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Carla Hall: Find Your Happy!

Carla Hall was a CPA turned Paris runway model. Glamorous, right? But all this celebrity chef wanted was her grandma’s cooking.

Carla Hall

Find your happy,” Granny, my mama’s mother, always told me back when I was a tall, gawky kid, watching her make chicken pot pie at home in Lebanon, Tennessee. And that’s why I’d moved to Paris, France. But all I’d found was myself feeling forlorn and homesick.

Quitting my job and flying off to Europe seemed like a gutsy, glamorous move. I’d been in an accounting position for two years. One afternoon, I’d watched my boss carefully fold and refold a receipt while taking an inventory of steel beams.

Was that me in 20 years? Crunching numbers in some dark office, withering away–death by spreadsheet! My college friends had found their dream jobs. Why not me?

I prayed for direction. Then a friend called about a modeling gig in Paris. I took it as a sign. I was no fashionista, but I was tall and I’d done a little modeling in college. This was it! I’d discover my purpose along the moonlit Seine.

Mama thought I was foolish to give up a steady, well-paying job. But Granny had my back, as usual. “God has something big planned for you, baby,” she said. “Go find your happy!”

Now I’d been in Paris two months and I was miserable! I’d found no more fulfillment on the runways than in spreadsheets. I should’ve been sipping wine at charming bistros, falling in love at the Eiffel Tower.

Instead I shuffled from one fashion show to another, missing home like crazy. Especially Granny’s cooking. I had no interest in escargots or macaroons. All I really wanted was a big ol’ helping of Granny’s chicken pot pie and a slab of chocolate layer cake.

Her Sunday suppers were the center of my universe growing up. After church, my family would flock to her house for smothered pork chops, five-flavor pound cake and pan-fried cornbread.

I didn’t care much about what went on in the kitchen–I was more into the eating! But I loved watching Granny shape her cornbread patties, leaving fingerprints on each. Like she’d imprinted them with a little bit of her soul. “If you cook with love,” she’d say, “everything just tastes better!”

I could barely heat up soup, but I couldn’t stop thinking about pot pie. So I invited my American model friends over, promising real down-home cooking. I’d seen Granny make pot pie hundreds of times. How hard could it be?

I searched the Rue Cler market for ingredients, but couldn’t find celery. All I came up with that looked even vaguely similar was a bunch of pale green stalks with roots. Whatever they were, they’d have to do.

I poured my soul into that pot pie, humming happily over my tiny apartment stove. As I stirred, I tried to picture my love flowing from me into the food, soothing my guests, some of whom were as homesick as I was.

An hour later, though, when I took the pot pie out of the oven, the crust was breaking apart, the filling was leaking out…and those green stalks? Slimy and stringy. Find my happy? I couldn’t even get a simple recipe right!

Five hungry friends descended upon my apartment. I’d promised them comfort food. So I set the defective pot pie on my wobbly kitchen table and held my breath as the girls dug in.

“Mmm,” one said. “This is gooood!”

“It tastes like…like a hug!” said another, laughing.

I took a tentative bite. Not bad! My friends hadn’t noticed the pot pie’s mistakes, just the love I’d poured into it.

I kept experimenting, picking up new ingredients (those green stalks were actually leeks), collecting cookbooks. I’d get lost in a world of saffron, tarragon and cinnamon. Sometimes I even dared to put the cookbook away and cook with my senses, like Granny.

After two years, it was time to return to the States, even if all my soul-searching hadn’t turned up my dream job. At least I could show off my new skills in the kitchen.

One of the first things I did was cater my sister’s baby shower. The next day, I packed the leftovers in a picnic basket and carried them over to a friend’s office for lunch.

“This is Carla,” my friend announced. “She has a catering business.”

“What’s it called?” her boss asked.

Before I could protest that cooking was just a hobby, I heard a voice: Find your happy! There it was, so close I could taste it. “It’s called…the…” I stammered, staring at the basket in my hand, “the Lunch Basket.”

That was the humble start to my cooking career. I did open a catering company and eventually enrolled in culinary school. Then I landed on Bravo’s Top Chef, where I impressed the judges with one very special recipe. You guessed it–chicken pot pie!

Granny was right. When I found my happy, I discovered something bigger planned for me, a life more delicious than I could ever have imagined.

Try Carla’s recipe for the Tomato-Corn Chowder!

This story originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Guideposts magazine.

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