Fri, Jul 2, 2010
Carla Hall: Woman of Taste
The local chef dishes about her American culinary idols, her rocky path to fame and a new dining venture.
Local chef and Bravo TV star Carla Hall dishes about her American culinary idols, her rocky path to fame and a new dining venture.
Carla Hall remembers when food—great comfort food—used to be made for the soul. “I’m talking about getting back to food made for the heart, food made the way our grandparents used to make it,” says the D.C.-based chef and Bravo Top Chef finalist. As founder and proprietor of Alchemy Caterers, a Washington-area cooking school and catering company, Hall is well on her way to achieving her goal.
Can a chef have too many fallback positions? Hall’s résumé is a beaut. She has been a practicing CPA, a runway model in Paris, Milan and London, and a food-biz entrepreneur. Then, after cramming those disparate experiences into the first 30 years of her life, she decided to go to culinary school.
Moving on to something different and, one hopes, better has never intimidated the Nashville native. “I wanted to major in theater in college and applied to the Conservatory at Boston University, but when they wanted to delay my acceptance for a year, I balked—when you’re 18, you want to get away from home!
“So I joined my sister at Howard, and because I’d always been good at numbers, I majored in accounting, which absolutely thrilled my mother. I got my degree and a job, but I hated accounting, so when I passed my CPA exam and the certificate came in the mail, I gave it to my mother. She has it up on her wall.”
While working for Price Waterhouse on a job in Florida, Hall watched a co-worker “spend 15 minutes one very hot day painstakingly folding a receipt to get the corners even.” That was the tipping point. “These weren’t the people I wanted to be with."
Hall, who’d modeled in college, had been doing the same thing in Florida as a way to meet people she did want to be with. Learning that several of her fellow models were going to move to Paris, she saw it as an opportunity to change course. In Paris, her work as a runway model eventually took her to Milan and then London at the age of 23.
A Model With a Cooking Habit
Three years later, two events coalesced to send Hall off on yet another career path: her mother fell ill, and the modeling agency went bankrupt. Fortunately, while in Europe, Hall had picked up an interest in cooking.
“Contrary to what people think, models eat a lot,” she says with a laugh. “We had these huge brunches, and everyone would talk about what their mothers used to make. I began buying cookbooks and making things.”
Back in the States, Hall walked into yet another opportunity. Her sister’s boss was giving Hall’s sister a baby shower, and when Hall heard there was no place in the neighborhood that sold suitable food, she volunteered. “I made a turkey dish, biscuits, a lemon-blueberry bread and some other things we used to have at the models’ brunches, and put it all in a picnic basket.”
Hall delivered leftovers to one of her sister’s friends the following day. “Her boss looked at my basket and asked the name of my business. Thinking quickly, I said, ‘The Lunch Basket.’ She asked when I could come back, and I said, ‘Tomorrow.’”
Hall figured this wasn’t a fluke. She walked into stores, hair salons, barbershops and a doctor’s office in her neighborhood and introduced herself by saying, “Hi. I’m the lunch lady.” Within a week, she had seven clients, and she doubled that count within two weeks. She succeeded at the business for five years and then headed to culinary school.
After graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine in 1996, Hall began her professional career at the Henley Park Hotel, where she was promoted to sous chef within a year, before moving to the State Plaza as executive chef. In 1999, she moved to the Washington Club, a private social club on Dupont Circle, as director and executive chef. Four years later, Hall decided to work for herself. “Little did I know I was moving out of the frying pan and into the fire!” she says.
Hall founded Alchemy Caterers six years ago. Why the name Alchemy? “A woman at the spiritual center I frequented said to me, ‘You need more compassion, Carla. You should get a pet.’ So I adopted a cat, and I said, tongue-in-cheek, mind you, ‘I’m going to call it Alchemy because apparently it’s going to change my life.’ And when I was searching for a name for the catering company, I chose Alchemy because I wanted people to experience something with the food—to feed their souls.”
Today, Hall divides her time between catering, cooking instruction and work as a private chef. Last year, she was a finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef. Some cooking purists consider these shows to be too heavy on the showbiz side, but Hall values her experience. “I think the more you learn about how to do something, the better the choices you make,” she says.
As for the Top Chef competition, Hall says it was insanely stressful, but she believes it’s good to be afraid because it pushes you to find your threshold and your breaking point. “That experience taught me I really wanted to learn so much more about food,” she says.
Bricks and Mortar?
For years, self-proclaimed change-lover Hall has said she doesn’t want to open a restaurant, but that, too, may be changing.
“I’ve finally decided that I want to make my food available to people who aren’t in the catering market,” she says. She’s partnering with Equity Residential and Hickok Cole Architects in their project at 21st and L streets, NW.
Hall’s contribution to the project, which will redevelop the vacant site of a former school, will be a market and a café, plus space for cooking classes and, her fondest dream, a rooftop garden. It’s set to open in three years. “Granted, a lot can happen between now and 2013, but I’m very excited about the project and the chance to become part of the community, and to have a job-training program for high school and college students, kind of a magnet school for cooking.”
In the meantime, Hall will continue to run Alchemy Caterers, cook for private clients and follow in the direction, if not the exact footsteps, of two of her favorite D.C. chefs, Ris Lacoste and Ann Cashion.
She will also continue to enjoy being part of the Washington food scene, which she believes “is really coming into its own, because the new, up-and-coming restaurants are attracting new chefs to D.C. It’ll be interesting to see where we are five years from now.”
Stick with Hall, and it’ll be a tasty ride.