DON GONYEA, host:
Now, "Top Chef." And here's the spoiler alert. If you didn't catch last night's finale on TV, we are about to blow the surprise. My guest in studio is "Top Chef" finalist Carla Hall.
Ms. CARLA HALL (Finalist, "Top Chef"): Hootie!
GOYEA: Hootie. (Laughing) If you're a fan, you know what hootie means and you know that for the past several weeks, she's been wowing the judges with her food "cooked with love," as she puts it. Jacques Pepin, the famous French chef, said, he could "die happy" - that's a quote - he could die happy after eating her fresh peas. Viewers voted overwhelmingly for Carla. Sixty-five percent thought she should win.
Unfortunately, she was not crowned Top Chef. That title went to her competitor, Hosea Rosenberg. We'll hear more about that in a moment, but if you want to talk to Carla Hall, the phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also cook up an email and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Carla Hall, welcome to Talk of the Nation and congratulations on making it to the last show and making it as far as you did.
Ms. HALL: Thank you, Don. I really appreciate it.
GONYEA: So, the finale actually happened long before it aired. So, you're not in here the morning after (unintelligible).
Ms. HALL: Right, exactly.
GONYEA: What was it like to watch yourself come in third in the show last night?
Ms. HALL: I relived it. I relived looking at some of my mistakes and remembering some of the good things. I enjoyed working with Casey, and I think we had a good time. You know, would I do things differently? Yes. I mean, a lot of times you'll do something and you can always tweak later. There's a lot of tweaking I would do about the finale.
GONYEA: And again, this is - I mean, you're making decisions on the fly…
Ms. HALL: Right, right.
GONYEA: In the moment - big decisions.
Ms. HALL: Big decisions. I mean, we had five hours total - two hours the previous night and then three hours - to do a three-course meal with an hors d'oeuvre, keeping in mind the last time we had a challenge it was, I think, five hours to do two things. So, it seems like less time to do more work.
GONYEA: Can you do just a quick, hopefully, not too painful postmortem for us on what happened - where the trouble was?
Ms. HALL: I think I second-guessed myself. I went in not believing, and I also went in thinking, you know - Casey and I had come up with a plan, and I'm like, oh, great, that sounds really good!
GONYEA: Tell people who Casey is, just quickly.
Ms. HALL: Casey was in season three - "Top Chef" season three. And she was the runner-up of - in her finale. And things didn't go so well for her when she was in the finale. And the fact that we paired up was kind of good - girl power and all of that. But we came up with some ideas. I had some ideas of what I wanted to do, and Casey was going to take my ideas and elevate them a little bit. And I was all for it. I'm like, OK, let's go big or go home.
GONYEA: So, where was the - where did it all come crashing down? What ...
Ms. HALL: I think I just felt overwhelmed with not having the time to really concentrate on various things. You know, Casey was working doing her things; I was working doing mine. I had forgotten one of the sauces on my first dish, and I think after that - which was one of the dishes that I was really proud of, and once that started, everything started to unravel. The judges said, I shouldn't have done the sous vide because I had never done it before. I was OK with taking that chance, but I think the cut of meat, you know, wasn't as good as we had hoped, so it was a little tough. And then the souffle didn't souffle - although, in my head, I was saying souffle, but I never really made a souffle. It was just a custard. And I didn't turn the oven down, so it boiled and curdled. So, there was a lot of things that went wrong with me. But that being said, I don't blame Casey. I take full responsibility for everything that happened and - so, if I could do it again, I would be much stronger.
GONYEA: We're going to take some calls. People - they've - the phones have lit up, believe me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GONYEA: But before we do, one of your great inspiring moments to a lot of people was what you did with peas…
Ms. HALL: Yes.
GONYEA: For Jacques Pepin. Am I saying that properly?
Ms. HALL: You're saying it right.
GONYEA: OK. Tell us about the peas. It's the first time I've talked about peas on the radio.
Ms. HALL: Yeah?
GONYEA: But that's - yeah.
Ms. HALL: Well, I think I started with something that I love to eat. And I blanched the peas in salted water just until they were, you know, crisp-tender. And then, I tossed them in a lemon-thyme butter that I made and then finished them with fresh tarragon. So, I think the lemon zest and the tarragon really brightened them.
GONYEA: Sounds easy.
Ms. HALL: I know. It's really easy. Well, there's complexity in simplicity, but I think the fact that you're looking for all the balance of flavors, so…
GONYEA: You need to pick the right peas?
Ms. HALL: You need to pick the right peas.
GONYEA: How do you pick the right peas?
Ms. HALL: Well, when I was picking, I literally picked - shelled my peas at Whole Foods. When I was picking them, I was looking for firm peas that were really green, not gray, not mushy. So, you're looking for fresh peas, which was really great. At the time, peas really weren't in season. I mean, peas are a spring vegetable.
GONYEA: Mm hmm. All right. Let's take some calls.
Ms. HALL: OK.
GONYEA: I am going to go - I'm just going to hit one here. Mary Ann is - are you in Mentor, Ohio? Is that where you are?
