. I think the stress never goes away. Even when you’re watching it, and you know what the outcome is, but you’re still watching like you’re in it, you know what I mean? And I swear I had post-traumatic stress after the show because when I came home, I didn’t tell my husband anything because there was a gag clause —
"People would say, ‘Carla, I can’t believe you went on television and you were your weird self.’"
Helen: And those are like —
Carla: A million dollars.
Helen: Yeah, it’s like hmm, that’s not worth it.
Carla: I was like, "Okay, I’ll shut up. I don’t have a million dollars." You know. No biggie. So I didn’t tell him anything. I came home, he was in Michigan and I slept. I must’ve slept for a week, and if there was any noise in the middle of the night, I’m like, "Oh my god, time’s up." I would have this thing. I still run through grocery stores, you know. It affected me greatly. It did. It’s tough. That show is very tough.
Helen: But you went back for a second season.
Carla: Oh, after saying no a few times.
Helen: So what made you decide to do that?
Carla: What made me decide to do it — because I did say no. It took like three phone calls, and I was like, "I don’t want to do it." That being said, I’m very grateful to the Top Chef franchise, but I went back because I hated catering, and I think being on the show initially made my life really hard, because I didn’t have a restaurant. So any jobs that I got, I was physically doing. It was really hard. My life was still really hard, and you’re working. And just because you’re on television doesn’t mean that you’re all of a sudden rich and have all of these resources. I had none, and it was all on me, and I’m trying to do other things, and they said, "Well, what if you make it part of your business plan?" And I know a lot of people go on the show thinking, "How far can this get my career?" I did not. I just went on as a personal challenge, and I said, "Oh, okay. I’m gonna go on and tell people I don’t cater." That really was the only reason I went on. I’m like, I’m a recovering caterer. I don’t want to cater. I’m gonna say I don’t cater. And then also, hey what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? I was making these tiny cookies when we were catering, and I said, "Maybe I’ll just focus on those. Okay, I’m gonna go on the show, I’m gonna tell people I don’t cater, and I’m gonna make these tiny cookies." And that’s what I did, so for five years I had this cookie business that I turned into a dessert business, and we just closed that at the end of January. But that’s why I did it.
Helen: I mean, it’s a giant commercial that’s watched by millions of people.
Helen: Was it a different experience for you, though? You’d been through it before, you knew how to play the game. How did you approach the second season differently?
Carla: The second season was really about camp. I think the second season was about Top Chef camp, so the first time that all of us were together, I’m like, "Oh my gosh, Dale Talde! Oh my god, Richard Blais, hey!" You know it’s all of these people, Antonia Lofaso, it’s all of these people coming together that I had watched. And now we’re together and it’s like a fraternity because we all know what it’s like, and they upped the game. I think the producers really upped the game in doing some of the challenges, so it was really fun. And even though it was stressful — going to Montauk, and fishing, and I’m like, "Oh, this is so much fun. What’s the next challenge? I hope I don’t get kicked off!" and not because you’re embarrassed . Well, you don’t want to be the first one to get kicked off.
Helen: No, nobody wants that.
Carla: Okay, nobody wants to be the first one. But after that it’s just fun, you know. And Tiffany Derry was my roommate, and we’re close to this very day.
Helen: She’s amazing.
Carla: She’s amazing, and I can’t believe how young she is. She’s such an old soul. She’s incredible.
Greg: I find Top Chef the phenomenon so endlessly fascinating, and there’s things I love about that show, and there’s things that frustrate me about that show. But I just feel like it raised everyone’s awareness about a lot related to the kitchen, and food, on this kind of broad cultural level. And it’s produced so many great restaurants from these chefs.
Carla: Yes, exactly right. And I think that honestly when you look at Top Chef, you look at Chopped, you look at The Next Iron Chef, all of these shows, people are watching, and these people are leaving these shows and opening their restaurants, or people are becoming aware of their restaurants. And it has done a tremendous service to our food culture, and the audience who now knows what all of these "weird things" may be, and now they’re open to trying them. And the kids, let’s talk about the kids!
Helen: Oh my god. MasterChef Junior! And they’re launching Chopped Junior now, and they’re the cutest things in the world.
Carla: Yes, yes.
Helen: Like indescribably cute.
Greg: And who knew the kids were so good at cooking!
Carla: I know! Well, this was the culture that they grew up watching, and I actually had the distinct pleasure of judging Chopped Junior, and it was incredible. I’m looking at these kids, and I’m like, what?! It’s like they’re savants, you know, it’s insane. Their palates and what they love to do. It’s just pretty incredible.
"These kids on Chopped Junior, they’re savants. It’s insane."
Helen: And it’s amazing to think that they’re still gonna grow up, right?
Carla: Yes, yes.
Helen: Like in ten or fifteen years, some of them might still be in the food world, but the majority of them probably will go on to have lives that are completely unrelated to anything in the professional food universe, but they have this deep fluency in cooking, and in eating, and in the value of creativity and craft that all of that stuff brings to the table.
Helen: I mean it’s such proof that the crazy cultural phenomenon of food, which I think, Greg, you’re totally right, Top Chef hugely engendered, it’s not just a flash in the pan. This is part of who we are.
Carla: Absolutely, but I think because of them, you push the boundaries now even with the farmers, and everyone, every industry that is related. They’re gonna be there. They’re gonna demand that their food is better. They’re gonna demand that you don’t have all of these additives in the food. I mean look at the cereals taking this dye out, I mean —
Helen: Right. Lucky Charms uses all natural coloring in their extraordinarily fake marshmallows. The marshmallows are fake, but the color is real.
Carla: Hey, you can’t have it all. But when that little kid, ten years from now — these kids will not have those fake marshmallows. So I mean, it’s changing food in so many different ways, not just at restaurants.
Greg: My favorite part is always the mad dash through Whole Foods or whatever and if you think —
Helen: Oh, on Top Chef.
Greg: Yeah. And if you think about it as kind of this abstract thing, it’s making shopping this crazy, energetic thing where everybody’s trying to get the best whatever, you know.
Carla: Yes, yes. Right, right. And what’s available there. Even now when I make my shopping list, I put the cold section, I have dairy, I have meat, I make my lists like the store is, you know.
Helen: Maximum efficiency.
Carla: Exactly, you know, I’m not gonna be ping-ponging back from the center of the aisle to the edge to the perimeter. No, that’s not gonna be me.
Greg: So you’ve had a catering business.
Greg: You had the bakery business at Gansevoort Market.
Carla: The Barclays.
Greg: The Barclays Center Stand.
Greg: And now, gearing up for your restaurant. This is your first official, official restaurant, I’m-the-chef-owner restaurant.
Carla: Yeah this is the first restaurant, and a lot of people think that I have another — well I don’t have anything. There is Page at the National Airport, which was just my name. It has nothing to do with me. They’re not my recipes. I mean, not to dis it, but it is not mine. And then in DC, there was a deal that I was supposed to work, helping the chefs, you know, and that’s not mine either, so a lot of people think, "Oh, you have these restaurants" — no. So Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, Greg to your point, is my first, I just wanted to clarify to anybody listening. This is my first restaurant, and it’s exciting, and my partner is Evan Darnell, and even how this came about was kinda crazy.
Helen: How did it come about?
Carla: So Evan, who has to be honestly, as I’m looking at him, he has to be—
Helen: Hi Evan. He’s over in the control room.
