Q&A: 'Top Chef' Contestant Carla Hall

Q&A: 'Top Chef' Contestant Carla Hall

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Washingtonians who watch tonight's "Top Chef New York" Season 5 opener on Bravo might recognize the friendly face of hometown caterer Carla Hall, who produced one of the budget-conscious intimate picnics for a Food section feature in July.

The former hotel chef and L'Academie de Cuisine grad told friends she was in the Bahamas this past summer, but in fact she was slicing and dicing against 16 fellow contestants. Assistant Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick got a sneak preview of the first episode and spoke with Hall last week. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

We did a double take when we saw your big hair in the promo spots.

That was the stylists' idea, but it was fun for me. It made me four inches taller, and I'm already 5-11.

How did you swing getting your own room?

I don't know! I came in and put my bags down; didn't realize it was a bed. I was, like, "Yay."

Who or what did you find intimidating?

My knowledge base is solid, so I didn't find anybody's experience particularly intimidating. Jamie [executive chef at Absinthe in San Francisco] and I got along well. But she was, um, how do I say this? A no-nonsense girl from New York.

How did you prepare for the competition?

I did a lot of blind tasting, and I boned up on deboning fish and chicken at a wholesale operation that I'm used to working with. I didn't tell them why I was doing it. I got to practice on stuff I didn't have to buy. It did help.

Being in the Big Apple must have been a good thing.

Nothing fazes New Yorkers. We'd be shopping at the market, and the customers would say, "What's this camera behind you? It's in my way."

Cheftestants seem to have certain roles on the show. What was yours?

Cheerleader. I wanted people to have a good time, to be up about it, to take it all in stride and not get homesick.

As the oldest, at 44, I was the calm one. Usually I'm pretty hyper, so this was new for me.

Speaking of cheerleading: At some point, you invoked your "spirit guides."

When I do something that's stressful, I have to find a moment of peace, so I tend to meditate and get in the flow. It's a regular practice of mine. When people around me are getting rattled, I may just close my eyes and do a breathing exercise.

Are your family and friends watching with you tonight?

Nope. I'll be teaching a basics class at CulinAerie.

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