Chefs

Saying Yes

Celebrity chef Carla Hall on food, freedom, and always keeping an open mind.

Reclining in her living room.
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SPEAKING TO CHEF Carla Hall is very funny. And it’s not just because Hall is naturally funny, but also because I feel as if I have known her forever. The dance one does as an interviewer, wherein you try to make a subject feel comfortable, take the temperature of the situation, and break the ice, is remarkably absent when speaking to Hall. She is disarmingly nice. When I mention this to her — that my lack of nerves has to do with the fact that she already feels like someone I’ve known for the better part of two decades — she instantly laughs. “Oh, I get that all the time,” she laughs. “I feel like I don’t meet many strangers and I love that.”

For anyone paying attention to the pop-culture zeitgeist of the past 20 years, Hall’s story is already familiar. She first appeared on television screens as a contestant on reality juggernaut “Top Chef” back in 2008, and while she didn’t win, her winning personality (and her beautiful food) got her invited back in 2010. This started the ball rolling on a television career that has included hosting stints on ABC’s “The Chew,” and now sees her as a beloved judge on the Food Network, where she offers advice and encouragement on shows like “Halloween Baking Championship,” “Worst Cooks in America,” and “Best Baker in America.” Add to this her three cookbooks and her ongoing TV appearances — I can think of few people who have appeared on “General Hospital,” “Sesame Street,” and “Antiques Roadshow,” seemingly entirely logically — and it’s easy to understand why she is universally beloved.

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Part of Hall’s charm as a television personality is her radical benevolence. As a recurring judge in the snarky world of American reality TV, she is something of an anomaly — a person who is kind, curious, and genuinely supportive. Even when called upon to be critical, she is never mean-spirited and genuinely wants people to be their best. In addition to being a gifted chef, whip-smart writer, and astute critic of food culture, Hall’s air of affability is a sort of Trojan horse, frequently opening the door for complicated conversations around race, gender, and the ways in which our cultural identities are expressed in the food we eat, create, and serve.

Still, all of this is only a part of Hall’s story. In fact, much of the empathy she shows for aspiring chefs and young creatives stems from her own rather circuitous career path. Hall graduated from Howard University’s School of Business and spent years working as an accountant before taking a sharp turn as a runway model. It was her time spent traveling while working in the fashion industry that ignited the guiding passion in her life: food. Her willingness to creatively shift gears and follow her passions and curiosities remains central to her being, and it's something she still espouses on the regular, both as a motivational speaker and via her podcast, “Say Yes!,” which highlights the importance of valuing your interests, resisting labels, and generally avoiding stasis. Zooming in from her home in Washington, D.C., Hall is as friendly and effusive as I might have hoped, chatting about creative work, the experience of being a Black woman working in the food industry, and why the culture of food is about so much more than what we eat.


A lot of people feel like they know you because they’ve been following your career trajectory ever since you first appeared on “Top Chef,” but you had a very interesting career even before that. As someone who now does a lot of public speaking, is this something you talk about a lot? Embracing the unexpected, letting life lead you in different directions?

My mantra is, “Say yes. Adventure follows, then growth.” I talk about the benefit of failure and how it’s not about the fall, it’s about how you get up. What you do after the fall. What inspired a lot of the changes in my career was that I didn't want to be 40 and hate my job. I decided, “OK, I can quit.” Still, I had a real fear of failure. I’m really hard on myself. That probably doesn’t come across as much to people as I think. Until then, I was always a moving target. As in, if I keep moving you can’t pin me down; I also won't be there long enough to fail. Because my father sold me on this fear of failure. So when I was on “Top Chef,” my most valuable lesson was being comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was 44 when I did that show, so that’s 13 years ago. That was my biggest lesson and I guess that was the thing that I needed to learn at that time.

The older I get, I like myself so much more when I feel like I don’t have to be perfect. Perfection is never the goal, ever.


How difficult was it to watch yourself on that show?

