Carla Hall says being a model in her 20s was 'the exact opposite experience' she expected: 'Modeling in Paris, I found food'

Carla Hall says the key to good Nashville hot chicken is the spicy oil it's tossed in. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Carla Hall says the key to good Nashville hot chicken is the spicy oil it's tossed in. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.

Before Top Chef Carla Hall shared her love of food with the world, she pursued a very different career: modeling. Hall walked runways in Paris, Milan and London before becoming a chef, and says her time in the fashion world was not filled with rigorous diet plans or depriving herself of her favorite foods. Instead, the opposite happened.

"It was actually when I was modeling in Paris that I found food, which is so crazy," Hall tells Yahoo Life. "Every Sunday we would have this Sunday supper hosted by a woman who was from Memphis, Tenn. but living in Paris. We would get together and we'd make dishes we were missing from home: buffalo wings, mac and cheese, collard greens, and the conversation would invariably go to How does your mom make macaroni and cheese?"

When Hall realized she didn't know how her mom made the decadent dish, she decided to learn. "I started buying cookbooks," she says. "I'd go into the American bookstore and my fascination with cooking sort of became an act of gratitude because I'd give food to people who's couch I was staying on. I had the exact opposite experience of food and modeling and not eating and all of that."

Hall grew up in middle Tennessee, but says her time in the Nashville area was far from honky tonk bars and tourism. "I left living in Nashville full-time at 18 and I couldn't drink, so [bars were] not something I was drawn to," she recalls. "Even the Bluebird Cafe started the year I graduated from high school. All these things that are why people are going to Nashville today to visit weren't really my jam. But, if you talk about roller skating on a Sunday for 'Soul Skate,' I'm there."

Soul food is also a large part of Hall's cooking repertoire. She recalls growing up eating vinegary tomato-based barbecue and desserts made by her grandmother. "I love desserts, but I don't love sweet desserts and I think that's because of my grandmother," says Hall. "She made pound cake, she did a peach cobbler that was sweet, but there was also a bit of acid. She had a love of almond extract, which was in her peach cobbler and her sweet tea. She always did what she called a buttermilk pie, a cross between a chess pie (a buttery pie with a sweet custard filling) and a pecan pie."

Today, Hall's ultimate comfort food is something a bit more savory.

"I'm a soup and sandwich girl. I love soup," says the author of Carla Hall's Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration. "I think you can travel with soups — chunky soups, cold soups, pureed soups — I love the textures of soups and stews. And, if I had to say, it would always be a very smooth silky soup with a sandwich. There's nothing like a delicious broth."

"That's why I order soups when I go places," she adds, "because I will judge you if you cannot make a good soup."

Hall spoke with Yahoo Life as part of her work with Chicago-based restaurant Esquire by Cooper's Hawk. In the months of August and September, Hall was the restaurant's "visiting chef," serving up a menu with Southern-inspired foods like black-eyed pea hummus, a whole deboned red snapper dish and cracked shrimp — a dish inspired by time spent in the Bahamas making cracked conch. In October, Esquire's visiting chef will be culinary icon Tyler Florence, so Hall's in good company.

The 58-year-old chef says after her Brooklyn-based restaurant, Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen, failed, she was apprehensive about trusting a restaurant with executing her menu. "I had a restaurant. It failed. So I was really nervous," says Hall. "If you haven't had my food, and you have a perception of what that experience is going to be like — it's a little nerve-wracking to give that experience over to someone, but they were such good partners."

One of Hall's favorite things on her Esquire menu was her Nashville hot chicken dish, served with barbecue carrots, coleslaw and gherkins. "I really didn't want it to be crazy hot," she says of the meal. "The skin is really crispy and the skin stays on the meat. It is Southern-fried chicken tossed in a hot oil and it's the hot oil that makes it 'hot chicken,' which I don’t think a lot of people really understand."

Want to try a bit of Hall's menu at home? She shares her recipe for Nashville hot chicken.

Southern Hot Chicken

Courtesy of Carla Hall, Esquire by Cooper's Hawk

(Photo: Carla Hall/Esquire by Cooper's Hawk)
(Photo: Carla Hall/Esquire by Cooper's Hawk)

Ingredients:

  • 2 3-pound whole chickens, each cut into 8 pieces

  • Oil for frying; canola, peanut, etc.

  • 4-6 tablespoons pickle juice

  • Chicken seasoning (recipe below)

  • Flour dredge (recipe below)

  • Hot oil (recipe below)

Chicken Seasoning:

  • 4 tablespoons kosher salt

  • 2 tablespoons onion powder

  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder

  • 1 tablespoon hot paprika

  • 1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar powder

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar powder

In a bowl, whisk spices together well until combined. Set aside.

Flour Dredge:

  • All-purpose flour

  • Cayenne pepper

  • Sweet paprika

  • Kosher salt

  • Corn starch

In a large bowl, combine the flour with seasonings; mix well. Set aside.

Hot Oil:

  • 2 cups vegetable oil

  • ¼ cup cayenne pepper

  • 2 teaspoon smoked paprika

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika

  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 2 teaspoons sugar

  • 2 sliced mangoes, dried

Warm half of the oil to 180 F, add the spices, gently cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, add remaining oil and mango and allow to cool. Transfer to a container and store at room temperature. This gets spicier as it sits. You can strain this prior to using but it should sit for at least a few days to develop enough spice and flavor.

To fry the chicken:

  1. Heat oil in a medium heavy-bottom cast iron skillet to 365 F. The oil is ready when a little flour dropped in bubbles and sizzles steadily.

  2. While oil is heating, remove chicken from refrigerator; place the 16 pieces of chicken in 2 zip-top bags. Sprinkle each bag of chicken with 2 tablespoons chicken seasoning, or enough to coat chicken, and 2 - 3 tablespoons reserved pickle juice. Massage the chicken through the bag.

  3. Dredge the chicken in seasoned flour. Coat chicken evenly and press the flour into each piece; place on sheet pan.

  4. Carefully place the chicken in the hot oil, skin side down and away from you; cook in batches. Don't crowd the pan and maintain oil at 365 F. Continue cooking, turning to evenly brown each piece, until cooked through, about 12-14 minutes total. Note: Skinless, boneless chicken will take about 8-10 minutes to cook. Cook chicken to 160 F, a safe internal temperature

  5. Drain chicken on balled up paper towels on sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining chicken (you can use 2 pans or cook in 2 batches), replenishing and reheating the oil between batches.

Dunk hot fried chicken in prepared hot spicy oil immediately, or drizzle over chicken and toss in a bowl, then plate as desired.

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