Carla: The most annoying. He will beat you down. Talk about somebody calling you. This is the like the Jewish mom. He’s like my Jewish partner who will call and call, and so he kept calling me and we did a couple of popups at David Burke’s, Burke in the Box. And then he was like, "Hey, we’re gonna have a restaurant one day." I’m like, "Um, no, I don’t want a restaurant." "No, we’re gonna have a restaurant one day." "Um, I’m sorry. Are you hearing me? I, uh, sign language maybe? I do not want a restaurant." So he calls me what, three years ago? He calls me about three years ago around Thanksgiving, and he says, "I have this. I want you see this space. It’s a great restaurant." I’m like, "Oh my god. What the heck?" So I said, I’m gonna go in person to tell him that I do not want a restaurant, and it was a sandwich shop on the Upper East Side, but it reminded me of a meat and three in Nashville.
Helen: Which is where you’re from.
Carla: Which is where I’m from, and I said, "Oh, wait." And I realized in my head what I didn’t want was a fine dining restaurant. So, when I saw that, and we sat down, I was like, "I cannot believe that I will entertain this thought." It was crazy, and I took a month to go back to the gut just to ask myself if this was, you know, some crazy moment that I’m having, an out of body experience that I needed to run away from, or if it was something true. And I kept coming back to it, and I said to my husband, "I think I want a restaurant." And so I talked to Mario Batali and I said, "Mario, I’m really thinking about a restaurant. I saw this space, and I’m thinking about a joint kind of like a meat and three." And it was actually Mario who said, "Make it really simple. I mean, if you had to do one thing, what would it be?" I said, "I would probably do Nashville’s hot chicken." He said, "Make that the thing. Have the best hot chicken, the best chicken that you can have." And so we started thinking about it. It’s like, chicken and sides, I mean that’s it — just a small, focused concept.
Greg: I mean it is a small — I mean I’ve been to the space in another life. It’s a small restaurant. And a neighborhood restaurant.
Helen: And this is not the Upper East Side space, this is your space in Brooklyn.
Carla: Correct. This is the space in Brooklyn, and this is after looking at hundreds of spaces that we finally found this space.
Helen: So how long ago was it that you had this conversation with Mario where you guys realized Nashville hot chicken is — ?
Carla: It was a couple of years ago.
Helen: And so what’s brilliant, I mean, you were picking up on the vibes of the zeitgeist, because now Nashville hot chicken is having this huge moment.
Carla: Oh my gosh, it was cray, it was way before —
Helen: It was a secret back then.
Carla: It was a secret! And nobody knew. And so now, you have Prince’s — I mean of course, Prince’s was there and I knew Prince’s, and I knew Hattie B’s of course. Since then, Hattie B’s has opened their second one, and with all of this, I’m like, oh my gosh, are we on cutting edge? What?! And then, you know KFC — and people are like, "Oh my god, KFC, what do you think? Oh, that’s terrible." Like no, that’s good, and let me tell you why. They have millions of dollars to spend in marketing, so they’re gonna tell people what hot chicken is, and I am gonna benefit from that.
"KFC has millions of dollars to spend in marketing, so they’re gonna tell people what hot chicken is, and I am gonna benefit from that."
Helen: That’s brilliant. You don’t have to tell people what it is, you just have to make the best version.
Carla: That’s exactly right.
Helen: They do all your marketing for you.
Greg: So like any sort of food item, there can be a million different iterations of it, and I think that’s definitely true especially with fried chicken, especially in New York.
Greg: People do all sorts of different versions. What is your hot chicken?
Carla: So our hot chicken is brined. We’re doing a wet brine, but we’re also in the middle of some R&D. Do we wet brine? We don’t have a lot of space, so it would be better if we could do a dry rub, but that’s more expensive — so all of those things. So we brine it, and then we air dry it. And then we do a flour coating, and we fry it. We don’t do buttermilk. We don’t do a double coating. Well, we do a double coating of flour, a dredge. And it’s tasty. I think the secret to really good chicken is one, a really good chicken. First off. So a really good, hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken. And then, to just have really good seasoning. Just to see, so without the spice, it’s still good chicken. So you don’t have to get the hot oil for it to be good.
