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Top Chef Finalist Carla Hall Dishes on the Competition

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Carla Hall
Top Chef Contestant, Caterer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; 2:00 PM

With the Top Chef season finale just hours away (it airs Wednesday, February 25 at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo), free-spirited finalist Carla Hall took questions about what it's been like to compete on the high-pressure show and how she managed to make it to the final three. She was online Wednesday, February 25 to dish about competing in challenge after challenge with her fellow cheftestants as well as to talk about her experiences as chef and owner of Alchemy Caterers here in the Washington, D.C. area

A transcript follows.

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Carla Hall: Hi this is Carla from Top Chef and I really appreciate all the support and all the love that everyone has been sending my way. I'm really humbled by everybody's support -- there was a big rush of photos today. It was really nice.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Carla,

What culinary school did you attend, and how much of an emphasis on French-based training is important to being a great chef?

Carla Hall: I went to L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. and I think French cooking is the basis for a lot of classical cuisine, a foundation of a lot of other cuisines. That said, it's not the only way to approach a cooking career.

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Stefan?: Carla:

First off, Hootie Hoo! My family and I love you and are pulling for you to win. My question is about Stefan -- I know they try on the show to make him seem like "the villain", but I and some of my girlfriends also find him inexplicably sexy. Is he really a jerk, or is that editing?

Carla Hall: Hootie!

He is not a jerk at all. He is confident, he has his method of playing the game and sussing out his competition. To some it comes across as cocky or indifferent but he's a good egg.

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Norman, Okla.: Carla,

My eleven year-old daughter Stockton has started "feeling the love" when she cooks, dances, and does pretty much everything. Have you converted Chef Colicchio to "feeling the love" in the food he eats during the competition?

Keep up the good work, and we hope you win!

Carla Hall: I'm going to say yes because Tom Colicchio isn't here to say no. I think that he is very passionate about his food and I'm sure when he cooks at his restaurant that he is cooking with love.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Carla, I'm a huge Top Chef fan and I am rooting for you in the finale!

My question: Is Padma as nice as she seems? Do the chefs get to know her pretty well over the course of filming? Also, Toby was the most critical of all the judges. Was he a bit of a rude surprise for you all?

Carla Hall: Padma is very nice but we don't get to know the judges as people, because it's important for them to be very objective, so they judge a plate of food and not our personalities. And Toby is a character, but he too is very nice in person.

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Rhode Island: Carla, you are my favorite! I hope you are the Top Chef winner. What was your favorite challenge and which guest chef did you enjoy meeting the most. Can you tell us something about your family?

Carla Hall: Thank you R.I.! One of my favorites was the Le Bernardin challenge with Eric Ripert. He's such a gracious, gracious man. I'm married to Matthew and I have a 13 year old stepson. I also have two nephews and a niece who live in the area that I'm very close to, who live with my sister and brother in law.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I loved how you just sat quietly and let the other chefs implode while systematically creating food that got better at each session. Was this your strategy going in?

You clearly held back some of your best qualities until you got to the time that matters most.

It was a well played chess match.. well done!

Carla Hall: I'd like to think that I strategized it and I'd like to think that playing a game of chess is like life, however, I cannot take credit for that! I knew that this process was a personal as well as professional one. I came in with the technical skills. For me it was about being in the flow and being able to cook my food, and whenever we are fearful it holds us back. So every morning I would sit and be peaceful and try to move into the flow. And that's what you saw. For me that was winning, getting into the flow so that my food would be really good.

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Kansas City, Missouri: A week or two ago you mentioned that you had been a model before becoming a chef. When, what, and where did you model?

Carla Hall: Whew! that was a long time ago. I was in Paris, Milan and London from 89 until 91, and I did mostly runway modeling. I know there's so many people out there looking for pictures but this was way before the age of the internet, sorry!

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Arlington, Va.: When you entered, did you have specific plans for what you'd do with the money if you won? Do you want to own a restaurant? You know we'd all want to eat there, but maybe we just need to start having catered events, because your cooking looks wonderful, and you, madam, are a delight.

Carla Hall: thank you! My plans are not to open a restaurant but what I would like to do is open a kitchen somewhere in D.C. proper and have a chef's table where people can come and taste my food without having to have a catered event.

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TK's Cube: Big fan of the show and it's been fun to watch you on it. So, what would be your request for your final meal and would it include your peas?

