In part one of Top Chef’s New Orleans finale, which aired on Bravo last week, local gal Carla Hall impressed Emeril Lagasse with her oyster stew and savory beignets, earning a place among the final three contestants. Loyal hometown fans loved Hall even before her quirky yet adorable “hootie-hoo!” call through the supermarket, but over the past few episodes, she’s proven herself to be a serious contender for the Top Chef title (and lifetime supply of Glad products).
The Takoma Park resident is originally from Nashville but came to DC to attend Howard University in the ’80s. Postcollege, she explored a few career paths—accounting for Price Waterhouse, modeling in Europe—and eventually followed her love of cooking to Bethesda’s L’Academie de Cuisine in 1995. She founded her own boutique catering company, Alchemy Caterers, in 2001.
Hall is watching the Top Chef season unfold on TV with the rest of us: “I don’t get any advance copies,” she says. “And I don’t tell my husband anything that happened ahead of time—he didn’t even know about the car I won last night!” Though she had to keep mum about the events of next week’s big finale, Hall chatted with us about some of her local food favorites and most memorable Top Chef moments.
Favorite neighborhood restaurant:
“The closest thing to a neighborhood restaurant for us is Nicaro in Silver Spring. My husband and I go there a lot. I usually go for the specials. Everything is good, so I don’t have a signature thing.”
Most memorable restaurant meal in Washington:
“The most recent one is the lobster burger at Central Michel Richard, and I love the frisée salad at Brasserie Beck. It’s funny because it’s not necessarily that I have a favorite; I just think of the last experience that was memorable. Those are my two latest.”
Favorite local farmers market:
“I usually go to the Takoma Park one because it’s so close to my house, or Dupont Circle. I love getting my meats and butter and eggs, and I generally get bread from Atwater’s.”
Local chef you most admire:
“Oh, wow, there are so many. Todd Gray at Equinox. Jeff and Barbara Black, who have quite successful restaurants. Then you have some of these young chefs who are making a name for themselves, such as Amy Brandwein, who now has moved over from Bebo Trattoria to Fyve. Janis McLean, who’s now at 15 Ria and used to be at Red Dog. We’re usually working all the time, so you don’t see other chefs all the time. I’m starting to meet more people because of Top Chef, and people make it a point to reach out and say hello.”
Did you watch Top Chef religiously in previous seasons?
“I did. Actually, my husband turned me on to it after the first season. Last year, I was rooting for Stephanie and Antonia, but I really liked Richard, too. Loved Casey the season before. And Trey. And CJ.”
Have you been to Spike’s burger joint on Capitol Hill?
“I’ve been to Spike’s place about three times. I reached out to him, actually, because I met him at one of the events in DC and was embarrassed to say that I hadn’t been there yet. I love the atmosphere there and that his mom and his dad and sister are all there.”
What inspired you to try out for the show?
“I’d been talking about it with one friend. I was inspired running around with catering—I said I felt like I was in training for Top Chef. There was a running joke about that. Then someone had submitted my name as someone who would possibly be interested. And it happened so quickly—I got a phone call, and the next thing I knew I was at the audition up in New York.”
What Top Chef dish are you most proud of?
“I would have to say the escolar and the squab. I’d never cooked escolar before that. And then to hear Jacques Pépin talk about my squab—it nearly brought me to tears to hear him saying, ‘I can die happy now.’ ”
Favorite Top Chef challenge:
“I actually thought that the Mardi Gras one was really fun—just the people and being in New Orleans. I loved the Le Bernardin challenge. The one that was really clever, although I didn’t like it, was the Thanksgiving challenge. It was really, really hard. But it was clever to have us go cook this big meal with toaster ovens and microwaves.”
Least favorite challenge:
“The 12 days of Christmas. Three hours to cook for 300 people. All of a sudden, it’s like—go! That had to be my least favorite.”
Favorite judge—Gail, Toby, Tom, or Padma?
“I have to say Tom. I respect him as a chef, so if I was in the top or the bottom, getting his feedback was invaluable.”
Have people been stopping you all around town since the show started airing?
“Yes. Here in my hometown, I’m like, okay, I’m a hometown girl, and I never get tired of it. In New York, it’s really humbling. I think of New Yorkers as not taking the time to talk to someone they don’t know.”
You teach classes at CulinAerie sometimes. When’s the next one?
“Actually, tomorrow. You can go on the Web site, culinaerie.com, and sign up for them. I’ve been teaching for a while. I taught at Sur la Table, and I’ll be teaching some at L’Academie de Cuisine. I enjoy empowering people, showing them that cooking is really not that hard.”