Helen: Are you gonna have a mild version for the people who are spice-averse?
Carla: Yes, absolutely. So we have "hooting honey," we have "hootie hot" —
Greg: Hooting honey!
Helen: Sensing a theme.
Carla: Yes! "Boomshakalaka" is the hottest one.
Helen: Of course.
Carla: I can’t do boomshakalaka. So we have the sweet heat, and then four degrees of heat.
Helen: ‘Cause even at Prince’s in Nashville, which I think by pretty much every account is the icon of hot chicken, and claims to have invented it, which I’m inclined to believe —
Carla: I’m inclined to believe that.
Helen: Though many people dispute it.
Carla: Well, whatever.
Helen: But their mild is still excruciating. If you are tender of palate.
Carla: Yeah, their mild is hot, and then honestly, as a Northerner — I really wanted to say a white person — they won’t sell you the hot one. They’re like, "No, you don’t know anything about that, I’m not giving it to you."
Greg: Yeah, I’ve heard stories about white people being like —
Carla: Let’s call it what it is. I mean seriously, right?
Greg: "No, just give me the hottest one," and then being like, "Ugh, they wouldn’t," or like, "They did, but it was too much."
Helen: I feel like there’s that whole kind of white dude phenomenon where they’re just obsessed with spice, like heat is really cool —
Carla: A sport.
Helen: Among a certain subsection of straight white dudes who maybe need more hobbies. And it’s like a test of brutality, right?
Helen: It’s like, how much can I punish my body with no experience of pleasure or satiation at all. And so this idea of the chicken’s so hot they won’t sell it to white people is so alluring to them.
Carla: Right, exactly. "I’m gonna be the white guy who goes up there and gets the hot chicken!"
Helen: But in New York where — I think the face of dining in all major cities and probably across the country, but in New York in particular, even though it’s evolving and it’s a very liberal community, I think the audience is still mostly white people. Like if you’re gonna go to a high-profile restaurant especially from someone like you, who’s a celebrity in the food world, it’s going to be those stroller-pushing Brooklyn white folks who want to eat mild chicken.
Carla: Yeah, well, I’m hoping that the fact that our average price is $16, and you can even go lower than that if you just want a piece of chicken, I’m really hoping that — what I’m all about is the people in Brooklyn, but also the people who know soul food and Southern food who are gonna come and feel like, "Oh hey, I can go and get really good collard greens, and I don’t have to wait until the holidays to have my collard greens and mac and cheese for Thanksgiving and Christmas." It’s a cultural thing, and for me, it’s a love letter to not only Nashville, but my two grandmothers, Freddie Mae and Thelma. And it’s about really unapologetically doing this food and saying, "I’m okay being Black and doing soul food!"
I think there was a little bit of food shaming, you know, to be honest, with Black people saying — especially if you go to culinary school, if you’re in the food world — saying, "I don’t want to do that. I’m above that. I can do French food. Don’t pigeonhole me into this food." I want to say to all of the Blacks out there, "Hey, this is one of our contributions to this country. And this food is definitely a part of our fabric, and we should be very proud of it." And yes, we have to make it a little healthier because we have a very different lifestyle now. But that’s really part of the impetus for the food that I’m doing.
"Soul food is a cultural thing, and a love letter not only to Nashville, but to my two grandmothers, Freddie Mae and Thelma."
Helen: That’s really powerful. I mean, it’s a powerful statement, and it’s also very powerful that you’re doing that. The food world for a very long time, and I’m happy that the conversation is starting to happen, but the food world has had a really difficult time with representation, especially for people of color. It’s starting to become more of an egalitarian space gender-wise. And it’s starting to become more inclusive of queer people and — no one, I think is gonna come right out and be racist, but the fact remains that there are very few chefs of color who have the kind of profile that you have.
