Carla Hall follows one simple philosophy when it comes to cooking: Cook with love.
The author and co-host of ABC’s “The Chew” does just that in her newest cookbook, “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World,” and will appear at both the Bethel Park and Robinson Market District stores Saturday to meet fans and share recipes from the book.
“Carla’s Comfort Foods,” a follow-up to her aptly titled first book, “Cooking with Love,” shares with readers the Southern comfort foods Hall grew up enjoying as a child in Nashville, Tenn. With her newest book, however, she puts the focus on spices to “show people, especially novice cooks, how easy it is to travel with spices.” She’s quick to point out that the recipes in the book are not authentic recipes, but rather her take on a cuisine based on spices and aromatic ingredients.
“My idea for this cookbook actually came during 2012 and the political climate being very polarizing and basically harping on everyone’s differences,” explained Hall. “I wanted to show through food how these people are very similar with just minor differences.”
The first dish Hall created was chicken with milk gravy – the cornerstone, she said, of the entire book. “If I take the milk out and add sour cream and paprika, I could be in Hungary. If I take the milk out and add bananas, tomatoes and serrano chilies, I could be in West Africa. If I take the milk out and add heavy cream, Dijon mustard and wine, I could be in France.” But the technique, she explained, is basically the same.
“The only thing that makes the dish different are the spices. I think that’s how we are as people. And the way for us to have healthy cultures is to honor differences and realize that we’re all very similar,” said Hall, whose go-to spices at home are chili flakes, cinnamon and lemon.
To assist with the exploration of spices, Hall included a spice chart. “I want to encourage people to get to know another culture through spices, not frighten them away.” So, Hall considered spices that can be purchased at a regular grocery store.
“Most people have five dishes that they make all the time, so if you have these five different dishes, you may be able to take a cuisine and the spices and change them a little bit to have more of a variety in your repertoire.”
The chef originally planned to major in theater, but obtained an accounting degree from Howard University and worked at Price Waterhouse for two years. When she decided to chuck her accounting career to model in Paris, her family celebrated her decision.
It was while modeling in Paris that Hall’s thoughts on food and cooking took a turn.
“That was an ‘aha moment’ for me,” said Hall. “I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what happens in the kitchen when people are actually making the food,’ and actually connecting what happens to the food from the grocery store to the table.”
Hall said, she never lost her palate for good food. She returned to the United States and at age 30, enrolled in L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. After various stints in the culinary world, including forming her own catering company, she was selected as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she ended the season as a runner-up. Hall was then chosen “fan favorite” during her stint on “Top Chef: All-Stars.”
“If it wasn’t for that show, I wouldn’t be here,” said Hall, adding that she learned a lot about herself during the competition, including her strengths, weaknesses and her tenaciousness. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.”
For it was that experience that led Hall to her current gig on “The Chew.”
“I get to sit around with my friends and eat and learn. That’s my job,” Hall said.
Hall said with the influences around her, she now enjoys cooking at home again for her husband, Matthew, and her stepson when he is home from college.
Hall has her hands in many pots – from her cookbooks to “The Chew” to her own line of cookies, Carla Hall Petite Cookies. She also hopes to one day do theater, start her own line of frozen catered hors d’oeuvres and expand her baking line.
On April 5, Hall will be at the Bethel Park Market District at 11 a.m. and the Robinson Market District at 3 p.m. Her appearance is free, but tickets are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Advance ticket registration is available online at marketdistrict.com.