Ilan Hall Sharpens His Knives
Author: Eric Newill
If anyone needed yet one more indication that professional cooking has become more WWE SmackDown than Julia Child, a new show cements that concept in a gritty, in-your-face style. Knife Fight, debuting this summer on the nascent Esquire Network, stars Ilan Hall, winner of the second season of Bravo’s Top Chef, who hosts a series of hard-edged culinary competitions at his buzzy downtown Los Angeles restaurant, The Gorbals. Shown in half-hour blocks, Knife Fight pits celebrated chefs (Brendan Collins, David Feau, C.J. Jacobson, Kris Morningstar, etc.) against one another in a frenzied race to create a duo of dishes using two to three secret ingredients, which can range from live catfish to jackfruit to goat to shark. As they scramble to fashion their plates, they are alternately cheered on or heckled by a boisterous audience consisting of friends, industry pros, L.A. hipsters and a smattering of celebs (Elijah Wood, Jason Lee, Bijou Phillips, Erika Christensen and executive producer Drew Barrymore have all been party to this culinary combustion). Finally, as in an ancient gladiatorial battle, winner takes all—which, apart from the glory and adulation of his peers, isn’t much: “What started as one chef talking smack to another has grown organically into a full-on competition,” Hall says. “At the end, it’s not about winning and there’s no huge prize. These chefs are just pouring their hearts into what goes onto their plates out of a genuine love of food.” Here, Hall speaks further with In Season about his upcoming show.
Tell us about your food philosophy at The Gorbals.
I never take anything seriously, and I don’t stick to themes. I change things multiple times. There’s a big push to be anti-establishment, so I might do things like matzo wrapped in bacon, or wine-braised octopus with gizzards. It’s about finding things that go well together, and complementary flavors and textures.
How does the downtown neighborhood add to the mood and mystique of your restaurant?
Well, it has experienced a huge boom of new restaurants, with a real late-night vibe. The people we rely on are our neighbors, who have been very enthusiastic. The area has an undiscovered gritty quality, but to me it’s like a warm blanket.
So it seems to be the perfect setting for an old-fashioned mashup, like you show on Knife Fight.
The restaurant has an open kitchen, and the dining room is a big box, so the whole concept goes along with who we are. This entire process happened organically; we began to have these informal competitions, and soon people began hearing about it, and then someone came in and filmed it.
How do you choose the secret ingredients, which some people would term “exotic”?
Sometimes they can seem exotic, depending on one’s taste. But it’s things I would cook. California has the most amazing produce and meat. We just choose things to stump people. But we also want to expose how great L.A. is as a food destination, with a vast amount of ethnic cuisine, from Mexican to Vietnamese.
Has a contestant ever been stumped?
Not really. These are real heavy-hitters on the show, incredible raw talent. They produce dishes no one could conceive, and they really inspire everyone. Plus, they put food down for me I don’t have to pay for!
Tell me about the audience. Sometimes they seem to be a wilding mob.
People just love to watch competitions, and of course they’re rooting for their chef. Their outbursts can get super intense, but it’s all done in a lighthearted way.
You did get some great celeb cred with Drew Barrymore as producer. What has been her input?
We partnered with her and her company, Flower Films, and they’ve been incredible. We’ve mostly been working with Ember Truesdell there, and she’s been responsible for so much of the show’s vision. She added a different element and flavor.
What are your absolute favorite things to eat?
Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. It’s the gold standard. The technique and texture is so perfect, with all that milk and cream. And French fries. But it’s difficult to get them right. I’ve been working for years to perfect them. You have to cut them and boil them in water with sugar and salt, then let them cool, blanch in super-hot oil and then freeze them. Then you drop them in the fryer. In-N-Out does a pretty great job.
What food trends are you seeing in L.A. right now?
There’s a big individuality push, a ripping away from the trend. Nobody needs to see another gastropub—that’s just an excuse for not using proper technique. Smaller portions are in, as are veg-heavy menus. Vegetables can be, and often are, the main component of a meal. It’s a great trend, and you can still show off incredible technique. And look—if you really want to, you can still have them deep-fried.
Knife Fight could place The Gorbals on a new national level.
I welcome all the business it can bring. The great thing is viewers will really see me and my restaurant, my kitchen, my walk-in. It’s a completely organic experience.