A food-world fixture since debuting on Top Chef in 2008 and making it all the way to the final three, Chef Carla Hall been pretty busy ever since. Between returning for Top Chef: All-Stars, opening (and subsequently closing) a restaurant in Brooklyn, writing several cookbooks and earning a co-host spot on ABC’s The Chew, Hall relishes every opportunity to spread her joyous philosophy on comfort food, health-conscious eating habits, and exploring culture through a culinary lens.
Observer caught up with Hall to chat about her theory of mindfulness and her best practices for maintaining a thoughtful attitude toward food, long after the New Year’s Resolution season fades.
How has mindfulness manifested itself in your culinary career?
I came into the culinary world, and shortly thereafter, I developed an interest in spirituality. So the two really came together for me. I’ve always believed that there are no mistakes in the universe and in living my truth. The older I got—and definitely during my time on Top Chef—I placed more and more importance on making the types of food that felt good to me. It took a minute, and more than a few episodes of Top Chef, but I felt so much more comfortable and happier cooking dishes that felt connected to my story and my body’s needs.
Now, what does mindfulness mean to you?
For me, mindfulness is about being honest with yourself, and about being your own advocate. After a certain point, I started to think to myself: “When I eat this, I don’t feel good. Why don’t I feel good?” You really have to pay attention to your body. Slowing down, thinking about my food and taking my time to enjoy—it’s all mindfulness. At its core, food mindfulness is about what you’re eating, how you’re eating, and why you’re eating.
For instance, when I feel exhausted and down and I want to treat myself, I reach for sugar. But instead of impulsively grabbing some sweets, I make myself consider: “When and why am I eating these things?” I’m also becoming more aware of my own food sensitivities and how to work with them by paying attention to how my body feels.
For example, I have this thing called “hamburger time.” I love hamburgers, but the older I get, the more I realize I can’t eat them at any time. In a perfect world, I’d go out with friends for a movie and then would go out for a hamburger late at night. But this doesn’t feel good to me anymore. So now, “hamburger time” happens at around 1 p.m. for weekend lunch.
Now that most people have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions, what mindful eating and cooking habits would you suggest in order to be mindful throughout the year?
[When it comes to mindfulness] I think that a little goes a long way. Small habits, like eating your colors, can be really effective. Try eating vibrant colors, and try to avoid putting yourself in a narrow box with your goals. When we get too lofty with our ideals, that’s when we fall off the wagon.
I am not good at going cold-turkey with anything. I’ve tried to do it—I’ll tell myself: “You have these sensitivities, cut these food items out of your diet.” But I’m a Taurus. As soon as you tell me not to do something, I immediately want to do it. So I change the script instead, saying to myself: “I’m sensitive to that, so I can’t eat it all the time, so I’ll choose when to have it.” Because life happens.
So when I’m at a football game and there are fries and burgers and popcorn, I may not want to eat an apple instead. But if I remind myself to ‘eat my colors’ but also let myself have some popcorn alongside the apple, I’m not setting myself up for failure.
What are your thoughts on the wellness trend? Is it a positive development, or is it moving in the wrong direction?
Wellness is a buzzword right now. It’s like “organic;” it became really big and grew into a trend, and all of a sudden, people started slapping the word on everything. Instead of doing their homework, customers will take these terms at face value. You have to do your research; you can’t expect someone else to do it for you.
For me, wellness means balance, it means mental health, and it means to slow down, because I tend to rush rather than living in-the-moment. It needs to be defined on a personal basis; you have to decide what it means for you. You can read an article about what worked for another person, but you have a different body type, you live in a different climate and environment. There are a lot of grey areas. You have to decide what works for you, and you need to be your own advocate.
When it comes to your own mindful eating habits, what ingredient do you consider most useful?
Lemons. When I wake up, the first thing I drink is a quart of warm water with lemon. It keeps me going. But again, that’s just what works for me. If someone’s really sensitive to acid, this wouldn’t be an option for them.
You’re currently working on a new cookbook, which is currently untilted. What role will mindfulness play in this project?
The book focuses on mindfulness in terms of culture. I’m all about people honoring their culture and not doing away with traditions for the sake of health. I’ve talked to a lot of older people, and they told me: “If it’s a choice between having my food memories and being healthy, I’ll choose my memories and die happy.” But eating healthily and eating your culturally-significant foods don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
This book makes the distinction between everyday soul foods and celebration foods. When you think of the significant foods that people want to share from their cultures, they tend to be indulgent, celebratory foods. In the case of soul food, that means fried chicken and mac and cheese and candied yams and rolls and cakes and pies. But when I think about the foods that my grandmother and great-grandmother ate every day, they were very vegetable-centric. That’s where the mindfulness comes in. What are the healthy but delicious everyday foods, and how can those culinary processes be used to make special-occasion foods a bit healthier without sacrificing flavor? One example of a special recipe I lightened up is a stewed okra. I made a flavorful tomato broth and roasted the okra, which permeated the broth. This technique took away the okra’s sliminess and resulted in a light texture with very concentrated flavors.
Essentially, this book is about re-teaching, being mindful of our culture, and looking at special celebration foods through a 360-degree lens.