Carla: Yeah, and I think a lot of times I can say, "I love being Black, I love Black people," and that doesn’t make me a racist. I think all groups — when I say, "Yes, this food isn’t for Black people, but I can be very proud to do it and have Black people come and eat it." And I think a lot of times, you look at soul food and Southern food, and there is a difference. There is a difference, and I’m looking at so many people outside of the community do this food and be elevated for it. I’m like, "Wait. Hey, wait, I’m from Nashville. I’m Black. Why can’t I do my food?" You know, and not go and research it and come back and do this food.
I think also, even in doing my cookbooks, it’s very interesting. I’m working on my third cookbook. So I have Cooking with Love and Carla’s Comfort Foods, and I’m working on the third one. And this one is about the food of Africa and being very proud of it, but also looking at the everyday foods and not the celebration foods. A lot of what I’m actually serving at the restaurant. But I talked to my publisher and she was like, "Well it can’t just be for Black people." And I’m like, wait a minute, if I’m sharing my experience, it doesn’t mean it’s just for Black people. When you see a cookbook that’s Israeli or Indian or Chinese or Thai, do you say, ‘What about the white people?’ Why, are they gonna be racist? You can’t focus on them, but you always say it with Black people. Because I think there’s a very interesting relationship in this country with Blacks and whites, and we have to be able to say, "Look, honey, you can love and enjoy your culture as a Black person. You can love and enjoy it as a white person. But I shouldn’t feel guilty for raising my culture up because you feel uncomfortable with our race relations."
Helen: Yeah, I mean, yes. I think that’s a really correct take.
Greg: Absolutely, and all sorts of people would want to cook your recipes.
Carla: Right, exactly.
Helen: That’s the thing, the food is freaking great. And the stories are honest, and the stories are also true and important.
Helen: And I think that, you know, you’re right. I mean, America as a country — white America has a very fraught relationship with Black America because there is so much guilt and anger and feelings of wanting to separate yourself from the past of the country, ignoring the fact that a lot of it is still the present of the country. I can’t think of another cuisine that — in the way that soul food is Southern food cooked by Black people, and Southern food is Southern food cooked by white people—that has that divide. We don’t have a word for when a white guy makes Thai food or a white guy makes tacos. It’s just Mexican food or Thai food. But when it comes to Black Americans, you get siloed into a position that allows white people to step away. And that’s fucked up.
Carla: Yeah, but I think the thing is, first of all, I think in this country, we need to travel more within this country to get to know each other. And I think we’re so busy sometimes when we have the resources, we go to another country. But this country is huge, you know, and in middle America, maybe a lot of Blacks need to travel there. Get to know me as a person, not the caricature on television or the role that was written maybe not by a Black person. But I’m excited to continue the conversation and to share my roots with everyone. And also for Blacks to be proud of this food, and you know, you can — even watermelon. Can we talk about watermelon? Like, oh I don’t want it, I don’t want to eat watermelon as a Black person and be pigeonholed. It is an emancipation food. It’s a celebration food. Those red foods, so you don’t have to be, you know, embarrassed. It’s like, yay, I’m free. I’m eating this, you know.
Helen: You shouldn’t have to change how you behave. The people who are racistly judging you should have to change how they think.
Carla: Right, right.
Helen: Yeah. That’s really powerful. I’m really excited about this.
Carla: Thank you.
Helen: And it’s all gonna have really good fried chicken.
Carla: Yes! And good fried chicken. Which by the way I will not let you have every day. We will do a broasted chicken. If you come in there every day, Greg, and you want fried chicken every day, I’m like, dude. You’ve already had it twice this week. Have some vegetables.
"If you come in there every day, and you want fried chicken every day, I’ll be like, dude. Have some vegetables."
Greg: I dig it.
