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Carla Hall Dishes on Soul Food, Shopping--and her Signature Accessory

She's also serving up a new cookbook and meals to combat hunger.

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Carla Hall at her restaurant in New York.
Christopher Gregory/The New York Times
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Growing up, Carla Hall’s grandmother always told her, “It is your job to be happy, not to be rich.” So when she graduated from Howard University with a degree in accounting, but soon realized that being a CPA didn’t feel like the right fit, she left her job, moved to Paris, and became a runway model. (She’s nearly six feet tall.) In Europe, during Sunday meals with friends, the combination of food, conversation, warmth and the sense of family among friends helped her realize that what she needed to be happy was to make food for others.

Apparently, that was the right call: After starting a catering business and attending culinary school, where she mastered the basics of French cooking, she landed a spot on  Top Chef, and later, Top Chef: All Stars. Voted Fan Favorite by viewers, who adored her insistence on cooking with love and her infectious “Hootie Hoo!” catchphrase, she quickly catapulted into the limelight as a cohost of ABC’s Emmy award-winning lifestyle series The Chew. Hall’s third cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration, hits shelves Oct. 23.

Tell us a little about your girlfriends.

My oldest friend is from grade school. Her name is Toi. As you get older, you forget you’re getting older but you look at your friendships and say, “Oh my gosh, I’ve known you for 49 years!” She remembers my funny stories and I remember hers. We can tell each other anything. When The Chew came along, I turned to my good girlfriend, Verlette, my most intuitive girlfriend. She’s the one who, when I’m struggling through something, I can call her and ask, “What is my lesson here?” And I said, “Oh my gosh, what am I supposed to do with this platform?” She said, “Authenticity. You are supposed to have this platform, and your platform is authenticity. Your lesson is to be yourself.” That’s easier said than done when you’re on television.

How has your style evolved over the years?

I’ve always worn what I wanted, and I’ve always liked colors and prints. On The Chew, the stylist helped me find my style; the clothes came in, I got to pick and choose what I wanted to wear. I tend to like mixed prints. And I like to shop in my closet, to go in and put together something new that I’ve never worn before. I think people think they can’t do it, but start with a printed top … stripes, polka dots. Then choose a floral scarf. It’s very little commitment.

And where did the glasses come from?

I didn’t always wear my glasses; I wore contacts for a while. On Top Chef, I said, “I’m not going to wear contacts any more — it’s easier to just grab my glasses,” and glasses just became my thing. They’re my face art. I started becoming more deliberate in choosing them, and now I have 50 pairs, not including the ones I can’t use because the prescriptions are out of date. I choose them based on what I’m wearing, and I travel with at least six pairs at any given time.

Tell us a little about your latest cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration .

This is my most personal cookbook I’ve done. I have grown so much as a chef, sort of found what I’m passionate about. [This book is me,] telling my ancestral story through food. It takes readers on a tour through the South, seeing the South through a fresh set of eyes, looking at soul food as my ancestors’ legacy. [When planning it, I asked myself,] “If my grandmothers came over from Africa, how would they be eating?” The soul foods people know — fried chicken, smothered pork chops, mac and cheese — those are celebration foods. People didn’t eat like that every day.

One dish that I think grounded this book was the okra and tomato stew. It’s a big soul food dish, traditionally cooked for a long time. I made it very light, using aromatics like onions and garlic, bay leaf, and I roasted the okra rounds. At the last minute, I put the okra into the soup, permeating that light broth. If this is the first soul food you’ve made, and it’s a Monday meal and you need something light and fast, this is it. And you need to know how to make collard greens. My collard greens would be good for every day; they’re made with smoked paprika instead of pork.

You’re involved with the AARP Foundation’s Summer of Service to SeniorsSM, a series of nationwide events intended to shine a spotlight on food insecurity and senior poverty, and show how volunteer service can make a real difference. You’ve helped pack more than one million lunches for hungry seniors, food pantries and more! Why does this cause speak to you?

Not only are these fun volunteer events that bring families together for something very serious, they bring awareness to the issue of seniors and food security. As my mother has been aging and I’m getting older myself, you start to see age in a very different way. I see my mother, how little she starts to eat, even at 78. It becomes very personal. As I got involved with the AARP Foundation and began understanding the statistics and how many seniors are faced with food insecurity … sometimes it can mean the difference between choosing food or medicine. But also, being a chef, it is my business and my passion to feed people. To know that so many people aren’t being fed is a travesty.

How else can people help contribute toward the cause of ending senior hunger?

Donate to your local pantry. Check in on your seniors, make sure they’re not isolated, [that they’re] getting groceries and food. When you go out with your good girlfriends — I like to eat with at least four people, because I’m an over-orderer —  use [a credit card that donates a portion back to help seniors in need].

In addition to helping pack more than a million lunches, you’ve traveled to Mozambique with the nonprofit CARE to learn about and raise awareness of the needs for solutions to global hunger and malnutrition. When you signed up for Top Chef , did you ever think you’d one day be able to effect this kind of change?

Absolutely not. I am flabbergasted when I look back on the last 10 years. I wouldn’t have done it! I would have been afraid of the success of this, and I would have said, “No, I’m not the one. Pick somebody else.” But I take having this platform, the responsibility of it, very seriously.