Her effervescent personality, “cooking with love” approach to food, and adorably goofy catchphrase, “hootie hoo,” made Nashville native Carla Hall a fan favorite on Top Chef in 2008. Since then, she’s ridden the wave of her unexpected fame to new heights.
Carla, 57, spent seven seasons as a panelist on the food-centric talk show The Chew, where she won a daytime Emmy. She’s also written a cookbook, played herself on the scripted television series Gossip Girl, and judged and hosted several cooking competition series. Of course, Carla wouldn’t be human if she didn’t have some missteps: Her Brooklyn restaurant, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, closed in 2017 after little more than a year. But on the whole, this eternal optimist has had few complaints about the exciting trajectory of her life and career. “I’m all about saying yes,” Carla tells Closer. “One thing has always led to another.”
And it hasn’t stopped! Carla is currently preparing for a new TV series and celebrating the publication of her first children’s book, Carla and the Christmas Cornbread, on Nov. 1. Hootie hoo, indeed!
What made you want to write a children’s book?
“I’m a part of a group called the Pajama Program, and we read books to kids. So I thought I would love to do one myself. I was thinking about my childhood and going to my grandmother’s house for Sunday supper.”
Is it true that you started off your career as an accountant?
“Yes, in college I decided to do accounting because I had liked my high school accounting teacher — which is obviously the best reason for choosing a career! [Laughs] I worked for Price Waterhouse for a couple of years. It was so stressful, and I was so unhappy. That was the impetus for me to seek out something else.”
And that’s when you became a model?
“I went to Tampa, Fla., when I was working as an accountant. I didn’t know a lot of people, so when a woman asked me if I modeled, I told her I had done some modeling in college. I started modeling as a way to meet people in a city where I didn’t know anyone.”
How did modeling help you begin your culinary career?
“[When I was in Europe,] I started attending a Sunday brunch given by a woman from Memphis. We were mostly American models, and all the girls would talk about the kind of foods their moms made. I realized that I had no idea how to cook any of it. So I started going to the American bookstore, buying cookbooks and then trying out recipes as a way of thanking the people who were allowing me to couch surf at their apartments in Paris and London. I decided to go to culinary school at 30.”
How did you wind up on Top Chef?
“I was working, and my sous-chef literally had a dream about it! She came in one day and said, ‘I had a dream you were on Top Chef. ’ That same night, I went home and there was a message on my phone about auditioning for Top Chef. I thought someone was playing a prank! But I called them back, and they asked me to a casting call in New York. Everything about Top Chef happened by happenstance.”
How did the experience change your life?
“My biggest takeaway is that it helped me become comfortable with being uncomfortable. In my season, I thought I was [going to be eliminated] during ‘Restaurant Wars.’ I was really anxious about being on the bottom. Then I thought to myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen? I haven’t seen anyone die here.’ So I just relaxed. I didn’t get sent home, and I started doing so much better. I was able to express myself without the tension and the fear.”
Since then, you’ve been doing a lot with Food Network. Are you enjoying it?
“It’s been great to have these jobs that are recurring. I think we are in season 7 or 8 of Halloween Baking Championship, and I’ve been there since season 1. It’s really like being a part of a family. It’s fun to go back and see my friends.”
Is it hard to stay slim when you have to taste so many goodies as a judge?
“I will eat anything, even if it doesn’t look appetizing, I will still eat it. So, I work out five days a week.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming show?
“Yes, we’re just getting ready to film. It’s called Foodways. It’s a series about travel and discovery through food. My deal with Discovery+ is that I get to be the talent but also the story maker and an executive producer on a show, which is exciting. This is my first one!”
Through all of your success, you’ve been with your husband of 15 years, Matthew Lyons. What’s your secret to a happy marriage?
“Communication is a big one. He’s where all my support comes from. We also know how to laugh. We can laugh at ourselves; we can laugh at each other. I think humor is a huge part of the success of our marriage.”
When you were married in 2006, you also became a stepmom to his son, Noah. Has that been a good experience?
“Noah is amazing. When I met Noah, he was 10. When Matthew and I got married, I wrote him a note saying, ‘You have two great parents, you don’t need another parent, but I will be your mentor, I will be your friend. I will let you fall, and I’ll probably laugh. But I’ll be there to pick you up, and I will never let you win in a game because then when you win, you will really win.’ We have a great relationship. He is such an incredible young man.”
What else would you like to accomplish in your career?
“I want to do scripted television! I see so many actors doing cookbooks and TV shows and I’m like, ‘Why can’t I go the other way? Why can’t I start in food and then do acting?'”
Do you have a dream role?
“Let’s just say there is a play like Auntie Mame, which I love. I loved, loved, loved the movie Mame, too. Both versions, the one with Rosalind Russell and the one with Lucille Ball. So let’s just say, we do a new play and Auntie Mame is Billy Porter. I wouldn’t mind any role in that play. I would love it. Let’s do that!”