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.
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.
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?)
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 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