When Carla Hall made her debut on Top Chef, she refused to cook fried chicken, a dish often associated with African-American women. “For the longest time I ran away from it,” she says. “I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed.” But the Tennessee-raised chef had a change of heart during the filming of the show, and became an ambassador for the type of food she grew up eating. “I said, why am I really ashamed of doing this food? I love this food.”
Hall will open her first brick-and-mortar, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, in Brooklyn this winter. Until then you can preview some of the dishes—like Nashville-style hot chicken and baked mac and cheese—at Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen food stand, now open in the Barclays Center. The caterer-turned-restaurateur can also be seen as co-host of the ABC daytime talkshow The Chew. We talked with Hall as she made biscuits about the differences between Southern and soul foods and the importance of getting to know other cultures through their cuisines.
For the uninitiated, what is Nashville-style hot chicken?
Hot chicken has been in Nashville since the ’30s, primarily in the black neighborhoods. It’s a traditional fried chicken that isn’t buttermilk-battered; it’s just floured and fried. And then once it’s fried, you toss it in a spicy oil. There’s a story of this man whose last name is Prince. As the story goes, he had been out late one night, so the next day his girlfriend made this chicken really hot to burn his mouth. But he liked it so much he ended up opening a chicken shack. Bill Purcell, who was at the time (early 2000s) the mayor of Nashville, really loved it and brought a lot of attention to Prince’s Hot Chicken. He started having this hot chicken festival. And then you’ve had some more places popping up. Growing up, I didn’t really think of it as a trendy thing, it just is. And now I think people are sort of finding these interesting things in neighborhoods and pulling them out and sort of sharing them with the world.
Why did you decide to open your first restaurants in Brooklyn?
I feel like Brooklyn kind of chose us. My partner really wanted Manhattan. But I went to see the space and I walked around the neighborhood and peeked in the window, and I was like, this is it. It’s going to be in Columbia Street Waterfront, between Cobble Hill and Red Hook. The community down there feels really close knit, kind of small and where you know your neighbors. It has the kind of community that I would think of in Nashville. And I really wanted that vibe of a joint. That was really important to me.
Do you think New York does Southern food well?
Well I think when people think Southern food here, they think barbecue. They think soul food, which is in Harlem, the Bronx and Queens, but not so much in Brooklyn. Southern food is sort of a vanilla version of soul food. I grew up on soul food. Southern food just doesn’t have as much pop.
So what do you consider your food?
My food is like a lighter version of comfort food. We’re going to push the flavor boundaries without all the fat. I’m not going to cook my greens with a bunch of pork or even with smoked turkey legs. A lot of people in the African-American community don’t eat pork, whether it’s because they’re Muslim or because they just don’t eat pork. That being said, I still want that flavor, I still want that pop, but I’m going do it without the pork. In fact all of our sides are vegetarian.
What’s really important to me, and I don’t want to speak for all African Americans, but I think that there was a time when people would want this food, but they wouldn’t eat it because it was below them. It was kind of like food shaming. I unapologetically want to do this food to really maintain our history, our culture, and also share this with New York. This food is very much like the food I grew up eating at Sunday suppers at my grandmother’s house. Her version was lighter than what some other people made because my grandfather had hypertension and diabetes. So my version is lighter, but I do want to celebrate the traditions and the heritage with this food.
There’s a stereotype that African-American women only cook soul food, or only cook fried chicken. Is that an issue you’ve ever dealt with?
Yes. That’s why for the longest time I ran away from it. I would never do fried chicken. I went to French culinary school and I had a catering company and I did not want to do the food that I grew up on. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. But when I was on Top Chef, I was so stressed out when I was competing that I started to make food to make myself feel better, food that I wanted to eat. People said, oh you do Southern food. Oh you do desserts. But really it was just about comforting myself. It was only after that I said, why am I really ashamed of doing this food? I love this food. And I love my grandmother who made this food. I did try to push that away. But now I’m embracing it.
How can women chefs, chefs of color, get more recognition for their work?
I hate to say it, but it’s really those shows like Top Chef and Chopped that are going to highlight these women. That’s where people are looking. I mean it’s kind of embarrassing when [a stranger] runs up to me and is like ‘oh my god Carla, hi, how are you? It’s so good to see you!’ And then I’m standing next to somebody like Jonathan Waxman or Jacques Pepin, these great chefs. [After Top Chef] I was like, how can I use this platform for good?
Do you have to be Southern to cook good Southern food?
Coming from a black woman, I think that’s a very good question… No. It’s funny because I’m saying no, but if I try to make Mexican food or Indian food, there’s going to be something lacking. Because, for me, it would only be intellectual. If someone who is Indian tastes my Indian food, it’s going to miss the soul.
Just because someone can study what another culture does and they can perform it very well does not mean they have hit the mark. I have had some perfectly prepared food before that is missing soul for me. It could be Thai food, it could be Southern food, it could be whatever. I’m like hmm, it’s perfect, but I cant figure out what’s missing… Then I look in the kitchen and it’s like, oh.
If a chef lives it and loves it, you know it. If you approach it from a book, and you’re like, I know this food, I’m going to research it for a couple of weeks and bring it back, you’re never going to hit the mark. When you reach to another culture, in addition to learning the food you have to learn the people. You have to go into the homes where the food started. Before it got fancy. Before it was being done in a restaurant setting.
Right, because your grandmother may have written her recipe down, but when she cooks it, she’s adding a pinch of this or that, which doesn’t appear on the recipe card.
It’s so funny, because I didn’t think anyone was making my cornbread right. And I couldn’t understand it because it’s such a simple recipe. And then I realized that when I make it, I don’t follow my recipe. I look at the batter and I’m like, oh it needs a little more corn. And I put that in there, but I don’t write it down. I can just look at it and tell. When I make biscuits, I can feel it. That’s why you have to live with the people.
Learning culture through food is something I feel very passionate about. Food is the one place we do allow people to be different. We’re not going tell another culture that they should do something else with their greens or something else with their rice. If somebody’s handing me a plate from their culture, I shouldn’t stop by grabbing the plate; I should reach beyond the plate to the person’s arms to get to know them.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep