The Night I was Pushed by Carla Hall

The snow wasn’t deep but nonetheless, my car refused to make it up the hill and out of the parking lot.  I put my foot on the gas and slid backwards while Carla Hall (a finalist on Top Chef Season 5 and currently featured on Top Chef All-Stars) tried to direct me on which way to turn the wheel.  I had visions of my name in the headlines as a result of my seriously injuring the local star, so I encouraged her to move out of the way.  Undeterred, she returned moments later and helped push my car up a hill.  I finally made it out of the lot and on my way towards home, thoughts turned towards how I would word this event on Twitter, Facebook, and my blog.

Top Chef is one of my favorite TV shows. Top Chef All-Stars is even better because we already know the players, and we have an opportunity to see how they’ve grown (Antonia) or not (Jamie).  I hold a special place in my heart for the DC area cheftestants  Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn (already out), and of course Carla Hall (nice win on the challenge tonight!)

Matthias Clamer/Bravo

When a Groupon offering a cooking class with Carla Hall appeared in my inbox a few months ago (actually before Top Chef All-Stars was even announced), I jumped on it.

I selected a vegetarian cooking class because I was concerned that the regular class could possibly feature  pork or shellfish, which I don’t cook in my home.  I wondered if I had done the right thing, but a few weeks later Carla won a challenge on the show by cooking a vegetarian African Groundnut soup..  My confidence in my decision was restored.

Carla’s catchphrase is “hootie hoo.”  I can only describe her as a hoot.  Most of the time she is a fairly low-key person and sometimes it’s difficult to hear her as she speaks rather softly.  But then she gets excited and her eyes nearly pop out of her head and she sings or dances or squeals with delight.  Her facial expressions are varied but each one is uniquely Carla.  It’s easy to see why this caterer from Silver Spring (by way of Tennessee) was cast on the show.

We enter the room where the class is being held and I am dismayed to learn that I’ve missed out on some opening banter about Top Chef.  Carla is answering questions about the judges.  Who does she like best? Gail.  What’s Padma like?  Nicer since she had a baby.  I wonder what other tidbits of information I’ve missed.

Carla gets the class started and I am intrigued when I hear that all the dishes will feature butternut squash, and each one will be paired with wine.

The cooking tips are scattered throughout the demo, along with a sentence or two thrown in now and then about a Top Chef challenge or fellow contestant. I hang on every word.

The first dish is mixed greens with butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds and apple cider vinaigrette.  I learn a new way to cut a squash- much like an apple and then you throw out the core.  I also learn the term wine sandwich- sip the wine, taste the food, sip the wine.  This illustrates how food changes the personality of the wine. She also talks about the three stages of browning nuts in pan:  not done, not done, burnt.  It’s nice to hear her admit that she makes mistakes.

The salad is light and refreshing.  Throughout the demo Carla relays tips about how to add flavor to food, and how to be spontaneous in doing so.  This has me thinking about my own cooking, which is heavily reliant on recipes.  Could I possibly be ready to branch out on my own?

The next dish is Moroccan spiced squash rounds with dates, pistachios and mint.  I love the complexity of it, although I don’t normally like pistachios.  I make an exception here.

This is followed by tofu and roasted butternut squash chili with crisp grits.  This dish is a standout.  The recipe she gives us does not call for cayenne but she has decided to add it, and then add some more.  It is indeed spicy but I savor every bite.

The last course is a butternut squash brulee with apple chips.  I wish I had captured the expression on her face as she wields the blow torch (and not the kind you get at Williams & Sonoma but a real blowtorch, she explains).  She looks totally fierce.  I would not have expected a dessert made from squash to be so delicious.  It is wonderful.  I dove in before I remembered to take a photo.  Oops.

Carla talks about turning dishes into peacocks, that is having the flavor spread its wings.  Great imagery!

I pick up some very useful tips about how to add flavor to food. Here are a few. (If you want more you really should take one of her classes. Her website is www.alchemybycarlahall.com.

  • don’t wait until you’re at the end of preparing a dish to add salt, it will just sit on top of the food.  add salt or other spices during the preparation
  • add a citrus zest to a dish for more flavor
  • if a recipe calls for water, use a fruit juice instead. water is forbidden, she says.
  • if you’re cooking with tofu, press it overnight so it holds the spices

Near the end of the evening someone asks Carla to name  her favorite restaurants and I listen intently.  8407 in Silver Spring.  Commonwealth for Sunday lunch.  Good Stuff Eatery for burgers.  WillowRisPho 75.  I ask if she has plans to own a restaurant and she replies that this is indeed in her future, probably in three years.  In the meantime, she is marketing a line of cookies which we are able to sample as the class concludes.  They are quite good.

The thing that impresses me most about Carla is that she is not at all a diva.  I sense no ego, despite the fact that she is frequently recognized when she is out in public.  This seems to surprise her, as she relays a story of someone who sees her on the metro and exclaims, “YOU ride the metro?” “Yes,” she says wryly.  “I do.”

Carla not only pushed my car out of her parking lot, she pushed me to be more creative in the kitchen.  Hopefully, I’ll still be inspired in a few weeks when I actually have a kitchen.  Mine is being renovated right now, forcing me to eat out virtually every night.  But that’s a topic for another blog.

Comments

  1. Great one! I love that you ate pistachios!

  2. Elizabeth Treusdell Brunetti says:

    How exciting! I met Carla at a food and wine festival at National Harbor last year. I was so starstruck that I couldn't say anything but "Hi" and stare! My husband had to do all the talking!

  3. Andrew Robinson says:

    I found this by searching for the recipe for apple chips Carla showed me how to make during a similar cooking class. She is definitely fun, spirited and classy all rolled into one. I am also a local foodie that enjoys dining so I look forward to reading your other articles. I do see a restaurant missing that I think you might love going to. It’s called Farrah Olivia and is owned and run by Chef Morou. He is an African fusion deconstructionist which I found very interesting. Chef Morou was a runner up on The Next Iron Chef the season that Chef Symon won and was added to the panel. He opened his restaurant in Old Town Alexandria however he moved it to a room in back of Kora in Crystal City. I highly recommend checking it out if you havent been.

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