Helen: Well that’s the thing you were saying about celebration food. Which I think is the case with a lot of cultural cuisines that wind up being assimilated into the general American vernacular. The foods of the Middle East, and the foods of India, and the foods of China, and the foods of Japan that Americans wind up connecting with are very frequently the celebration foods, which are not the everyday foods. And with Southern food, it’s particularly difficult because it’s part of America, and you have things like — I was reading something recently about how KFC and the whole fried chicken fast food revolution suddenly made fried chicken, which was a once a week thing, into an everyday thing. And then everyone got really fat and had high cholesterol.
Carla: Well that’s it, and I think, I’ve thought a lot about this in the last year or so, and I think a part of it is that when you don’t have enough money — so the everyday foods for the most part, you didn’t have a lot of money, so you only could eat like, rice and beans, so you just didn’t have the resources. But as soon you start to become more prosperous, then you can pull and maybe you would make those celebration foods twice a year. Then you became more prosperous, you could have them once a month. You became more prosperous, and to actually show people, "Hey, I’m prosperous, I can actually have you over once a week to have these foods." Then it became every day. And I think that in this culture, it’s like, I am somebody, so I can show you that I am prosperous and this is what I’m going to have every day. I mean gout being the rich man’s disease.
Helen: Exactly, the disease of kings.
Helen: And if you can get it, that means you’re a king.
Carla: Yes, yes. And so, we look at it very differently these days. So what I want to do is to look at some of those ancient grains that maybe they ate — because honestly, poor people are probably the healthiest people. Because the foods are healthy, but they’re very simple. And so getting back to those simple foods, and seeing what they ate in West Africa, like the broken rice and all of these different grains, and using those and actually creating some everyday foods that maybe people didn’t realize were there.
Helen: And all this is gonna be in your upcoming cookbook. Which is super exciting. When’s that coming out?
Carla: Girl, I haven’t written a word. No, no, I have the proposal. It’s gonna be a process because I really want it come from the heart, and I really want it to be the right tone, so the coauthor, Genevieve Ko, is working on it with me.
Helen: She is the best.
Carla: And we’ve become really good friends, and I wanted to do this one together, and so we’re working really hard on getting the right tone. So it’s gonna be fun, and it’s been a fun process just researching and writing the proposal.
Greg: That sounds really exciting.
Helen: So between your three hats that I can count right now. So you’re opening a restaurant. You’re writing a cookbook. You’re on a long running phenomenally successful television show.
Greg: Thousand-episode TV show.
Helen: Thousand-episode TV show.
Carla: Thousand-and-one now, thank you very much.
Helen: And by the time people are listening to this it’s gonna be like eleven hundred.
Greg: It’s gonna be two thousand!
Helen: It’s a multi-thousand episode TV show. If you woke up in the morning, and you can pick which one of these you’d spend your day with, which one today would you say, "That’s the one I want to do"?
Carla: Oh my gosh, that’s so hard. That’s so hard. Why would you do that?
Helen: Because I’m very cruel.
Carla: You are. That’s so hard, okay. I am going to say, in this moment, I’m going to say the restaurant. And I tell you why: Because I think it encompasses all of those things. Because you can actually, physically come and see me, and I can feed you, and feeding people is the way that I nurture people. And I can talk about my love of the history, so I think that the restaurant encompasses all of them.
Greg: Awesome. So we’ve actually come to the time in the show that we call like to call the lightning round.
Helen: Woo hoo.
Carla: Oh my god, okay.
Greg: This is not intimidating, or maybe it is, I don’t know.
Helen: You can choose how to feel.
Greg: Yeah, we’re just gonna ask you some questions. We ask everyone all these questions, so we’re just gonna ask you some questions, the first thing that comes to your mind, just pop it out.
Carla: That’s so weird because it could have nothing to do with what you ask, but go ahead. Let’s do it.
Helen: Oh yeah, totally. This is just like our verbal Rorschach test.
Greg: Okay, so question number one. You’re at the airport. You have an hour to kill, and you have thirty bucks in your wallet. What’s your airport vice?
