Carla Hall digs into daytime TV with ‘The Chew’

September 20, 2011

NEW YORK — The only prop Carla Hall had for her initial audition last fall for “The Chew” was a newspaper. The producers of the forthcoming food-forward daytime TV show asked her to pick a story in the paper — any story — and just talk about it, as if she were making conversation at a party. Hall doesn’t recall the exact story, but she remembers that her improvised speech wandered fearlessly into Faulknerian territory. Her flow was more like a stream . . . of consciousness.

“Let’s say it was a story about luggage. I said, ‘This would be a great story about just packing lunch,’ ” the former “Top Chef” contestant said during a break in rehearsal on “The Chew” set at ABC headquarters near Lincoln Center. “I knew I didn’t get it, so I wasn’t even tripping. I just found [the audition] really hard.”

Hall was right about her prospects. Her phone remained “Chew”-free for months — until late into the run of “Top Chef All-Stars” that spring, when the two-time contestant on the Bravo program charmed viewers enough to become the fan favorite for Season 8. “One of the ABC executives saw [the show and said], ‘Oh, I love Carla! Can we see her?’ ” she recounted.

Such was Carla Hall’s second chance at “The Chew,” which was all it took. She, the producers and — most important of all — the other hosts bonded faster than hot fish to a dirty grill. “A lot of it really boiled down to the chemistry and how [the cast] really meshed with one another,” said Randy Barone, vice president in charge of programming and development for ABC Daytime, as he watched rehearsals in a cavernous studio formerly used for the now-defunct “Tony Danza Show.”

The chemistry was so good, in fact, that ABC scrapped its original concept for “The Chew” and hired five (count ’em, five) co-hosts. In short order, the former Silver Spring caterer went from developing her line of designer cookies to mapping out a whole new professional life for herself (including living in New York during the week). “The Chew,” which debuts Monday at 1 p.m. on ABC, hopes to do for food what network-mate “The View” did for current events: Give it a place in American homes that have been hopelessly hooked on the slow drip of daytime soaps.

But if “The Chew” ever hopes to measure up to its older sibling “The View,” let alone vie for Oprah’s discarded crown as ruler of daytime talk, it must do so with a grab-bag of co-hosts who might be only nominally known outside their faithful foodie and lifestyle circles. Besides Hall, they are Iron Chef (and James Beard Award winner) Michael Symon, “The Dorm Room Diet” author (and daughter of Mehmet Oz of “The Dr. Oz Show”) Daphne Oz, “What Not to Wear” host Clinton Kelly and celebrity chef Mario Batali, possibly the most famous (and definitely the most orange) of the five.

And even Batali isn’t so sure his popularity extends into the heartland of America.

“I don’t think I’ve met a lot of these people, and they haven’t met me. Maybe they’ve heard about me from maybe my restaurants? Less likely. Or ‘Iron Chef’? A little more likely,” Batali said during a rehearsal break, as a hairstylist desperately worked to keep his long, thinning locks reasonably plastered to his head. “This is a crowd that I haven’t probably talked to in a long time. I’m interested in finding out what’s going on.

“If anything, I’m very aware at this point in my life that there is the highbrow world, and then there is America,” Batali added. “I want to talk with America. I want to have that conversation.”

As devised by executive producer Gordon Elliott and a team of more than 25 producers — including four “culinary producers” who look a lot like a kitchen prep team — this conversation might sound somewhat like other shows that America has come to embrace. “The Chew” is expected to feature daily chats on current events (think “The View” with a foodie bent), a cooking challenge in which one of the hosts must prepare a meal in six minutes from a mystery bag of grocery items (“Top Chef” quick-fire, anyone?), healthful-eating tips from Oz (a female Jamie Oliver, minus the tsk-tsking) and simple Italian cooking demonstrations (Mario channeling Giada’s “Everyday Italian”?), among other recurring segments. Kelly will moderate this three-ring-mold circus.

The most original segment might be something that Hall created. She calls it “Gon Be Moments” but pronounces it, with a sistahlike attitude, as “gome be moments.” The regular feature will be Hall’s attempt to keep it real on daytime TV: She wants to prove to home cooks that with a few learned tricks, they can recover from their mistakes in the kitchen.

“Cooking shows are so perfect, and I think that’s why people are so intimidated to cook. They think that they have to be perfect. We mess up, we mess up. We burn something, we burn it. We have to keep going,” Hall said.

