Fall is my favorite season for the cool, crisp air; the twinkling lights and warm decorations that span multiple holidays; and the savory food and sweet treats.
There’s also a reality TV personality who makes this season even more special: Carla Hall on Food Network every Monday night.
The former Top Chef contestant is a judge on both Halloween Baking Championship and Holiday Baking Championship—the only person who spans both series. That’s 15 weeks of Carla’s creative costumes and cheery judging.
This holiday season, there’s even more Carla Hall, as she’s now the host of the fourth season of Holiday Baking Championship: Gingerbread Showdown, and will also judge alongside Stephanie Boswell and Kalen Allen.
Why do I love Carla Hall so much? It’s all about the love she puts into her work.
Since season five of Top Chef, during which she was a finalist and fan favorite, Carla approached food competitions with love. And I mean that literally: “I make food good by putting my heart and love into it,” she said during that season.
Her first cookbook was even called Cooking with Love: Comfort Food that Hugs You, and her television presence is very much a comforting hug, too.
During Top Chef’s season-five reunion, Andy Cohen called her “Kooky Carla,” which is dumb because her behavior was anything but “kooky,” especially by reality TV standards.
Whether Carla was centering herself or breaking into song, fighting to stay in the competition when her dishes didn’t deliver, or working her way up to the top of the pack six times, she was so endearing and engaging, and was an immediate, breakout star.
“Winning for me was to not be scared to where I shut down,” she said during the reunion, responding to a question about how she was the underdog for many of the episodes.
That fearlessness, the willingness to just be herself and let us see that is part of why she’s so beloved.
Carla told a story on the podcast Meditative Story about going to a summer theatre camp when she was 12, which included this anecdote:
The idea of standing out, of having everyone stare at me, is terrifying. But here, in this wide, open barn I choose to say “yes.” Running across the stage in a wig, speaking in an outrageous accent, free to experiment, I discover a piece of myself I didn’t know was missing. Whenever I’m uncomfortable, I now know I can become somebody else. Here in the barn, I feel smart and seen and proud.
You can see that in her judging on Halloween Baking Championship, which thoroughly and quite madly embraces the spooky season. This season, that included a challenge to create an open wound cake—and one baker created such so gross, realistic, oozing cake that host John Henson stood up from the table and left.
It’s become tradition for its judges (Carla has been one since the first season in 2015) to dress in incredibly elaborate costumes and be layered in makeup worthy of Face-Off.
While Carla’s fellow judges Zac Young and Stephanie Boswell fully embrace their costumes, too, Carla’s character is usually the big reveal, and for good reason.
In one episode, John Henson said “My dear old mom’s been visiting,” and Carla didn’t just come out to judge in decaying makeup, but had a fully-formed character—to judge cakes!
In a wheelchair, head tipped, teeth rotting, she said, “How you doin’?” After John Henson summarized the challenge, Carla leaned in, as if she couldn’t hear, and he shouted: “I ASKED THE BAKERS. TO WHIP UP A FOUR-LAYER SPONGE CAKE. WITH A MESS OF A DESIGN.”
Carla didn’t break, but listened, mouth agape, eyes wide. She commits to the bit, fully invested in whatever she’s doing, and that’s an endless supply of mirth.
Both Halloween Baking Championship and Holiday Baking Championship are more constrained than The Great British Bake-Off, focusing on twists and drama in both the format and the editing—definitely in the editing.
There’s less casual interaction, so in both Food Network baking competitions, the judges don’t show up until judging (except in 2020, when Carla judged and hosted the Halloween edition). I anxiously await Carla’s arrival, and not just for the bits, though definitely also for those! She sits at the head of the table for a reason: she’s the best at what she does.
Carla vividly deconstructs what she’s tasting, identifying the strengths and weaknesses with empathy, and balancing the compliments and critique that some judges stumble over. (Dear reader, the number of times I’ve shouted at the screen watching Chopped when a judge says something dumb like, say, a chef’s food was too small or too big for an appetizer, just because they have no actual critique to offer.)
She brings her extensive knowledge and expertise as a chef to the table in a way that is unassuming but always assured.
Nothing against Lorraine Pascale, who apparently stopped judging when pandemic travel restrictions prevented her from traveling to the U.S., but I’m so thrilled Carla now has the third seat alongside Duff Goldman and Nancy Fuller.
They all play off of each other well. After judging the first challenge, Carla said, “One, two, three, grunt!” and they all did together, three times, with increasing gusto.
Carla’s mostly a Food Network judge, which is why I’m thrilled to see her hosting and judging Gingerbread Showdown, which changes each season, ever since it first premiered in 2018, though it also skipped two years before it returned in 2021.
I’m not sure Gingerbread Showdown is salvageable. So much of the work takes place off-camera at home, and the one-off episodes mean we don’t get to know or follow contestants as well as we do on other shows. But if anyone can inject life into it, it’s Carla Hall.
When Carla signed a deal to be exclusive to Food Network back in 2020, its then-president, Courtney White, said in a press release,
“Carla Hall’s charismatic personality along with her passion for food comes through in everything she does—as a host and judge she has captivated our audience with her engaging wit and culinary expertise. I am so excited that Carla has joined our Food Network family, and our team is looking forward to working with her to create content and shows that entertain fans across all of our platforms.”
Props to Food Network for recognizing the talent they have in Carla, but with no knowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes, or what Carla wants to do, I expected that deal to yield even more Carla on Food Network, like her own show.
Or, to put it another way, I certainly wouldn’t mind more Carla Hall vehicles, especially considering how frequently Food Network reuses Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay.
Carla certainly contains multitudes, as is clear whether she was co-hosting The Chew, collaborating with Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, or voicing a version of herself on BoJack Horseman. I’d love to see more of her personality on Food Network.
But for now, I will be thankful what I have in front of me: more than three months of Carla Hall as judge and now host every week.
Wednesday 16th of November 2022
Ha! You just couldn't resist an Andy Cohen dig, could you.
Wednesday 9th of November 2022
Carla is one of my favorite personalities on Food Network. I've loved her, like you, since her days on Top Chef. She's a joy to watch. She cares about the food and the contestants. She fits in so well with all the judges and I want to see more of her on the network.
Tuesday 8th of November 2022
I guess Carla is an acquired taste. I like her enthusiasm and it's clear she knows how to judge. But like The Great British Bake-off, the silliness of the judges or hosts can obliterate the competition. I think having the judges dress up in costumes makes their role seem frivolous to the actual baking. Can you take critiques from someone in a ridiculous costume seriously? Not for me.
I guess there is a place for this sort of stuff on Food Network, but there seems to be way too much of it. But that's just me.
As a note: Carla is a very good cook and serious about her food. So I give her a lot of respect. She was awesome in Top Chef. I'm sorry she is not one the guest judges in that competition.
Wednesday 9th of November 2022
You're definitely right about the silliness, and I think that's why I like it; it's light and easy background TV.
But between all the comedy bits and the (annoying, predictable) twists, it's not a show that is focused on culinary excellence, or about elevating/centering its contestants in the way that Bake-Off does.