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For Carla Hall, It’s Been a Bumpy Climb to a ‘Top Chef’ Life

Carla Hall’s tarot card reading was running long. Astrology, numerology, psychics, the Chinese zodiac — she’s open to all manner of metaphysical messaging.

I slipped off my shoes in the foyer of her century-old house in the Takoma neighborhood of Washington, D.C., out of respect for a recent million-dollar gut renovation. Then I went to wait in her airy kitchen, which happens to have the most expertly arranged, hand-labeled spice drawer I have ever encountered.

Ms. Hall finally bounded down the stairs with news from the reading. “Oh, my God,” she said. “It was so good. All stars point to ‘this is your year.’ ’’

Indeed, Ms. Hall seems to be everywhere. She’s selling $88 carrot cakes and nesting bowls decorated with okra flowers from her Sweet Heritage line on QVC. She made croquettes from Doritos at the Super Bowl’s Taste of the N.F.L. event. She is luminous in a recent People magazine spread marking her 60th birthday, which arrives in May. (She’s a Taurus.)

And of course, she’s on TV, the medium that made her a food star almost from the moment she was introduced to the world as “kooky Carla” in the fifth season of “Top Chef” in 2008. This year, she’ll judge Food Network baking championships, appear on “Beat Bobby Flay” and serve as a guest judge when “Top Chef” returns in March.

Her biggest splash is “Chasing Flavor,” the first show in which she’s not the wacky sidekick but instead the authoritative star and an executive producer. The show, six episodes of which were released this month on Max, is another entry in the Anthony Bourdain-influenced food-travel genre.

Say what will about the generosity of the universe, but you’ve got to hustle if you want to make it big. As much as she relies on the metaphysical, Ms. Hall is a grinder who has surfed a string of setbacks to become an unlikely star in the celebrity cooking firmament — a Black woman who has let her hair turn gray and uses her platform to share some unpopular opinions.

A theater kid from a middle-class neighborhood in Nashville, Ms. Hall pinballed her way up from an accounting job to modeling to running sandwiches to doctor’s offices. She has navigated dead ends and disappointments, including a much-hyped Brooklyn restaurant that flopped and the abrupt cancellation in 2018 of “The Chew,” a show where she made a fifth of what her male co-stars did and worried almost daily that she would be fired.

The hits she’s taken, both public and private, would have laid out most people. To her, they were gifts from a universe that does things for you, not to you.

“I am constantly looking for why something happens,” she said. “I may not know in the moment. I may not even know in five years. But I’m constantly asking myself, why did I experience this?”

Michael Symon, a Midwestern chef who grew close to Ms. Hall during their time on “The Chew,” said she is the most curious person he has ever met. “Everyone I know was born with a fear of failing except Carla.”

With a face as malleable as Lucille Ball’s and a body honed by dance and yoga, Ms. Hall is a physical humorist who never passes up an opportunity for a laugh. When she tripped while running across the stage as host of the 2018 James Beard awards ceremony, she played it up by going into a pratfall.

“I was like, ‘Engage the core and just go down,’” she said. “Fall like a 2-year-old.”

She’s been polishing her fashion sense since her teens. She makes good use of her height (she’s 5-foot-11, but calls herself “six-feet presenting”) and what she calls her face art — an ever-rotating pair of statement eyeglasses she selects from a collection of some 75 she keeps in a glass case.

Some celebrities seem to have a force field that repels spontaneous fan interaction. Not Ms. Hall, whose entire vibe is accessibility.

“In order to have personal time with her, we have to be in an isolated space,” said her sister, Kim Macedo, a fifth-grade teacher who lives in Olney, Md. When they took their mom, Audrey Hall, out for Mother’s Day in Nashville last year, fans came to the table in a steady stream.

“I’ve never seen her slight even one person,’’ she said.

Ms. Hall credits her father, George Morris Hall, with her comedic timing. She also recalls that he was a heavy drinker who beat her mother. Her parents married and divorced twice, the second time when she was 7.

After Ms. Hall saw the musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar” at age 10, her mother enrolled her in a theater group, the perfect move for a tall, quirky girl. “Theater saved me from being bullied,” she said.

By 17, she was sure her future was at Boston University’s school of theater. She didn’t get in, so she followed her sister to Howard University.

Plot twist: She became an accountant. The work appealed to the same love of detail and order that compels her to arrange her cookbooks by color and make shopping lists that follow the store’s layout, but her job as an auditor in an otherwise all-white PricewaterhouseCoopers office in Tampa, Fla., was a bad fit.

She abandoned that and followed some young models she met to Paris, relying on skills she’d learned at college fashion shows and some low-stakes modeling she did for stores in Tampa.