“I don’t take myself too seriously,” she added, by way of explanation. “If I failed, I failed. I would own it. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I messed up. Move on.’ And that’s how I live my life, and that’s why I do the ‘Gon Be Moments.’ ”

As in real life, “Gon Be Moments” probably will make surprise appearances on “The Chew.” During a rehearsal last week, in which Hall was under the gun to make breakfast in six minutes using the items in a brown paper grocery bag, she found herself confronted with a potential disaster: burned toast. With no toaster at hand, Hall had set her white-bread slices — a concession to middle America or just a poor stab at middle-American tastes? — in a saute pan to brown. The slices soon turned black, as Hall focused her attention on the bacon-and-cream-cheese omelet with a sauce of reduced orange juice and strawberry preserves.

“It’s gon be okay,” teased Symon, playfully invoking what will be Hall’s signature segment.

“Look, look,” Hall retorted, staring wild-eyed to one of the many cameras on the set. She picked up the burnt toast, grabbed a knife and started scraping. Slowly, methodically, comically. “It’s going to be all right,” she said, mocking the seriousness of the situation. The gathered crowd in the studio — producers, scattered audience members, ABC executives — broke out laughing at Hall’s impromptu comedy routine.

“There’s something about Carla. I can’t even say what it is,” said Symon after the rehearsal. “You watch her and you love her, like immediately. There’s an immediate draw there. If you have that, the rest of the stuff you can learn. You can’t teach what Carla has.”

Hall’s rise to prominence — and to a seat next to Batali, perhaps the largest man in the American food business (gastronomically speaking) — has not followed a traditional path. The Nashville native, 47, earned an accounting degree from Howard University, but her career in numbers was short lived. She shifted her attention from the mind to the body: She flirted with modeling, which took her to Milan and Paris, where she developed an interest in preparing food. That, in turn, led to a lunch-delivery service back in the Washington area, which led to cooking school, which led to work in hotel kitchens, which led to her own catering company, the Silver Spring-based Alchemy. Her first turn on “Top Chef” in Season 5 propelled her into a celebrity orbit that now threatens to make her a household name.

“Her life story is fascinating . . . how she made it happen and how she got to where she is. It will be endless conversation for me,” noted Batali. “We’re very different. I was born in the Pacific Northwest, and she was born in the South. She was a model. I wasn’t.”

The rapport, comedic and otherwise, between the co-hosts has developed in a relatively short time. After the original pilot of “The Chew” — featuring just Daphne Oz and two correspondents — didn’t pan out, the producers called in heavy reinforcements. Batali, Symon, Kelly and Hall jumped onboard; they have been in workshops and rehearsals since only about June. (Batali has had even less time; he joined rehearsals earlier this month.)

“All of us are a little more mature and comfortable in our own skin. So there’s not the insecurity-slash-ego, whatever you want to call it,” Symon said. “And we all really share the same kind of passions. We all love food, we all love family. We all want to know what Clinton thinks we should wear — except Mario.”

The co-hosts’ rapport, says almost everyone involved with “The Chew,” will be vital to its success. Daytime TV apparently is a different beast from the programming that haunts the evening hours. Producers and talent alike echoed the words “light” and “fun” so often on set, it was as if they were programmed themselves. Regardless, given those apparent all-important keys to daytime seduction, it’s easy to understand why the producers hired Hall, Kelly, Batali and Symon, each of whom exudes good humor as if it were an extra appendage. What’s not so easy to understand, though, is how the professional chefs and Beard winners will conform themselves to an audience perhaps satisfied with Sandra Lee and Rachael Ray’s cooking.

“I’m not going to change much, and I’m going to take a lot of cues from my co-hosts,” says Batali. “I’ll keep the food simple, like I always have. For me more, it’s about the stories and the traditions of where things come from, much more so than any fancy, heavy technique or tricky ingredients.”

But even if “The Chew” doesn’t find an audience among daytime viewers, the show has already rewarded one of its co-hosts. The day after ABC announced the cast for the program, Carla Hall put her cookbook proposal up for auction with various publishers. She eventually signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, which, because of Hall’s new perch, had to show her the money.

“Because they had announced ‘The Chew’” the day before, Hall says, “the price for the book just went up.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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