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Carla Hall’s Chasing Flavor highlights food history—and one of TV’s best

Carla Hall’s Chasing Flavor highlights food history—and one of TV’s best
On Chasing Flavor, Carla Hall laughs as she's served dondurma in Istanbul

Carla Hall’s mouth drops open and widens into a smile, and her hand covers her face in awe. “What? I can’t even. What?!”

She looks back and forth, earrings dangling, and then doubles over in gasping laughter as a person wearing a vest and rubber gloves takes a meat cleaver and violently whacks, again and again, at a hanging column of dondurma, which is Turkish ice cream.

This is the start of my favorite scene in the first episode, “Ice Cream,” of Carla’s new Max series Chasing Flavor.

There is more laughter to come, when Carla is finally served a cone of dondurma that’s attached to the end of a long stick, which the vendor teases her with repeatedly. Carla finally grabs the cone—and the cone comes off without the ice cream, and her giddiness ramps up and more, including when she grabs for it again and just gets crumbs.

A person looks at their hand and laughs
Carla Hall laughs as she grabs crumbs of an ice cream cone while being teased by a vendor in Istanbul on her new Max show Chasing Flavor.

Throughout Chasing Flavor’s 30-minute episodes, Carla shares information, asks questions, and shares stories from her life. But in this downright delightful scene in the premiere episode, the editing just stays with Carla, allowing for us to see a few moments of her in ecstatic wonder.

Fifteen years after she was a finalist on Top Chef New York—and really, its breakout star—Carla Hall finally has her own show.

She hosted The Chew and has been a longtime judge on Food Network, but somehow it took fifteen years for Hollywood to figure out that she needed her own star vehicle, too.

Now that a Carla Hall starring vehicle is here, my only substantive quibble with Chasing Flavor is that I want more of Carla Hall.

A person reaches for an ice cream churn while another person looks on
Carla Hall learns how to use an ice cream churn on Chasing Flavor (Photo by Max)

Chasing Flavor has elements of Marc Summers’ Unwrapped and Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, and a dash of Adam Conover’s approach.

Each of Chasing Flavor’s episodes focuses on a different food: “Al Pastor,” “Chicken Pot Pie,” “Barbecue,” “Hot Chicken,” and “Shrimp and Grits.”

Those episodes are “about food, and family, and sharing stories and history and travel. And more importantly, giving credit to the cultures that had a hand in a particular dish,” Carla said in the show’s announcement.

As she travels around the world—the United States, Ghana, Turkey—Carla spends times with chefs and experts, and together they trace history and explore the process of making these foods, all while celebrating just how freakin’ good they are.

The series is informative without being pedantic, and playful while still being willing to take emotional side streets or face historical realities, such as how a white woman was the one who patented the ice cream churn invented by Augustus Brown, a Black man.

To its credit, Chasing Flavor avoids the endless drone shots and food porn that were once captivating and are now just cliché, though its cinematography captures both places and people well. (There are a few curious decisions, like inserts of clunky stock footage of two people eating ice cream. The show filmed an ice cream episode in multiple cities across three countries and missed that?)

A person holding an empty ice cream cone, and two other people, one of whom is holding a pole above her head; all are laughing
Carla Hall is teased by a dondurma vendor while Gamze, a chef and food historian, looks on.

Carla Hall is with us start to finish in each episode, but sometimes, her in-the-moment reaction is cut off, and we’re whisked away into her narration and accompanying animation.

Those animations are fun, with lively lines dancing around stylized images, a perfect accompaniment to Carla, as it mirrors her zing.

They also help balance what can be an inundation of information, as fascinating and useful as it can be. I finally understand the difference between gelato and ice cream, and what makes good ice cream better than cheap ice cream.

Sometimes those illustrations find their way into the footage, appearing briefly to, say, create wisps of smoke dancing out of Carla’s ears as she tries a sauce. “That’s spicy!” she declares.

Carla is with someone who’s cooking when she tries the sauce, and scenes like that—of her watching, learning, and trying things herself—are so great.

More time lingering with Carla and the people she’s with, as we do in Istanbul with the dondurma, would only make Chasing Flavor even better at what it’s already doing so well: highlighting both the origins of familiar foods and one of television’s best food personalities.

Chasing Flavor

Chasing Flavor takes Carla Hall’s personality and insight around the world, and it’s a delight. A-

What works for me:

  • everything Carla Hall
  • the energy of the graphics and illustrations
  • the information

What could be better:

  • more Carla Hall in the moment, less in voiceover

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Happy discussing!

raph

Thursday 8th of February 2024

Kim was a great choice for Top Chef host, but part of me still wishes Carla had got it. I can picture her as host for quick fires or the banter at elimination challenges with Tom and the other chefs judging. It would bring a fresh good light hearted approach to judging.

we need another all star season with her on it.

Melissa

Thursday 1st of February 2024

Well this sounds delightful! So glad it's on a streaming service I have. :)