Ms. Hall never thought twice about jumping from job to job, and often encourages people to quit if they’re not happy. “You got everything that you’re supposed to get out of that job and you’re supposed to move on,” she said.

After two years in Paris, she returned to Washington, but not before she had a food epiphany at the Sunday suppers assembled by other Black models, who cooked and talked about the food they grew up on. The meals cast new light on her grandmother’s post-church smothered pork chops and cast-iron cornbread.

Ms. Hall carried that feeling into a career that underscores the importance of soul food, which she defines in part as Southern food cooked by Black people. “Southern food is like a hymn,” she said. “Soul food is like a Negro spiritual.”

“I spent so many years pushing it away,” she said. “But then I understood that my connection to this food is my connection to my heritage and my story and my family.”



Ms. Hall studied at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md., and cooked in Washington hotel kitchens. She was running a catering company when her husband, Matthew Lyons (whom she’d met on her first Match.com date), started watching “Top Chef.” He knew his effervescent wife would be perfect for the show. She ended up losing in the final round, but created the basis of her brand.

Her crucible was “The Chew,” the food-centered daytime variety show on ABC that she hosted for seven years alongside the chefs Mario Batali and Mr. Symon, and the “What Not to Wear” star Clinton Kelly. The program was widely mocked by the food elite, but drew nearly three million viewers at its peak.

Jessica B. Harris, the scholar of African-diaspora food and a friend of Ms. Hall’s, said people underestimate the importance of having a Black woman showing up every day in that many people’s homes over the course of 1,500 episodes. “That is a degree of engagement and human awareness that I don’t know any other African American in the country had at the time,” she said.

But Ms. Hall felt out of her league and a little isolated. There were no Black producers or even a stylist who knew how to work with Black hair.

‘‘Oh my God, it’s such a steep learning curve,” she recalled. She asked for more training and pushed for more visibility, which helped her land the role as lead interviewer when her idol, Carol Burnett, was a guest.

The pay was not equitable. Her male co-hosts earned more than she did, though she concedes that they had more experience. She couldn’t get the producers to renegotiate her contract until the last year. When they did, her salary more than doubled, to about $950,000.

The couple decided that Mr. Lyons could leave his job as a government lawyer and become a teacher of meditation and yoga. Two weeks after he did, “The Chew” was canceled. In the meeting where the producers told the cast, Ms. Hall couldn’t resist a little comic relief. “I got up said: ‘Oh, wait. Hold on. I’ve got to see if my husband can get his job back.’”

There were several reasons for the cancellation: Ratings had softened. The show was expensive. And Mr. Batali’s planned exit was fast-tracked after several women stepped forward to say that he had harassed or assaulted them.

Ms. Hall has remained friends with Mr. Batali, and declined to join in the public condemnations. She describes her decision as a nuanced one: She believes the women who came forward, and she saw violence against women in her own home growing up. But she never witnessed Mr. Batali’s offenses, and refused to take on someone else’s pain or anger. She called it a “judge not, lest ye be judged” moment.

She has also fielded criticism for not speaking out more forcefully about racial injustice.

“Sometimes I tend to say things in jest, but I know exactly what I am saying so I make it a little easier for people to take,” she said. “You have to choose how activism happens for you, not how someone else thinks your activism should look.”

These days, her bread and butter comes from the sale of cookbooks and cooking equipment, public appearances and a plethora of partnerships with companies like Hormel Foods. She recently landed Quaker Oats, the cereal her grandmother ate daily. “They’ve been on my vision board for 20 years,” she said.

For her new show, Ms. Hall was paid about $100,000 for all six episodes. But she got to travel to a half-dozen countries, tracing the roots of al pastor tacos to Lebanese shawarma makers who migrated to Mexico, and exploring the origins of ice cream in Turkey. She highlights Black contributions as often as she can, like those of Augustus Jackson, the 19th-century White House chef who developed eggless, American-style ice cream.

Ms. Hall is also writing a funny one-woman stage show with bits about menopause and how she keeps getting confused with the actor Tracee Ellis Ross, while conjuring another TV idea about remodeling her childhood home in Nashville that she hopes HGTV will pick up.

Back in her kitchen, after nearly three hours of talking, she opened a bag of tortilla chips and set out an array of salsa and dips in bowls from her Sweet Heritage line. The guacamole, she confessed, came from Whole Foods Market. She doctored it up with fresh avocados and oregano.

To be honest, I had expected something a little more — although, to be fair, she had planned to take me to a neighborhood Mediterranean restaurant. We got so caught up in conversation that we never made it out the door.

Ms. Hall reminded me that expectations are only disappointments waiting to happen. And that everything happens just the way it’s supposed to.


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