Carla Hall: Ooh! You know I always say that a burger would be my final meal, a really yummy burger, so when I cut it in half the juice is running down my hand. With that burger I would normally have french fries and lemonade. But you reminded me that I do love peas so I would have to have a side of fresh peas. Yes yes yes.

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Washington, DC: Hi Carla!

DC gets a bum rap sometimes for its food scene, but it seems like there are a ton of restaurants that are full every night. What are some of your favorite places to eat in the District?

Hope you are named Top Chef on tonight's finale.

Carla Hall: I know, and I really don't like the fact that DC gets beat up about the food thing, so I'm very protective of DC in that respect. I go to Cashion's, a lot of pho places, I eat pizza a lot. I love Pizzeria Paradiso and Two Amys, Cactus Cantina. The areas basically I go are the 14th Street corridor, U Street, Adams Morgan -- I just walk around and pop into one of the little restaurants.

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Atlanta: How did your catering experience help you in the competition?

What are some of your most high profile or interesting catering gigs?

Have you heard from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue yet? I am pretty sure you will.

Carla Hall: Whoo! I hope someone calls from 1600 Pennsylvania!

In catering you're always changing, the client is always dictating to you in terms of their wishes. One of my most high profile clients? I did cook for V.P. Cheney and Alan Greenspan a few years ago. (you said high profile, not popular!)

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Maryland: Just wondering -- do the contestants make fun of all of Top Chef's product placements as much as we viewers do?? :)

Carla Hall: No, because somebody has to pay for the show! And in the days of TiVo I guess the people who are underwiting the show are pretty smart.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: If I were to call you to cater an event, and I said "bring me your best", what would you produce for this affair?

Carla Hall: Ooh! OK, Hi, Philadelphia. You're not going to get off that easy. The name of my catering company is "Alchemy Caterers, Changing the Way You Experience Food." That said, I will ask you what your favorites are, when you put your energy into this list then I will spit out my take on it, and together we will prepare a perfect menu, one that will be uniquely yours.

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Alexandria, Va.: Carla, I love you!!! You are just such a wonderful personality. I think you and Fabio need to team together and market yourselves as a duo and get your own show. Talk about a smash hit! What do you say? I think it would be a ratings blockbuster.

Carla Hall: OK, I'll call Fabio right after this interview and see what he thinks.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Carla, how was the Super Bowl? How do you like the new car? You definitely won some of the better prizes, much better than just a cookbook.

Carla Hall: Oh, I know! I think so. The Super Bowl, I did not go -- I gifted the tickets to my husband and stepson and they had a blast. The car I don't have yet, but it will definitely be put to good use.

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Wheaton, Md.: Hi Carla!

My partner saw you at the Whole Foods in Silver Spring not too long ago -- we're big fans of Top Chef and are rooting for you!

Please tell me more about yourself, how you became interested in becoming a chef, and about Alchemy Caterers.

Carla Hall: Hi Wheaton! A big hootie to you all.

While I was modeling I was buying cookbooks and would treat the recipes like puzzles. So I started trying out the food, long story short, I ended up taking lunch to a friend, that blossomed into a lunch delivery service and after doing that for 5 years I went to cooking school, then I was working in restaurants, worked in catering with someone else and then started my own company.

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Washington, D.C. : How much of a dish have you already conceived before a particular challenge?

For example, before the first New Orleans episode did you have an idea you wanted to do some kind of oyster stew or beignets? Or is it more spur of the moment?

Carla Hall: For that challenge, given that I knew I was going to New Orleans, I had some dishes in mind that I had tested but I had no idea what ingredients were going to be there. Sometimes in the previous challenges I had NO idea, which is stressful because when the clock starts the judges are saying "go be fabulous" and I'm standing there like, um, OK...

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Silver Spring: Hi Carla,

Congratulations on making it to the finals. We're so proud! You've represented us well.

Who wins tonight? Promise I won't tell. :)

What can you tell us about tonight's finale? Any celebrities stop by? Final twists?

Carla Hall: Thanks Silver Spring! The winner is...

You didn't really think you got me, did you? I'm going to leave you all hanging.

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Washington, D.C.: Who do you think were the most under- and overrated chefs of the season?

Carla Hall: I have to say that I think going through the process on the show is really challenging. So all the chefs -- I have to congratulate and honor them. I'll just leave it at that.

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Washington DC: Hootie?

Carla Hall: Hoo!

