Chef Carla Hall talks food activism and the culinary world at Scripps

Carla Hall responds to questions from Rachel Ng from a blue armchair on a stage.
Carla Hall, a former co-host of “The Chew” and a competitor on seasons 5 and 8 of Top Chef, was joined by Rachel Ng, a food editor for Westways, for a conversation at Garrison Theater Sept. 24. (Justin Sleppy • The Student Life)

American chef Carla Hall is helping put soul food on the map and the soul back into food.

Hall, former “Top Chef” contender and host of ABC’s cooking-themed talk show “The Chew,” visited Scripps College’s Garrison Theater on Sept. 24 to talk about her journey into food activism, cultural food appreciation and her place in the culinary world as a woman of color.

“I realized [throughout my career] that I have a voice I can actually use … to be authentic,” Hall said at the event. “I think [my purpose] is to be my quirky, silly self … and show people that you don’t have to be a particular way [or] in a particular box to be on television and it speaks volumes to everybody.

Her activism commonly assists in the fight for food subsidization and against food deserts through involvement in organizations such as World Central Kitchen, DC Central Kitchen and Feeding America, according to Delish, a food magazine.

Hall explained at a student session prior to talk that she believes all Americans deserve accessible fresh produce and that too many communities, especially communities of color and low-income communities, lack food diversity as a direct result of a lack of food accessibility.

“The food that isn’t good for us is cheap and accessible, and the food that is good for us isn’t addressed or considered important,” she said.

But, Hall doesn’t believe the system is broken. She still holds hope in the potential to improve food security and access and believes a way to go forward is by empowering people to cook for themselves.

Citing the growth of cooking shows, “FoodTube” and cuisine influencers à la Claire Saffitz of Bon Appétit, Hall thinks the beautiful simplicity of food “gets lost in the sauce.”

She said people don’t appreciate simple and well-made food. 

“People always forget that food is a culture carrier,” she said. “We [can get] so far into the luxury of food that we forget that food is sustenance.” 

Later in Garrison Theater, Hall detailed the beginning of her career and said she was determined not to fall into the trap of doing what people expected her to do with food. 

“I am Carla Hall, and I’m black, but I’m not ‘the black chef,’” Hall said. “People expected me to do fried chicken, but I had paid all this money to learn these French techniques, and so I wanted to use them.”

However, Hall’s time on “Top Chef” did teach her to embrace the beauty of soul food and advocate on its behalf. 

“I think Top Chef really helped me see the value of my [culture’s] food, and that I actually liked this [type of] food,” Hall said. “This food is a part of my culture.”

With Hall’s latest cookbook, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration,” she said she wanted to break down the stereotypical idea of soul food as something to mock or minimize and instead legitimize it in the food world. 

“I wanted to show people soul food as being a part of [African American] heritage. This is the food that we should be proud of,” she said. “It’s a celebration as well as an everyday cuisine, and also an opportunity to learn more about [our] history [and its] significance in American culture.”

Hall noted, though, that she wants culinary appreciation to extend out to all readers’ cultures. 

“I think more than anything, I hope that the book inspires people to look back in their [own] culture and … feel a sense of pride around their food.”

Sasha Newton PO ’20 attended the event out of curiosity around Hall’s journey in the food culture sphere.

“Hall really uses recipes from life that [converge] history and culture,” Newton said. “I’m always trying to look at the world from a cross-disciplinary perspective.”

Alexi Butts SC ’20, who also attended the event, is president of the Scripps chapter of Food Recovery Network, a volunteer organization fighting food waste and food insecurity. She said she went in the interest of Hunger Awareness Month and that it further empowered her to strive for change around food disparity.

“I think just seeing [Hall] in person and experiencing how lively and excited she is about the possibility for change is enough to excite you,” she said.

Hall, in the meantime, will continue fighting for food equity and channeling cultural memory into her dishes.

“Now, I’m looking forward to what I’ll do in my sixties,” she said.

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