I watched it with a bunch of people and I never told anybody what the outcome was because I was afraid of that million-dollar gag order. I was like, “I don’t have a million dollars.” So I’m absolutely not going to tell anybody, even my husband. When I won Super Bowl tickets on the show, he was like, “How is it that you didn’t tell me that?” Because he found out when everybody else saw this show. I said, “Because I don’t have a million dollars.” Pretty simple. Sometimes when I watched the show, I would think about all the things they didn’t put in the show, and try to understand the edit.

Sometimes I felt a sense of sadness because I remember it being so hard. I also remember feeling like an outsider sometimes, because I was. Not an outsider in a horrible way, but chefs who work in restaurants are of a different ilk and I was a caterer. So I was an outsider there. Sometimes I was overlooked. I was able to be discounted because I was older and I was a caterer. They’re like, “We don't have to worry about her.” In a way I was left to do my own thing, which was wonderful.

Padma Lakshmi said that she saw me grow because of the things that they told me at the judge’s table. Whether I was on the top or the bottom, she saw me put them into effect the next time I cooked. For me, that experience was all about learning.

When I do these speaking engagements, I always say that you can learn so much more from me when I tell you about when I failed. I didn’t just wake up here. There’s a journey; there’s a backstory. It’s also very freeing for me because you’re not going to find something, a skeleton in my closet, because I’ve already told you all about them. I also absolutely do not have to be perfect. I’m very clear about that. The older I get, I like myself so much more when I feel like I don’t have to be perfect. Perfection is never the goal, ever.


There is this sense that being the breakout star of a reality show suddenly thrusts you into the spotlight. How difficult was it to navigate that — and to navigate all the opportunities that quickly came with it?

It’s really hard. When I did “Top Chef,” I remember people saying, “Okay, you have to get PR.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute. How much is PR?” And then they tell me how much PR is, and I’m like, “Well, I don’t think I can afford PR. Why would I have this expense if it’s not going to pay off?” When I did my first cookbook it really felt like imposter syndrome: Who wants recipes from me? Why should I do this? It was a lesson. When your ego steps in, things get complicated. I look back at that first cookbook and I can see how my ego clouded everything. I love the stories I was able to tell in that book — stories about my catering life, about my life before and after “Top Chef,” and all the dishes that carried me through. But there are some dishes in that book where I feel like I made the recipes harder than they needed to be to justify why I was doing a cookbook. When I look back I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I would change this recipe.” There’s actually one recipe in my book, the Five-Flavor Pound Cake, which is my grandmother’s pound cake, where the recipe is wrong. When people ask me to sign that book, I first turn to that recipe page and I write in, “This is supposed to be two sticks of butter.” I’d do it differently now, but you learn and you live with it.


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One of the things that makes you so good as a judge on all of the various Food Network shows is that you seem to have a palpable sense of empathy for what the people are going through. It’s a breath of fresh air, particularly in a medium where so many judges seem to have a sense of glee about being mean.

Yes. I do relate to the bakers or the chefs because I was there. I know how it feels. I will eat anything anybody puts in front of me, out of respect. They made it, they clearly thought it was going to be good. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made it. So out of respect I’m going to eat it. I probably eat more than anybody else. I also think about, if this is their last time in front of me, that I want to give them feedback that they can use after they’ve left.

For example, there was a baker on one of the shows and I got so upset with him. He was this young Black guy from Philly and he kept using his background, where he was from, as an excuse for not doing well. Then there was a challenge where he was going to make this sweet potato pie, or he had to use sweet potatoes. As an ingredient, it was literally a gift. He goes and makes something that was the opposite of what was asked for. He basically did what I did with my cookbook. He made it complicated for no reason. He didn’t value what he knew. I was just like, “I’ve been there, but what you’re showing me is a lack of self-love.” I wanted him to understand that until he valued what he was doing, he couldn’t excel and exceed. It felt so personal in the moment, but I felt that he needed to hear it.