MARY ANN (Caller): I am, I am, sir. Hi, Carla.
Ms. HALL: Hi, Mary Ann. How are you?
MARY ANN: I want to tell you that I watch the show every week, and I mainly watched it to watch you cook.
Ms. HALL: Oh.
MARY ANN: I really thought that you brought a real integrity to the game. I didn't see you pull one dirty stunt. You didn't alligator anybody. And your whole thing about putting love into your food - I don't know if you know this, but for a while in my past, I was a Hare Krishna, and they have this whole concept of praying while you cook and putting love into the food. And then, they actually believe that the people that eat that food are blessed by the eating of that food.
Ms. HALL: Yes.
MARY ANN: And I don't know if you consciously do that, but subconsciously, you definitely try to put love into the food, which I believe brings a blessing to the people that eat that food. And I'm so proud of you.
Ms. HALL: Oh, thank you Mary Ann. Actually, it is a conscious decision. The name of my catering company is Alchemy Caterers, and my tagline is: changing the way you experience food. And I believe if I am clear when I am making the food, the healing comes through me to the person who is eating it. And I don't know what that healing is supposed to be, but I am open to that transformation taking place. So, I talked about a little more on the show because I want people to be conscious of that process. And I always say, if you're not in a good mood, the only thing you should make is a reservation.
GONYEA: She said you didn't alligator anybody. Do you know what that means? I don't know if I know what that means. I guess I can tell.
Ms. HALL: I know, Mary Ann, but I think trip somebody up, you know, whack him with the tail?
GONYEA: Well, that's - reality TV is full of that stuff. I mean, that's part of the game, right? And I heard somebody say, you know, Carla's too nice. She's just too nice.
Ms. HALL: People in my family were saying, you're too nice, this is - you know, what are you doing? This is a competition. But going on the show, I wanted to teach people or just to model for people that there's a different way of competing. My biggest competitor was myself. And - so I hope I showed people that there's a different way of competing, and they can compete nicely, and everybody wins.
GONYEA: Let's take another call. I'm going to see if we have Peter in Flint, Michigan.
PETER (Caller): Hi, how you doing?
GONYEA: Good, good.
PETER: Thank you for taking my call, by the way.
Ms. HALL: Hi, Peter.
PETER: Hi, Carla. Big fan, big fan. I watched your show every week, too. What I want to know is, how is your catering business doing after the show? Are your clients feeling the love?
Ms. HALL: My clients - well, I hope they're feeling the love. They're having to wait for their love because - all of my clients out there, please, you know, give - have a little patience with us getting back to you. The phones are blowing up, and there are lots of weddings that are happening. And it's really exciting, and I'm very grateful for the surge in business.
GONYEA: You're based here in D.C.?
Ms. HALL: I'm based here in D.C. Well, actually, my kitchen is in Wheaton, Maryland.
GONYEA: OK, just outside of town.
Ms. HALL: And - right, just outside of D.C. But it's been really positive.
GONYEA: I - we have an email question. This is from Emily - Emily, I believe it is, in Oakland, California. What do you make of the fact that only one woman has won "Top Chef" in the last five years? In a recent episode, when Carla won the New Orleans challenge, Tom C.'s congratulations to you seemed insincere. You get a lot of this, watching the show. What about the fact that only one woman has won? Is there…
Ms. HALL: You know, I think I'd like to say, in Tom's defense, I don't think he was insincere. It was a really late night. I think that - you know, you want to make sure you capture me coming up and saying, you know, thanks to the judges. And, you know, maybe that process was lasting a little long for him. But I think he was really happy for me. And I don't think that the judges think of it in terms of a female or male winning, a black or a white, Asian. I think they just want the best chef to win. To them, we are plates of food first. We aren't personalities.
GONYEA: It's like - it's not quite like the blind audition a classical musician goes through, but…
Ms. HALL: But similar.
GONYEA: The food is what talks.
Ms. HALL: That's right.
GONYEA: Yeah. Let's hear from Deborah in Akron, Ohio. Hi, Deborah.
DEBORAH (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having my call. Hello, Miss Carla.
Ms. HALL: Hi, Miss Deborah.
DEBORAH: Hi. I am so much a fan of yours, too. And my question was - because as you were talking about this question of putting love into the food, and they kind of laughed at you, I think, through the whole series - you know, what the hell is love or whatever. But no, you do what grandmothers do all the time. So, my question was, how do you merge or how are you able to merge African-American cooking tradition with some of the nouveau cuisine things that you put out?
Ms. HALL: I think that's a really good question. When I went to culinary school, you know, and I learned about sauces and all of this. And I say - I went back to my grandmother, and I'm like, granny, you know, you've been serving me a broken sauce. You know, of course, she wants to slap me in the head.
But, you know, we get a little education, and we start trying to correct everybody around us who's been making their food for, you know, decades. And I definitely appreciate what my grandmother gave me in the kitchen and also my father. I was a late bloomer in the food world. I mean, I started out in accounting, and then I was doing runaway modeling - not that that was a career, it was kind of a pass-through.
