Star of “The Chew” Brings Her Southern Charm and Chow to NYC
She may be best known as a co-host of ABC’s Emmy award-winning The Chew and a competitor on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef: All Stars, but Carla Hall has taken on a new role: New York City restaurateur. Using an approach that blends her classic French training and Southern upbringing, she is putting a new twist on traditional favorites at Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen.
Open since June 2016, the Nashville, TN native is turning out the taste of her hometown – Nashville Hot Chicken and all the favorite fixings from south of the Mason-Dixon. In a sit-down with New York City Monthly, Chef Hall had us drooling as we talked about the menu, why it works in NYC, and how it’s brought her closer to her family roots.
For people in New York who may be unfamiliar, what exactly is Nashville Hot Chicken?
Nashville-Style Hot Chicken is a fried chicken. It’s a southern-style fried chicken. It’s just fried, then is dunked in a spicy oil, and our oils range from mild, like a sweet heat, to really spicy where we’re using Carolina reapers and ghost chilies. There’s a big range. I think we have something for everybody.
What about the sides?
It’s all about the sides! The sides are vegetarian and that was by design because we only have one protein. I don’t want vegetarians to come in and feel like they can choose one thing to eat. I wanted them to be able to basically have a smorgasbord.
There are collard greens, there are candied yams, macaroni and cheese, sweet and Yukon gold potato salad, coleslaw. We have the southern soup beans, which is a dry bean, sort of cooked long and slow. Our biscuits are amazing, cornbread that’s not sweet, banana pudding, sweet potato rolls.
All the good stuff.
All the good stuff, yes.
Were you always confident that the food that you guys are putting out would fit in the restaurant landscape of New York?
I honestly didn’t think about that. I didn’t think about New York in terms of my concept. I thought about what I personally wanted to share. Sometimes, as a southerner, I know I couldn’t find the food that I wanted, that I grew up on, here. It’s nuanced.
I was thinking, “What if nobody gets it?” That worried me, but it wasn’t enough to try and change it because the restaurant is so personal to me that it was about sharing who I am as a person than finding the right concept for New York.
It seems to have worked. Would you agree?
I think so. People have enjoyed it. I constantly get people in who are like, “Oh my gosh, this is the food that I can’t find here.” There was a guy there last night and he was like, “I’ve been trying to explain to my wife what the food was like when I was growing up,” and he’s from Richmond, VA. He’s like, “This is it. This is so amazing. I’m telling you I don’t usually speak in superlatives, but I can’t believe, this is like my Sunday suppers growing up.” That always feels really good.
A lot of southern recipes are passed down through generations in families. Was that a big influence for you when you were creating the menu?
The interesting thing is, I didn’t start picking it up ‘til I was 30, so a lot of the cooking that I would’ve done with
my grandmother, I didn’t do. It was after I went to culinary school that I really started to appreciate the food that I grew up on in terms of making it. I was always eating it. I have some of my grandmother’s direct recipes, but a lot of it was figuring out through food memories and taste.
What other restaurants in the city are your go-tos for good down-home cooking?
Let’s see, good down-home cooking, there’s Melba’s up in Harlem. To have a different kind of feel, even though it’s more upscale, The Cecil, because I like their broken rice, and it’s a different take on the food.
I guess I can’t not mention Sylvia’s. The most interesting thing I think about Sylvia’s is when people who have been there for so long are cooking the food. To look at somebody cooking and they’re eyeballing, they’re looking at the greens. There was a guy who took a big tong-full of greens and he’s just looking at them, he’s like “Oh no, they’re not done yet. You can tell by the way they glisten.” Talk about 10 thousand hours, these cooks have 10 thousand hours. That’s the amazing part for me at Sylvia’s. I can go there and appreciate what’s happening in the back even though I sometimes can’t see it.
There’s some good places in terms of fried chicken. There’s a spot on Smith Street, Wilma Jean, in Brooklyn. They have good fried chicken.
Now Carla Hall’s.
And now Carla Hall’s.
Since opening last June, what’s been the thing that surprised you most about having your own restaurant?
Everything. Honestly, I can tell you every single thing. It’s like having a baby or getting married, something that maybe you dreamed of but you could not experience it fully until you were in it. You just didn’t know.
I never wanted a restaurant; my business partner badgered me for three years. I think the most surprising thing for me is how much fun I’m having. I enjoy cooking for people and I enjoy giving people these food memories.
You’ve tackled the business on television, with your cookbooks and the restaurant. What do you plan to do next and how will you take what you’ve learned so far and apply it moving forward?
That’s so funny, I don’t feel like I’ve tackled anything. I feel like I learn something new every day. I think I am learning more and more about myself through this food.
I am working on my third cookbook and the more that I am cooking at the restaurant I want to learn more about the genesis of this food and reaching back to where my ancestors are from in West Africa. That’s the thing, I’m in it but I want to go deeper. How did this become my food? It’s a self-discovery. I know that’s boring, but it is a self- discovery.