There is a quote from the Washington Post that gets mentioned a lot, referring to you as the most visible Black person in food. I was thinking that it must be so wild to have that said about you, but also very wild to have the weight of that kind of representation constantly put on you. What do you make of that?

Well, I know I’m a celebrity now, I’m not going to act like I’m not. I don’t walk through the world in that way. I don’t take up that space like that. But I do ask myself questions like: If this is true, then what do I do with it? How do I use this platform? I’ve always chosen to highlight Soul Food. When I talk about it, if anybody interviews me, I make sure that Soul Food is capitalized as a proper noun, versus just as a description. I really try to bring some form of social justice around food and the stories behind it and the diaspora. With that comes a lot of responsibility. But I can only do what I can do, I don’t feel that I’m fighting for everybody, I don’t feel that I am the voice of everyone. I mean, Black Twitter came after me for a potato salad! You can’t please everyone and I’m also not going to try to hide when somebody comes at me.

I really try not to make it like I am this big presence, because I also share this space with so many other people. I try to shine the light and bring other Black chefs into the conversation. Because sometimes, I mean, you know this as well, reporters are lazy, so they’re going to come to me because they know me, but there are all these other people in the country that they could just as well interview. I try to always have on hand names that I can throw out. To share the spotlight and to share what other people are doing. It’s not just me. When somebody says you’re the most visible, maybe I’m the most visible because your light is only shining in this really small space or you just aren’t looking hard enough. You know what I mean?


Has your perspective on food changed over the years?

It’s always changing. I recently finished shooting this travelogue show for Discovery Plus. It involves traveling all over the world and trying to really understand the stories of certain foods. I think it changed me much more than I could have anticipated. I realized how much the “story” is a part of the food we eat. The culture is in the story which is connected to the food. When you have these relentless ads and people are targeting you, food becomes a product and is so disconnected from actual people and the culture. Spending time with people all over the world and really learning about where their food comes from, why they cook the way they do. I was in tears almost every day. It was so incredible.

The pandemic really shifted a lot of people’s attitudes around food, or it at least made them more cognizant of their relationship with food.

So many people realized that they like to cook, and that previously they just didn’t have the time. They never realized that, or maybe they just never took the time to enjoy themselves. Some people realized that, oh my gosh, actually I’m a really great cook. I think that it was so beautiful, even for someone like my sister who doesn’t like to cook and only eats for sustenance, to actually spend time cooking because she had the time. And enjoying it! And having the time to think about the recipe and where it was coming from. I think many people discovered cooking through personal experience for the first time during the pandemic, which is a much different thing than just having people tell you how you should feel about it.

I’ve always chosen to highlight Soul Food. When I talk about it, if anybody interviews me, I make sure that Soul Food is capitalized as a proper noun, versus just as a description.


It seems like the culture of food media is rapidly changing as well, becoming much more diverse.

Oh my god. Yes. I mean, we are now in a world where we are thinking about people and the diversity of people in a much more generous way. Even the diversity of the people that you see on the Food Network, the diversity of the contestants. That is something that has changed since I’ve been there. I remember saying that the diversity of the contestants means that you also have to have a diversity of producers and judges, because all of that goes hand in hand. It doesn’t matter if you have a diverse cast of contestants on a cooking show if the judges aren’t diverse as well; otherwise they don’t understand the food being presented to them and are judging it based on their own limited knowledge.

If the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that we should not try to predict the future. But what are you excited about in the coming year?

After having basically 18 months at home, more or less, I am excited about working again. I’m always looking for that connection. I’m really hoping that this show that I filmed gets another season because there’s so many stories to tell and I loved every single moment of it. I’ve made so many friends around the world and I always say, “I’m coming back to see you!” and I always mean it. I want more of that. Also, I’m not just the person who’s working in food, I don’t want to just be seen in that. You asked me about that statement, being the most visible Black person in food. I’m like, please do not put that label on me because I really want to do other things. I love crafts, I like to draw, I like to dance, I like to roller-skate. I like to do voice-overs. There’re so many other things that I want to do. I do not want to limit my 2022 to being all about food, especially when there’s so many wonderful stories that are food adjacent.