So, I did have to feel my way initially when I had a lunch delivery service, and then I learned the theory when I went to culinary school. So, I started out from the heart and just thinking about taste and - first, and then I went back to figure out how do I execute the taste part. So, that's how I merge the two.
GONYEA: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's take another call. Let's go to my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Hello, Detroit. Leslie, how are you?
LESLIE (Caller): I'm fine. How are you?
GONYEA: I'm good.
LESLIE: Be thankful you're not in - well, it's 45 degrees today here.
GONYEA: That's not too bad. (Laughing) That's not too bad.
LESLIE: With our bikinis and our suntan lotion.
GONYEA: Good. So, do you have a question, a comment, a recipe?
LESLIE: I keep a kosher home, and as you know, we don't mix milk and meat. And I love to watch food shows, and they make these wonderful cream sauces and things like that. And I would like to make some of those for my family, but I realize - is there something I could use that I wouldn't sacrifice too much taste, some sort of substitute that I could still have that cream, you know, creamy texture, but still keep the (unintelligible) kashrut?
Ms. HALL: Right. I think you can. You have to work a little harder. One of my partners in my - at my existing kitchen is a vegan caterer, and I watch how they transform food - some of the same processes but, you know, doing them vegan. You can use a silken tofu for some of your sauces and just finish with that and also using a high-fat margarine. So, it's definitely doable. I mean, obviously, it's easier to do that cream sauce with fish. I just did my first kosher meal in someone's home a couple of weeks ago, and it was a great, great experience. So - fortunately, I didn't have to start out with a meat meal and try to, you know, and try to succeed there first. But I think, definitely, you can use a silken tofu. You can also use some of the high-fat soy milks to get that silky texture.
GONYEA: If you are just joining us, the voice you hear is that of Carla Hall, "Top Chef" - one of the finalists. Unfortunately, was not the winner in last night's finale, but...
Ms. HALL: I won in so many ways.
GONYEA: Well, and if we look at public approval ratings, you certainly did very well. So - no secret, these are kind of hard, scary economic times…
Ms. HALL: Mm hmm.
GONYEA: For a lot of people. Does that have to affect the way people eat and their ability to have good, interesting food?
Ms. HALL: I don't think so. I think, you know, even the restaurants realize that they have to sort of cut back and maybe make some allowances with the diners and reach out to them to get them to come to the restaurants, because people are cooking more at home. I think spices are inexpensive. When you're cooking from scratch, it's actually inexpensive.
And if you're cooking for two or three, you can of course get portioned meat, or you can also get the least expensive meats and braise them and make those really yummy. I mean, I think one of the best things is to go to an international chart list and see the kinds of flavors that you can actually use to, let's say, Mexican food or Turkish food or French food or Italian food and just go around the globe just in your spice cabinet.
GONYEA: And again, it's just the spice.
Ms. HALL: Exactly. They're - spices can change a lot. You know, you can have a chicken dish a million different ways or a beef or a fish dish. Spices can change a lot. And then, of course, eating seasonally is also less expensive, and it tastes better, too.
GONYEA: Let's see if we can get one more call in here. Jim from Modesto, how are you?
JIM (Caller): Hey, I'm great. Thank you. Hey, Carla.
Ms. HALL: Hi, Jim.
JIM: Hey, I have to tell you. I felt the love from your show, and last night, I felt the stress.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HALL: Yeah.
JIM: It was really tough watching that show, I'll tell you. And I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed you, and I hope to - that sometime you come out with a cookbook.
Ms. HALL: Oh, thank you.
JIM: Do you think that'll be in the future?
Ms. HALL: Maybe, maybe. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed on that, and I will be honored if a lot of you out there take my recipes. And I think that a recipe is only a guide, so I will start with the recipe, and you make it your own. That would make me proud.
JIM: Well, you've got a built-in crowd, so that's what we're clamoring for next is a cook book from you, Carla. Thank you so much.
Ms. HALL: You're welcome. Thanks for the love.
GONYEA: And just quickly, any other business plans - a restaurant - beyond the catering?
Ms. HALL: I don't want to do a restaurant. I am a catering chef, but I would love to have a kitchen in D.C. where it has the catering in the back and then more flex space upfront with a show kitchen where I can do classes, where I can have a chef's table and - so people can come and have sort of like a virtual restaurant, so to speak, and then maybe shooting something. I would like to sell my sweet and savory cookies, which I'd like to make a line for. So, yeah.
GONYEA: All right. All right. Well, Carla Hall, thank you very much…
Ms. HALL: Thank you.
GONYEA: For coming in. It's great to meet you in person. Best of luck to you. Carla Hall, "Top Chef" finalist in season five of the Bravo TV series. She owns Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C. - in the area and joined us here in studio 3A.
Tomorrow, it's Science Friday and Ira Flatow. He'll be here with details of a new report that says some forensic science, including fingerprint identification, may not be scientific enough. Plus - why hair turns gray and the search for the ultimate flu vaccine. Ira Flatow will have that for you tomorrow. On Monday, Neal Conan is back in the host chair. Have a good weekend. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
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