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D.C.: I hope you win the show and fan favorite! You have been consistently positive, humble, and honest on the show -- and funny! You have always owned up for any mistakes you felt you made with your dish, and that's respectable. Thanks for finally giving reality TV a positive black female that everyone actually loves (sorry to go there, but it's true). No amount of editing could take away your radiance!

Carla Hall: Oh, that's so sweet. I really appreciate it. One thing that I have to say that I have learned in my 44 years (I hate to go there) is that if you own up to your mistakes and don't try to hide them you will actually learn something, and I knew this was an incredible experience to learn about myself as a chef and as an individual. So the only way to do that was to get honest feedback from the judges, so I have to be honest with myself.

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Frederick, Md.: OK, Carla I blame you entirely that my daughter and I now find each other in the local grocery store with "Hootie". We're big fans -- you seem to be hitting your groove.

How hard is it not to talk about the show -- even to the point of not telling your husband you had Super Bowl tickets? And was he thrilled with the car? I'd burst from not telling!

Carla Hall: Well, everybody wants to tell me their secrets now. It's amazing, when you've signed a confidentiality clause and you take it seriously, you will not talk. And all of this keeping quiet is so that you all could enjoy the show every week!

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HUGE Top Chef Fan in Vienna, Va.: Carla - Thanks so much for representing our area with such class and style. My 13 year old son and I are big fans of Top Chef and we've been pulling for you from the beginning of this season. How much access to outside resources do you have when you're working on an Elimination Challenge - i.e., do you have cookbooks, your own notebooks, etc. or do you have to rely on your memory/experience?

Carla Hall: Whoo! Can I say HARD? No cookbooks, no telephone, no internet, no written anything. I didn't even have Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. So whatever came into my head, that's what I had to work with. It is NO JOKE.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Carla, I really enjoyed meeting you and your adorable husband at the opening of the Gillian Clark's General Store in Silver Spring a few weeks ago.

Top Chef usually spends a few minutes with each finalist going through what they were doing during the 'off-season' before the final. You had such an incredible story about cooking for two huge inaugural events that I think everyone would be interested to hear.

We're rooting for you in Forest Glen! Hootie hoo!

Carla Hall: HIIII!!! It's good to hear from you. I remember you. For every event, the numbers doubled. It's OK when they double from 50 to 100, but when they doubled from 400 to 800... I just knew that Tom Colicchio was going to come around the corner and say GOTCHA! It was so crazy.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Carla, I saw you shopping at the Wheaton Giant a few weeks ago. We crossed paths as you were picking out produce. I, and a few others, smiled at you in recognition. Then one woman broke from the pack, so to speak, and ran over to hug you. I heard her congratulate you and ask about how things turn out on the show. You were very polite in your evasion of her questions.

My question for you is how has the adjustment to celebrity been? Was what I saw typical? Does it change your perspective on dashing over to the Giant in a ponytail and jeans to pick up some pears?

Carla Hall: I'm just Carla. And I really appreciate people coming up to me. However I do try to make sure I have lipstick and earrings on for that photo I may have to take.

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Carla, we love y, OU: Carla, I love how you made a non-alcoholic drink in the last show! What do you think your strengths are compared to the other finalists?

Carla Hall: Oh, thank you for that shout out for the drink. It was a risk, but worth taking. I think my strengths are 1, that I have a good palate, and 2, I have good technique.

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Doylestown, Pa.: My seven year old daughter is a huge fan (as am I) of Top Chef and she wants to know what was the most fun dish you made this season?

We've got our fingers crossed for you tonight!

Carla Hall: Oh, thank you! The most fun, I would say, was actually the NFL challenge. That was fun seeing the other chefs who had left out in the audience and seeing some of the season 4 contestants, and the whole football energy. You almost forgot you were in a competition until the buzzer.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the hardest dish you've had to make this season? GO CARLA! I'm pulling for you!

Carla Hall: It's all perspective. It could have been the first because everything is new, you're getting to know the Top Chef kitchen and you're just thrown in there. GO! And you're like, really? So the first challenges are really hard.

Ooh, that Christmas challenge. 300 people in 3 hours, alone? That has to be on the list.

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Pentagon: Carla, best of luck. We watched you hit your stride over the competition. This is fun to watch, but we've wondered how close this is to really judging a restaurant or catering "top chef." I wouldn't pay at a restaurant for dishes that the chef only had an hour to think about and prepare.

