The photo is missing, and Carla Hall is experiencing a meltdown that can best be described as Carla Hall-esque: She has pitched her voice to an exaggerated wail. She raises her well-toned arms in the air, as if they’re a pair of question marks matching her puzzlement, while she searches the kitchen for the framed picture of her late grandmother, the woman Hall simply calls “Granny.”
“Where are you, Granny?” Hall cries in semi-exasperation as she searches the countertop in her Takoma, D.C., home. “She was always right here. Who moved her? Arghhhh! Granny?!”
Underneath this comical facade lies genuine angst. Granny’s picture, after all, serves a purpose in Hall’s elegant, tan-colored kitchen with its faux-birch cupboards and drawers: It’s a reminder to the cookbook author, chef and co-host of ABC’s “The Chew” that no matter how famous she gets — and fans now routinely stop her on the streets of New York to strike up a conversation — her love of food remains firmly rooted in Granny’s kitchen back in Lebanon, Tenn.
As Hall will tell you, one of her goals as a recipe developer is to help cooks evoke feelings similar to the ones she experienced in Granny’s home, where as a child she gobbled down corn bread, smothered pork chops, candied sweet potatoes and mac ’n’ cheese. Her mission, though, is not tied solely to Southern cooking, a cuisine so steeped in comfort-food mythology that it borders on cliche. To Hall’s way of thinking, almost any dish can provide comfort, if the cook pours herself fully into the preparation.
Hall’s philosophy is well known among her followers: The two-time “Top Chef” contestant calls it “cooking with love,” and to Hall, 49, it’s not some slick slogan cooked up by an image consultant to help her to connect with the common people. It’s the credo by which she lives her life — and honors Freddie Mae Glover, the maternal grandmother who made Hall feel so nurtured as a girl.
That philosophy takes a new turn in Hall’s second cookbook, “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes From Around the World” (Atria Books), in which she simultaneously attempts to preserve the uniqueness of various international dishes (before they fuse into a homogenous blob) while demonstrating that food often underscores the similarities — not the differences — between cultures. The book is pure Carla Hall. Its affections know no boundaries: It celebrates both the village and the planet, the me and the we.
I’ve arrived at Hall’s tasteful turn-of-the-20th-century home to better understand the newest chapter in her (cook)book of love. She’s preparing Chicken With Sour Cream and Paprika from “Carla’s Comfort Foods.” It’s a semi-Hungarian dish designed to trace a clean line from the Deep South to Central Europe.
“Basically, I’m doing chicken and gravy,” Hall says. “We think of milk gravy as comfort food, but really if you change a few ingredients, everybody has their version of smothered chicken. This is a Hungarian smothered chicken.”
As Hall browns the skin-on thighs in a thin slick of rice bran oil — a variation from the olive oil in her printed recipe — she talks about some of the motivations behind “Carla’s Comfort Foods.” Her desire, for instance, to seek commonality through food is one outgrowth of an unfortunate side effect of fame: the haters and their easy access to social media through which they can vent their tiny thoughts.
Hall refuses to let the small-minded among us change her behavior. She remains a relentless user of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, interacting with all who come, whether fan or bully. Her tactic is to kill the critics with kindness, or at least with wit and/or directness, even when their barbs pierce the skin. Like the time someone tweeted at Hall that she has the “ugliest nose ever.” (Her response: “I am grateful for a nose at all. Are you grateful Eric?”)
By singling out the commonalities among the countless cuisines of the world, Hall says, she hopes to bridge the divides among disparate cultures. In her hands, then, food becomes an analogy for the human genetics that bind us all together.
“Your nose may not look like mine,” Hall says. “Your skin may not look like mine. We may have different religions; our sexuality is different; but we’re very similar. We’re people, and that’s 95 percent of who we are.”
Actually, it’s 99.9 percent of who we are, but the point is well taken. The anonymity and insularity of social networks allow users to exaggerate our differences while ignoring our similarities. In a phone conversation earlier this year, she shared an example of how she deals with the haters.