Carla: Ooh, uh, lalalalalala, I’m, I mean, oh. I’m literally in the airport, I’m probably getting — it depends on which airport, too! Because if I’m in Chicago I’m gonna go in for Rick Bayless’s, I’m going for the Torta.
Helen: Oh Tortas Frontera. Yeah that place is incredible.
Carla: What! Oh my god, it’s so good.
Helen: We’re gonna high five behind the microphone. I’m a terrible high fiver.
Carla: Honestly, I have thirty bucks, I usually go on my phone, and I look for the best restaurant in that airport and I find it. That’s what I do every single time.
Helen: Next question. You’re on a road trip by yourself in a convertible on the open road—
Carla: Oh yes.
Helen: Blasting music, singing along —
Carla: Oh my gosh, yes.
Helen: What’s playing?
Carla: Rick James. Yeaaaaah! Mrmmmmm.
Helen: That also was a little Cher.
Carla: Oh okay, yeah it was. Super freak! Super freak! She’s super freaaakkkyyy.
Greg: Okay, so you’re going to the most perfect bar. It’s the bar in heaven, and you go up there, and the bartender already knows what your favorite drink is, and he or she pours it. What is that drink?
Carla: I don’t drink alcohol, so I always go for something with ginger and citrus and a little bit fruity.
Helen: That’s very cool. That’s a good answer. How do bars — do you sorta judge bars by how well they deal with that?
Carla: I do.
Helen: Non-alcoholic order.
Carla: I absolutely judge you if you can’t do a mocktail well, and if they give me attitude about it. So I look at the cocktail list, and I say, "Okay, well, I want that." And I change whatever the cocktail is to a mocktail. And if they give me grief — I want to be able to run up a tab. That, in my head, I never really drank, and I know friends go and they run up a tab. I always wanted to run up a tab for my mocktails.
"I absolutely judge you if you can’t do a mocktail well."
Helen: Just like on your mocktails.
Carla: I know, yeah.
Helen: "That woman had 37 apple juices."
Carla: I know, and I want something interesting and something that’s not too sweet.
Greg: Man, it’s surprising. A lot of restaurants just fall flat.
Carla: Fall flat.
Greg: If you ask them for something like that.
Helen: They totally don’t know how to deal with it.
Helen: If you were not a multiple-hat-wearing-culinary personality, what would you be doing with your life?
Carla: I love arts and crafts, so I think I would be doing something like that. I recently went to Buzzfeed, and the creativity just jumped on me. I would love to do something like that, you know, in marketing, because that’s how I think.
Greg: Awesome. Do you have a favorite TV show? Do you binge-watch anything?
Carla: What am I binging right now? I was binging Billions because I love Billions, and my next binge-worthy thing will be The Path on Hulu.
Helen: Oh, I’m excited to watch that one.
Greg: Yeah, right.
Helen: That one’s gonna be really cool. It’s about a cult?
Carla: It’s about a cult, and, you know, Michelle Monaghan, and the actor from Breaking Bad.
Helen: The guy, Aaron Paul.
Carla: Aaron Paul.
Helen: Yeah. No, it’s gonna be a really good one. When you get home at the end of a long day and you have to make dinner, what do you make?
Carla: An omelet. An omelet with salad.
Helen: That’s a perfect meal.
Greg: Awesome. Well, those are all the questions we have right?
Helen: Unless there’s anything you want to ask us.
Carla: So tell me—
Greg: Hey Carla, this has been so awesome chatting with you. We’re super excited for your restaurant.
Carla: Thank you so much, and I hope you guys come and come soon. Let us make mistakes when we open our doors so that we can get it right.
Helen: We will. Really looking forward to it. Carla Hall, thanks for coming by the Eater Upsell.
Carla: Thank you so much.
Helen: If there’s anything that you want me and Greg to talk about on the Eater Upsell, anything you want us to ask our guests, or anything that you want us to weigh-in on about your personal life, whether it’s food-related or not, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.