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Jul 21, 2015 10:01 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Calling For A 'Hootie Hoo': Carla Hall Finally Top Dog At Chefs And Champagne

Jul 21, 2015 11:01 AM

Celebrity chef Carla Hall sat in disbelief at home in Washington, D.C., staring at her cellphone’s email in-box.Needing to see it on a bigger screen, she switched to her laptop to reread—for the fourth, fifth and sixth times—that she was to be honored at the 25th annual Chefs & Champagne tasting event on Saturday at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, landing her among the ranks of Ted Allen, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, to name a few past recipients.

“It’s absolutely huge—I am still pinching myself,” Ms. Hall said during a recent telephone interview. “I read it and said, ‘Oh my God, yes!’ I wanted to say yes before they changed their mind! I would figure out the details later.”

Ms. Hall, who first gained fame as a contestant on seasons five and eight of Bravo’s hit reality series “Top Chef,” was slow to discover her passion for food—or, at the very least, preoccupied. She had already tried out careers in accounting, modeling, water filter sales and even earned a real estate license.

“It really came from the desire to do something that I loved, and I didn’t know what that was,” she said of hopping from job to job. “I was willing to try something and quit. That was fine with me in order to find my passion, and I just sort of fell into food.”

Traditional Southern cooking, to be specific. The Nashville native, and aspiring model, was walking runways in Paris around 1988 when she found herself longing for a break from carbohydrates. Fortunately, she happened across the answer: a woman named Elaine. While Ms. Hall cannot recall her last name, she will never forget her Sunday brunches chock full of Southern ingredients and fresh vegetables—turnips, carrots and greens—from local farmers markets.

Ms. Hall was inspired. “She was cooking all of these wonderful things, and I realized just what I was missing,” she said. “I wanted to be able to cook this food. So I started buying cookbooks and getting more involved to control what I was eating while traveling. It was also a way for me to give back to the people whom I was staying with.”

To formalize her education, Ms. Hall attended the L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland from 1995 to 1996 after returning to the United States. Her venture into the televised world of cooking came in 2004, when she appeared on Food Network’s short-lived “Food Fight,” followed four years later by “Top Chef” on Bravo.

She quickly secured her spot as a fan favorite, coining the phrase “Hootie Hoo!” a tradition she and her husband, Matthew Lyons, started in order to find each other in a crowded place, much like shouts of “Marco Polo.”

But ultimately, after 14 weeks of intense competition, Ms. Hall walked away as runner-up behind winner Hosea Rosenberg—only to return three seasons later for an all-star competition, featuring favorites from the very beginning. She finished in fifth place.

“Standing in front of a judge with one dish to present is something completely different than being able to cook,” Ms. Hall said. “Everyone who was there can cook, but can you deal with the pressure of being judged under those time constraints? It is different.”

Since then, Ms. Hall’s career has skyrocketed. Now, she can be seen co-hosting ABC’s cooking talk show “The Chew” on weekdays with Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Clinton Kelly and Daphne Oz. “It’s like the most amazing play-date for you and all of your friends,” she gushed. “We are truly friends, and so we are just sitting there talking on set as if we were in somebody’s living room, or kitchen, and having a good time with friends and guests. The fun starts in the dressing room and moves straight on to the set.”

With two cookbooks under her belt, and possibly a third on the way, Ms. Hall plans to open her first restaurant, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, this fall in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

“I’ll admit that it hasn’t been a dream of mine for years and years and years. I didn’t want a restaurant,” she said. “So I was just as surprised that a desire popped into my heart and I looked at it and thought, ‘Are you sure you’re here for me?’ I sat with it for about three months before deciding the feeling was still there and moving forward with it.”

As for the immediate future, Ms. Hall’s attention is fixed on Chefs & Champagne, which is hosted by the James Beard Foundation and will feature tastings from more than 40 chefs in the tri-state area—though the majority hails from New York City.

Ms. Hall plans to showcase four desserts from her artisan cookie company, Carla Hall Petite Cookies, all roughly the size of a sugar cube. They include a triple-layer cookie bar, which combines brownie, chocolate chip cookie dough and pecan dough; a sweet potato bar that emulates the best aspects of a sweet potato pie; a pecan pie bar; and a Mexican chocolate chip, with vanilla and chocolate chips, on a shortbread cookie topped with cinnamon.

“I want to give people sort of a variety of what we produce every day,” she said. “It is always about sharing and adding something a little southern, like the pecans, that we will also be serving in the restaurant. There will be so many things that day for people to eat that I think they may appreciate the size.”

While she’s here, Ms. Hall’s trip won’t be all business: She’ll make time for a mini-vacation. “I think about relaxation and water and peace and joy, that is what I am looking forward to,” she said. “There is something so serene about the area that I am really looking forward to. That and seeing all of my chef friends that are coming.

“I just can’t believe it,” she continued, nearly squealing as she noted that past honorees have included judges during her run on “Top Chef,” including Bobby Flay. “I get the chills when I think about it. I am so humbled and honored that it brings me to tears.”

Chefs & Champagne will be held on Saturday, July 25, at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack. A VIP reception will start at 5 p.m., with the main event kicking off at 6 p.m. A VIP after party will follow from 8:30 to 10 p.m. Tickets start at $275, or $200 for James Beard Foundation members. For more information, call (212) 627-2308, or visit jamesbeard.org/chefsandchampagne.

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