“Somebody the other day, they sent me a tweet and it said, ‘Carla Hall ruins ‘The Chew’ for me,’ ” Hall says. “So I say, ‘Sorry, I’m not taking a day off anytime soon.’ She responds and says, ‘My apologies for my harsh words. TV dehumanizes people.’. . . I said, ‘No worries. It’s actually social media that dehumanizes people. Just a reminder that I’m a human being.’
“That’s how I handle it.”
To help readers understand the small differences that sometimes separate cultures, Hall includes an international spice chart in her new cookbook, so home cooks can transform a favorite dish by substituting a few ingredients: like re-engineering Thai chicken skewers into an Indian dish by first marinating the meat in yogurt and subcontinental spices. “I use ingredients that you can get from the grocery store to make it approachable, so you can get used to these different flavors,” she says. “It eases you into that culture so it’s not so scary.”
Back in her own kitchen, Hall looks perfectly at ease as she balances cooking with fielding interview questions. She’s wearing a beige-and-white polka-dotted shift, with pinpoint bursts of color around the neckline. It looks like some retro-hip apron, but Hall says it’s an organic cotton dress from Swedish designer Gudrun Sjoden, for whom “The Chew” co-host is now a kind of brand ambassador. Hall has accessorized with a pair of dangly earrings and a Chan Luu leather bracelet wrapped several times around her left wrist. She may cook with love, but the former model does so with style.
She also cooks with no music in the kitchen. She wants all of her senses attuned to the task at hand. She wants to hear the sizzle of the oil, so she knows when it’s ready. She wants to watch the chicken thighs brown, so she knows when to pull them from the pan. “Unless you’re really involved in your food in cooking it, it’s not going to be that great,” Hall says, “especially when you’re trying to re-create the recipes from your grandmother.”
And there’s the connection to Granny again. Hall frequently refers to her grandmother, whether in person or in print. She has published a number of Granny’s recipes, too, including her smothered pork chops (which appeared in Hall’s first cookbook, “Cooking With Love: Comfort Food That Hugs You”). Despite the many words offered in praise of Granny and her home-cooked dishes, though, I still wanted to know the feeling that bubbled up in Hall whenever she recalled her grandmother. That feeling, it seemed to me, was the source of all things Hall. Or most things.
So the chef paints a picture: Because Hall’s own mom didn’t cook much, Granny would host the post-church Sunday supper. It was served buffet-style on a kitchen island, which would be covered with deviled eggs, meatloaf, biscuits, “cooked-to-death green beans,” strawberry shortcake and other specialties of the house. Hall would load up her plate and head straight to the dining room. Granny would never sit down and eat with the family. Instead, after preparing the meal, she mixed herself a drink — often bourbon and soda — and fired up a cigarette, “which she never learned to inhale,” so there was always a generous cloud of smoke in the air, Hall remembers.
“I would eat around [my plate] like a clock. Every bite would have a little bit of everything,” she says. “I would look over at my sister, who would be eating one thing at a time: That space would be gone, then that space would be gone.”
But the feeling, what was the feeling?
“It was just the feeling that she cared,” she says, and suddenly the tumblers seem to click in place, and the secret of Carla Hall has been revealed. That concept of caring helps explain many things: her desire to answer virtually all e-mails and tweets, her decision to work mostly as a caterer and not as a chef (chefs cook what they want, caterers prepare what you want) and her rationale for employing all of her senses in meal preparation. She’s not promoting coolness or pure creativity. She’s banking on something more primordial: that no matter how old we are, we still desire to feel cared for.
That was Granny’s specialty, and now it is Hall’s. From this perspective, you can understand why Hall is alarmed over Granny’s missing picture: It implies a certain carelessness. But it’s a carelessness that must stand for now, because Hall still spends a lot of time in New York for “The Chew,” with many of her open days devoted to cookbook promotion. Right now, she just doesn’t have time for Granny.
Hall will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.