Carla Hall: I KNOW!!

Exactly!

Was it Fabio who said this isn't cooking, this is rushing? Yeah. It's a challenge and all of this is designed to push us in a way that we will never be pushed. I found it as an exercise in where are my strengths and weaknesses, and when things get tough how do I recover, where do I break down? It's not reality at all but that being said, it's such a good experience, like rock climbing or bungee jumping, some wild experience like that.

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New York: What was your favorite dish that another contestant made?

Carla Hall: It has to be one of Jamie's soups. She did a corn soup at Craft that was really, really good. And I'm a big fan of soups.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: If Tom, Padma, and Gail were foods, what type of foods would they be, which one would you eat, and why?

Good luck tonight. I hope you smoke Stefan and Hosea.

Carla Hall: Good question! Tom would be a lamb chop because of the strong flavor, some people like it, some people don't, those who like it really love it and it can be rustic or elegant. Gail would be an apple pie. A food memory that you just smile at, and it's classic. Padma would be a beautiful French dessert that sits in the window at a patisserie. It's beautiful but you know the chef took care in preparing it, both beautiful and tasty. I would say Toby would be ugli fruit because it looks ugly but it's really delicious, so what you see is not necessarily what you get.

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Bethesda, Md.: Rock from "Hell's Kitchen" at Ben's Next Door, Carla Hall of Alchemy Catering, and I think I heard somewhere that Spike from "Top Chef" has a place around here...

Have you given any thought to combining your powers and opening some sort of reality-cooking show contestant super-restaurant around here?

That would be awesome.

Carla Hall: I guess it would be awesome, but no. It sounds amazing... but it's hard enough just dealing with the personality in my one little kitchen!

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Arlington, Va.: Hi I just wanted to let you know that I am so pulling for you! You have been my favorite since the start! Hootie Hoo! I actually have a T-shirt that says that. What was it like to be close to being eliminated? And what was it like to win a challenge?

Carla Hall: Hootie Hoo! And according to one of the blogs, today is Hootie Hoo Day, so a happy Hootie Hoo Day. When you're on the bottom you feel you have nothing to lose, hence when I said to Tom, a little strongly, I thought I was going home... oops, I'm not going home? Once you get that fear out of the way you're free to do whatever you want to do. Winning of course is amazing, but also comes in different packages.

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Norman, Okla.: What is the dish you most enjoy making for your family on just any old day of the week?

Carla Hall: Cereal? no, sorry...

My husband would say that I never cook at home. But when I do, I will do a stew of some sort or a quick pasta with whatever ingredients are in the fridge.

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Niantic, Conn.: You are so much fun to watch - particularly since you always remain positive. How much editing is there in the personal details for Top Chef contestants? Sometimes it definitely seemed like tension was created when there might not have been any.

Carla Hall: Oh, there's a lot of editing. I'm really a bitch in real life.

I crack myself up.

If you say it, they can play it. There is some editing but the editors can't change who we are. But there's editing to help make the story, or to create interest.

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OKC, Ok: Carla, I adore the way you make cooking seem so fun and enjoyable. I tend to get flustered in the kitchen with my inability to stay focused and get a dish just how I like it.

Is there any dish/food you just hate eating or making?

Carla Hall: I do not like liver so I don't make it.

If you try cooking things you actually like you will have a better time of it. And be gentle with yourself. You've seen me be hard on myself, so from one critical person to another -- be gentle on yourself, your food probably isn't that bad!

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Atlanta, Georgia: Do you think some of the opinions about a dish (anyone's dish, including yours) is really a matter of opinion instead of a valid judgement?

Carla Hall: Oh absolutely. Taste is purely subjective. One person likes sweets and other doesn't. Judging a plate of food is like judging someone's outfit. We all have to keep that in perspective, having 4 judges helps. Sometimes they all agree, sometimes they disagree very strongly.

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Monument, Colo.: Carla,

I really like your positive, upbeat attitude. I wish I could taste some of the dishes I've seen you put together. Maybe someday you'll write a cookbook?

Carla Hall: Maybe! I would like to do that and have stories with it and send people on an adventure. I enjoy taking the mystery out of creating good food. I would like to empower people with cooking their own food.

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Carla Hall: Thank you all for your questions and I'm sorry we didn't get to them all. But I'm sending love to you all, and just remember -- if you're not in a good mood, the only thing you should make is a reservation!

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