Top Chef Contestant Dishes All Bravo's hit reality show, Top Chef ended last week, with fan favorite Carla Hall Lyons losing to contender Hosea Rosenberg. Host Cheryl Corley talks to Carla Hall Lyons about how she became a chef, her journey from underdog to finalist on the show and her catering business in Washington, D.C.
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Top Chef Contestant Dishes All

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Top Chef Contestant Dishes All

Top Chef Contestant Dishes All

Top Chef Contestant Dishes All

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Bravo's hit reality show, Top Chef ended last week, with fan favorite Carla Hall Lyons losing to contender Hosea Rosenberg. Host Cheryl Corley talks to Carla Hall Lyons about how she became a chef, her journey from underdog to finalist on the show and her catering business in Washington, D.C.

Hear More From Carla Hall Lyons, Plus Her Recipe For Peas

Carla Hall Lyons talks about her experience on the finale of Top Chef

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The recipe for peas that Chef Jacques P├ępin said he could "die happily" after eating.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up: One counselor talks about how she helps people keep their homes, and sometimes even their sanity.

But first, if you love eating, cooking, or just enjoy watching TV shows about food, then you probably have come across "Top Chef." That's the program that introduces executive chefs with memorable meals and unique personalities, and weekly contests for prize money and the singular title Top Chef. Well, the drama of season five concluded last week with some heartbreak. Chef Carla Hall Lyons, an overwhelming fan favorite, fell short of the winning title.

By fan votes, 65 percent felt she should be the Top Chef, but the final selection is left to an expert panel of judges on the show. Well, Carla's distinctive focus on flavor and refreshing approach to the kitchen, which she called cooking with love, made her a standout. She also has the distinction of being the first African-American ever to make it to the top three finalists in the show. So today, we decided to catch up with Carla Hall Lyons and learn more about this chef and her life back in the real world. And Carla joins us in our Washington D.C., studio. Welcome to the program, and congratulations.

Ms. CARLA HALL LYONS (Owner, Alchemy Caterers; Semi-Finalist, "Top Chef"): Thank you, Cheryl. It's great to be here.

CORLEY: Well, great to have you. First, you made it to the final three. But throughout the competition, you were the underdog. You were the optimist, though, and very easygoing. And I want to play a short clip of you when you learned that you were going to the semifinal round.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Top Chef")

Ms. LYONS: I just feel like I was this tortoise, and I've been picking up speed and I'm like oh, see ya. See ya. That's how I feel, that I'm just like, coming ahead. This feels amazing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: That was pretty awesome. Did you ever think that you would make it as far as you did?

Ms. LYONS: In a word, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: And what do you think got you there?

Ms. LYONS: I think I would have been happy to get to the top eight, and it's incredibly difficult. When I came home after taping I was like, oh, my gosh. You know, my husband would say, well, how was it? Without telling him anything, I would just say, it was hard. And my prayer for myself was to get over the nerves and actually do what I do: cook and put the love in the food and have people taste my spirit.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, Carla, "Top Chef" lovers know you for your enthusiasm and your down-to-earth attitude towards making dishes on the show. But we don't know much about who you are as a caterer based in Washington, D.C. So tell us how you got your start in the food business. I understand that that wasn't how you really started your career.

Ms. LYONS: No. Actually, I went to Howard University, and I majored in accounting. And that was only after I decided not to major in theater because I got a little scared about not having a job after spending a lot of money for an education.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: You know, I'm so darned practical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: And so I majored in accounting. I left Howard, and I went to work for Price Waterhouse in Tampa. And I hated my job, but I always was excelling. So even though I left Price Waterhouse, I was still trying to pass the CPA exam. When I finally passed the exam, I'm like okay, great. Now I can move on to something else. And I didn't know what that something else was going to be. I had done fashion shows at Howard, and I was sort of moonlighting as a runway model in Tampa, little Tampa. So I said, you know what? I think I'll quit my job because I met some girls who, you know, were off to Paris. I said, you know what? I think I'll quit my job and go to Paris.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: It sounds like a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: And it really was because of what I was searching for, and it wasn't necessarily food. I was searching for falling in love with a job. My biggest fear was hating my job at 40. So I literally fell into food. I started buying cookbooks, and the recipes were like puzzles to me. So I then was preparing food and as a fluke, I started taking lunches to a friend and - at her job. And her employer says, oh, do you have a business? And I said yes. And - what's the name? I made up a name. I said the Lunch Basket. Oh, when will you be back? I'll be back tomorrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: And within a week, I had seven clients. Within two weeks, I had 14.

CORLEY: Wow.

Ms. LYONS: And I did that for five years. I literally was the sandwich lady walking around, schlepping sandwiches. I was better than the mailman. I was out there, you know, every day, snow, sleet. And then I went to culinary school and got the theory in. And I guess the rest is history.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. What's your favorite food?

Ms. LYONS: Oh, peas.

CORLEY: Peas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: I love peas. I also like hamburgers. I love a good burger, a good, juicy burger. My husband teases me - for some of the holidays, Christmas and Thanksgiving, you know, we have the big dinners, I love sides - so, you know, dressing and greens and sweet potatoes, and those kinds of things. I don't make them often, you know, two times a year. But I love them.

CORLEY: Carla, you cook a variety of styles of food. But as the highest finishing African-American in this "Top Chef" competition, I was wondering if you felt any pressure to present a certain kind of menu, especially with Southern or African-American cuisine.

Ms. LYONS: No, not at all. I think that - as a caterer, I don't do a lot of Southern food. Most of my food is very classic, very clean. A lot of people would describe my food as being very light, where they can taste the ingredients. I would say I like comfort food, but that is not limited to, quote-unquote, soul food. Comfort food could be Indian food for a bunch of Indians - well, East Indians. It could be some kind of spring rolls or street food for Thai or other Asian people. So what I really wanted to do was to just give people a food memory. And, you know, as you talk to people and you play off of people's energy, you realize, you know, what is going to make them happy. And sometimes, it is very intuitive, and I don't really plan it.

I just say, you know what? I know what I should put in this dish. And it's something that they like, but it's just picking up on this energy that - and it just pops into my head. I can't explain it.

CORLEY: Well, now that the show is ended, you are back in DC. Your business is in the D.C. suburbs, and back at your catering business. What changes for you?

Ms. LYONS: You know, I will continue to cater. I am looking for space in D.C. to move my catering company into D.C., and I'd like to incorporate having a chef's table actually in my space. It's the best of both worlds for me. I get to, a couple of times a month or four times a month, you know, decide that I'm going to have a chef's table and actually do a multiple-course dinner for a group of people. And the other thing that I'm interested in doing is a line of sweet and savory cookies, little petite cookies that, up to this point, mostly our clients have enjoyed, but they haven't been available to the general public.

CORLEY: I can tell you you're going to have a line for that chef's table, for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYONS: I would love to have you there, Cheryl.

CORLEY: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Carla Hall Lyons is the chef and owner of Alchemy Caterers. She was most recently a finalist on the Bravo TV series "Top Chef," and she joins us in the studio here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much.

Ms. LYONS: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

CORLEY: To hear about Carla's famous recipe for peas and hear more about her emotional finale at "Top Chef," please go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

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