Spice of Life

Chef Carla Hall feeds her energy needs with a calming recipe of yoga and meditation

Every morning around 6 a.m., a good hour before her husband rises, Carla Hall quietly slips out of bed and heads to the den to prepare for work. For the "Top Chef" finalist and owner of Alchemy Caterers in Wheaton, the day doesn't start with cracking an egg or brewing coffee. Instead it starts with calm, a series of protective prayers and a full hour of meditation.

"When I meditate, it gives me energy," Carla explains, her mane of wildly curly hair tamed in a high ponytail that shakes ever so slightly when she gets herself going. "I fortify myself. I can't be everywhere and do everything, so I meditate to give myself time to replenish. That's where balance becomes very important. Because if I'm imbalanced then I stop being the person people are seeing."

There are a lot more people seeing that person than ever before, now that the 44-year-old Nashville native and longtime D.C. resident made it to the recently broadcast finale of Season 5 of Bravo TV's popular "Top Chef." As a "cheftestant," Carla won a car, the heart of renowned chef Jacques Pepin (who said he could "die happy" after eating her squab and peas), and announced to viewers that she brought "the love" to her food.

There was something about Carla, week after week, towering over her competitors both physically -- she scrapes an inch shy of 6 feet -- and emotionally. Her brand of competition was counterintuitive: She helped her fellow contestants and never engaged in any of the backstabbing drama that usually marks reality-show favorites. She buzzed with positive energy that infused her food as she emerged from the pack to become one of the show's three finalists.

"You have a huge following at the National Gallery if you ever want to come there!" gushes a woman who rushes up to Carla at the Sunday farmers market in Dupont Circle one brilliantly sunny March day. Walking with Carla in a farmers market is like being with Brad Pitt on Capitol Hill: Everyone wants a photo. "I am a huge fan," says another Dupont local, who introduces herself as Nikki. A girl named Emma in a hooded sweat shirt and rolled-up sweat pants starts to hyperventilate when she sees her.

Carla's husband, Matthew Lyons, a lawyer with the Food and Drug Administration with a serious photography habit, snaps pictures of it all with two professional Nikon cameras and picks out the food for dinner. Carla says she's often too tired to cook at home. "My body wants to be vegetarian," she laughs, "but my mind wants a hamburger." And Matthew experiments with vegetables, meats, everything.

Carla can barely walk a step before someone asks her how to braise turnip greens, or which apple is the best this time of year. ("Goldrush! Don't they just taste like Jolly Rancher candies?") To maintain that sunny equilibrium, Carla practices Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga one day a week in Cabin John at Karma Yoga, a tiny backyard loft studio filled with light, run by Sookie Kunst, and three mornings a week at home.

"I was dropping weight," Carla says, of the time before she started yoga. "I had lost, like, eight pounds in a couple of weeks. You are just running and trying to get it all done and answer everyone's e-mails ..." She trails off. "I used to do yoga years ago. I came back to it when I wanted to get focused on the finale, and it was just: Oh, my God! My body missed this, being active."

A former marathon runner -- with her leggy physique she still looks the part -- she wants to get back into what she calls "ChiRunning," a marriage between meditation, tai chi and jogging. "When you are focusing on your form for your body, there are several things you can focus on," she says, as we sit down for brunch. "You can focus on breath. You can focus on form. Then you stop focusing on the actual process of running. Like in cooking, if you focus on cutting a carrot, when you are cutting the carrot you are in the present moment, and that's a form of meditation. And that's where the love comes into everything."

Carla came to that love circuitously. She graduated from Howard University in the early 1980s after earning an accounting degree. She then spent the latter part of the decade as a model in Paris, Milan and London. "I chose modeling as a bridge between what I didn't want to do and what I eventually wanted to do -- and I didn't know what that was," she says. But as a model, she joined a gym where she did calisthenics every day. It was in Paris where she started experimenting with recipes. After receiving a Culinary Career Training certificate from Gaithersburg's L'Academie de Cuisine -- "French cooking is like taking ballet when you dance" -- Carla opened Alchemy Caterers eight years ago.

Her unsual career path has helped shaped her philosophy about life and work. "This is the time for people to do their passions," she says, earnestly, standing outside the market squinting into the bright sun and clutching a bag of Red Russian kale. "Instead of saying, 'Gosh, the economy has gone to hell in a handbasket!' What are the good things we can talk about in this time? What are the positive things we can get out of this seemingly scary time?"

Alchemy keeps Carla so busy that she could start another catering company with the work it turns away. But she also teaches a cooking basics class at CulinAerie in Northwest Washington and hopes to launch an expansion soon: an events space for small receptions and "chef's table" events, with a small retail shop and cooking classes. The ideal location, she says, would be 14th Street NW, near the Source Theatre. But to reach those goals, she needs to stay focused, and that's where the yoga and meditation come into play.

"I don't exercise every day," she says, "but what I find is that in the morning, even if I'm really tired, I'm dragging myself up, I go to that one place, and that reenergizes me."

PHOTOS: Timothy Devine

© 2009 The Washington Post Company