Cashing In On Comfort
Michael Rowe

It takes guts to let America judge you on reality TV. But for Carla Hall, the hyperenergetic former Top Chef contestant and current cohost of ABC’s kitchen gabfest, The Chew, it’s all part of a larger mission. Next up: Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, her New York restaurant and ode to Tennessee comfort food, slated to open this year. Here, Hall shares what she’s learned about daring to succeed.

ESSENCE: What’s your vision for Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen?

CARLA HALL: It’s really a love letter to Nashville’s hot chicken, which is traditional southern fried chicken tossed in a cayenne spice paste or oil. It’s simple food, the kinds of meals I had at Sunday suppers at my grandmother’s house. It’s a place where people can slow down. I just want a joint where you can chill, have some good food and get out of the rat race.

ESSENCE: You raised more than $260,000 on Kickstarter for the restaurant. Why crowdfunding?

C.H.: If I were to mortgage my home to make my business work, that would be putting my marriage in jeopardy. I said [to myself], If ever I start another business, I’m not going to do it with my own money. Nobody can put his or her entire world into a business, and a restaurant is a money pit. I also wanted my fans, family and friends to feel as if they were a part of it. I truly believe that if it weren’t for my supporters, I wouldn’t have been asked to do Top Chef for a second time. If I weren’t on Top Chef a second time, I wouldn’t have gotten The Chew. So with a $25 donation via Kickstarter, fans will have their names listed on the Founders’ Wall in the restaurant. That was really about saying thank you.

ESSENCE: Was raising the money difficult?

C.H.: It was nerve-racking. If you don’t reach your goal, all the money goes back to those who pledged. We had two days left and three people sent me an e-mail and gave the maximum of $10,000 each. Then the floodgates opened. I just looked at the screen and cried like, Oh, my gosh, we’re going to do it!

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ESSENCE: But it costs a lot more than a couple hundred thousand dollars to open a restaurant in New York City, right?

C.H.: We need about $2.2 million. We have investors lined up and we’re sealing those deals. Every moment that I’m not taping The Chew, I’m out talking about this restaurant and getting people interested. I point back to Kickstarter to let potential investors know that people are interested in this concept.

ESSENCE: What else goes into launching a culinary business?

C.H.: We’re working on the brand, figuring out the logo, getting the right space, finding a chef, and putting together an advisory board. I [host small] dinners for potential investors so they can understand the food. But I still need to know how to make that food for 600 people. So we have to scale things up, and there’s a lot of training and tweaking. It’s very new to me, and I’m on a steep learning curve. I’m fueled by excitement, but it’s exhausting and you feel very exposed. The great thing is that I have a platform where I can say to people, “Hey, I have this restaurant.” The bad thing is that all eyes are on me, like, Okay, you announced this very big thing and now we’re waiting to see if it’s going to do well.

ESSENCE: What have you learned about pursuing your passion?

C.H.: My mother and grandmother said, “It’s not your job to be rich, but it is your job to be happy.” I remember leaving my accounting job, which people saw as a risk. But the risk for me would have been staying. I felt, What would happen to my passion, to my joy, if I stayed in this job? I went from [accounting] to modeling to falling in love with food and having a lunch delivery service. I went to culinary school at age 30, worked in restaurants, became a caterer, then it was Top Chef and The Chew. Every time I moved, I thought, What does my heart want?

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of ESSENCE Magazine, on newsstands now!