I was talking to another chef who said something like, “I’ve been cooking for almost all of my life.” I said, “Actually, for most of my life I have not. I've done all of these other things.” I love that I can think back to when I was modeling or an accountant. All of those things that I have done, there’s a little piece of it in what I do now. And I love that.


That being said, food is a good conduit for talking about all sorts of things. Everything comes back to food.

It’s true. When making a show about the culture of food, there’s also the music, there’s the art, there are the farmers, there’s just a chain of passions that all lead back to the food itself. This woman in Turkey has said to me, “The reason we go out to eat is so that we can have a great conversation.” I get chills when I think about it. As it relates to food, I hope that 2022 is a year of great conversations that can take me in a million different directions.

Carla Hall’s Chefs to Watch

Where to get a taste of the best and brightest Black culinary talent in America right now.

  • John Hall

    John is the co-owner behind Post Office Pies. After working in world-class restaurants for world-renowned chefs, he brought it all back home, where he bet on himself and his community by opening Post Office Pies in the Birmingham, Alabama, area. Eight years later, with Post Office Pies in good hands, he’s moving out west to pursue family life and balance. It’s the ultimate chef’s dream.

  • Mame Sow

    This Senegalese-born chef, who has an Afro-Asian-American sweet bar in New York City called Shoebox Bakery, also spent time this year bridging these worlds at one of the most popular dining spots at the Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE — the African Dining Hall, Alkebulan.

  • Amanda Mack

    Amanda, a celebrated pastry chef, busy mom of three, and co-owner of Crust by Mack (a small-batch bakery) and an event space, still manages to prioritize raising funds for Baltimore communities. She shows us that it’s not what we do, but how we do it.

  • Enrika Williams

    With Fauna Foodworks and Magnolia Sunset Markets, Enrika combines culinary arts with creative arts in the Black community of Jackson, Mississippi, to create uplifting dining and shopping experiences while educating others about Black culture and artistic talent.

  • Ashten Garrett

    I met Ashten last year when he won the American Culinary Federation’s L. Edwin Brown Hospitality Professionalism and Excellence Award. He is currently chef de partie at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, and has appeared on “Guy’s Grocery Games” in the “America’s Next Chefs” episode.

  • John Hall

    John is the co-owner behind Post Office Pies. After working in world-class restaurants for world-renowned chefs, he brought it all back home, where he bet on himself and his community by opening Post Office Pies in the Birmingham, Alabama, area. Eight years later, with Post Office Pies in good hands, he’s moving out west to pursue family life and balance. It’s the ultimate chef’s dream.

  • Enrika Williams

    With Fauna Foodworks and Magnolia Sunset Markets, Enrika combines culinary arts with creative arts in the Black community of Jackson, Mississippi, to create uplifting dining and shopping experiences while educating others about Black culture and artistic talent.

  • Mame Sow

    This Senegalese-born chef, who has an Afro-Asian-American sweet bar in New York City called Shoebox Bakery, also spent time this year bridging these worlds at one of the most popular dining spots at the Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE — the African Dining Hall, Alkebulan.

  • Ashten Garrett

    I met Ashten last year when he won the American Culinary Federation’s L. Edwin Brown Hospitality Professionalism and Excellence Award. He is currently chef de partie at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, and has appeared on “Guy’s Grocery Games” in the “America’s Next Chefs” episode.

  • Amanda Mack

    Amanda, a celebrated pastry chef, busy mom of three, and co-owner of Crust by Mack (a small-batch bakery) and an event space, still manages to prioritize raising funds for Baltimore communities. She shows us that it’s not what we do, but how we do it.


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