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Be a Better Cook

Cook Clean with Love

Top Chef: New York top-three finalist Carla Hall opens up her pantry for Clean Eating and reveals why it might be worth spending a bit more on quality groceries.

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Clean Eating: We know you like comfort food. Do you try to make it light?

Carla Hall: I don’t think about my food being light, but people taste it and say, “Oh, this is so light!” I think it’s just second nature to just let the ingredients speak for themselves. It’s just intuitive and the way I like to eat. Even though I like sauces, I don’t like heavy sauces that mask the food.

CE: During tougher economic times people tend to steer toward convenience and fast foods because they think they’re less expensive. Do you think that clean or healthy food is necessarily more costly?

CH: What I hear in the market is that consumers think that fruit is a little more expensive. Not to put the grocery stores down, but I think we’ve gotten so used to big conglomerates setting the prices that when a smaller company sets the prices it does have to be a little bit higher. But I think it’s better for us. For one, all of the food that’s cheaper and more convenient – especially fast food – your body will pay for in the long run. So it very much comes down to preventative care – you pay a little bit now so your body won’t have to pay later. You take care of your car now so you won’t have to pay later with your engine going [laughing]. It’s maintenance!

CE: Do you have any tips on how to eat healthier, especially on a budget?

CH: I think you need to plan. I’ll go to the farmers’ market and pick a few things up, but I don’t have a plan. So half of it will go bad before it gets eaten. But if I go in with a plan and know exactly what I’m going to do with those ingredients that I buy, then it won’t go to waste. So, again, it’s maintenance – we’re thinking ahead.

CE: Do you eat clean?

CH: I think I do. I snack on pizza and hamburgers sometimes, but even if I have a hamburger I want it to be really nice beef. I want to have great bread, nice tomatoes, great lettuce. For the most part, the things that I like are very clean. I am a big fan of vegetables. I love salads. And now that it’s summer it’s the perfect time because we’re starting to get a lot more than just root vegetables. I just love vegetables.

CE: Do you think the general public doesn’t venture out into that kind of clean cooking often?

CH: I think you’re absolutely right. People don’t really give it a chance because of their food memories. We all have our memories of growing up the way that we ate, and if no one comes along to convince us that we should change then we will continue to eat that way because it’s comforting.
I think demos at markets are really beneficial because it shows people how to use some of the foods at the market. It takes away the intimidation factor. And when I’m teaching cooking classes I ask people if they cook and lot of them tell me they’re afraid of failing. There’s something about that dish not turning out well that intimidates people. So my approach in my cooking classes has always been to give the power back to the person who’s actually cooking. Because you have to find you’re good. They’re not comparing themselves to a chef or to dishes they’ve had at a restaurant. You’re making this for yourself, so find your good. And I think that takes a lot of the intimidation away.

CE: It’s obvious that you have a passion for cooking and a sense of connection and community when you are cooking. Do you have any tips for our readers on how to “feel the love” when they’re cooking at home?

CH: I think it’s about being very deliberate. If I’m peeling a carrot, I’m thinking, “I’m peeling a carrot.” It sounds really simple and kind of stupid, but instead of thinking, “OK, what do I have to do after this carrot?” I’m thinking, “I’m peeling this carrot.” That attention to detail is actually putting love into it. Not only are you honoring the activity but you’re honoring the thing that you’re actually working on at that time.

CE: Do you have any pantry must-haves?

CH: I always have olive oil. My new pantry must-have is dehydrated fruits and vegetables because I mix that in with a little bit of salt or pepper to sprinkle on top of my food for another flavor note. I always have kosher salt, and let’s see what else I have… [laughs as she begins going through kitchen]. I have organic peanut butter, vinegar, balsamic vinegar, white vinegar and lots of dark chocolate.

CE: It sounds like you like to keep your dishes simple.

CH: I do, but simple can sometimes be complex. I like to think that my dishes are very thoughtful because I’m thinking down the road. A lot of times on Top Chef, I was thinking of what people might like. I like to think about who might be coming to this party. I like to give people a certain education about what to do with certain ingredients.