Carla Hall, two-time Top Chef finalist and cohost of ABC's The Chew, is enlisting 15 students from Drexel University to help her launch her first restaurant, to open in New York in the spring.
James Feustel of the culinary arts program at Drexel says the partnership is a great chance for his students to work on solving real-world problems for an operating restaurant. Drexel created a "restaurant lab" class for the project, where students will source ingredients, compute costs, test equipment, and help with kitchen design and recipe development for Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen.
We spoke with her about the collaboration and the cuisine at her new restaurant.
Q: What prompted the collaboration with Drexel?
A: We wanted to find out how we could cut costs but maintain quality. We went to a meeting with Drexel and began discussing all the possibilities, and we talked about the possibility of creating a class.
Do you benefit as much as the students do from the partnership?
Absolutely. It's definitely a two-way street. Talking to the students this week, I knew that I wanted to cook my grandma's food, but I want their perspective; they're coming from the outside. That's invaluable to me. It's also commercializing the recipes. It's one thing to make this food for one person or 100, it's another to make it for 600 people a day, and that's where the students come in.
What's on the menu?
It's basically my grandmother's food that I grew up on, the Sunday suppers that we had at her house after church. It's meant to be a love letter to Nashville. . . . hot chicken and seven sides that are vegetarian. When I was growing, everything came from the garden. As a Southerner and an African American, I really want to showcase this food and debunk the myth that it's all unhealthy.
You were opposed to opening a restaurant before. Why?
I didn't want to open a restaurant just for the sake of opening a restaurant. I wanted to be passionate about it. My business partner showed me a space in New York. When I went to see it, I thought it reminded me of (the Southern tradition of) a "meat and three." I found myself thinking about the possibilities. Every day, I would check with myself: Is this really what you want to do? I'm scared and nervous, but I should be.
You and the students recently held a dinner at Drexel testing out some of your menu items with local people as taste testers. How did it go?
The students did a great job of roasting the chicken and tossing it in the hot oil. I loved it.
Just going around and talking to the people, they seemed happy. I met a woman who said she is the queen of mac and cheese, and she enjoyed it very much. She asked, "How did you get it so light?" She makes the traditional version of mac and cheese, but she still liked the lighter version, that's the idea behind having vegetarian sides. The point is to maintain our culture and tradition, but also create dishes that we can live with.
What do you hope will come from the collaboration, for both you and the students?
I hope to open a Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen at Drexel or somewhere in Philadelphia. Imagine having students who worked on this project, then work with the project they helped to develop.
This is my first restaurant, so I have a lot to learn. The learning curve is a two-way street - they're learning with me and I hope this becomes a great long-term relationship with Drexel.