Q&A: Ilan Hall Talks Knife Fighting, Gorbals NYC

By Lesley Balla  |  October 1, 2013
Credit: Esquire Network

That fact that the winning chef on Ilan Hall's new Knife Fight, which airs on the Esquire Network on Tuesday nights, gets little more than a cheap knife and lots of glory is just one example of how this is a different kind of television cooking competiton. The 30-minute episodes pit two chefs against each other to battle it out in Hall's downtown Los Angeles restaurant, The Gorbals, and includes unique secret ingredients, a rowdy beer-drinking crowd and a lot of smack talk. Even if women are involved both behind the stove and as judges (including this writer, who judged one bout this season), this is total food-dude TV, which is why the new Esquire Network is probably the most appropriate place for it. For Hall, who was a line cook at Casa Mono in New York City before winning the second season of Top Chef, it's just bringing something he's always done in the kitchen to the masses.

"Being in a kitchen, you’re already super competitive," Hall says. "It’s where you're in close quarters, you’re always trying to prove yourself. That fed into it. We just started doing competitions with left over mise en place, and we’d have two cooks go against each other. And then we threw a party and just started doing it. It wasn’t a big plan or anything, just more ways to have fun." 

Read on for more banter with Hall about the genesis of Knife Fight, celebrating four years at his LA restaurant, and plans for a second Gorbals on the horizon.

Zagat: Knife Fight finally aired after months of chatter, and we think it's a blast, and not just because we got a behind-the-scenes look. Is it what you envisioned?
Ilan Hall: Totally. It was supposed to air in April and then it was “summer.” They were just getting programming together. I'm glad we started with a stronger push. We’re all really excited that it happened the way it happened, though. I mean, this was a thing we did with our cooks or a chef who was visiting. It even stemmed from my time being in New York. I didn’t have expecations going in but it went extremly beyond any expectations I might have had.

Zagat: After Top Chef was it your goal to do more TV?
IH: It wasn’t my plan. Top Chef was a bit of a fluke. A friend of mine told me about it. I didn’t even have cable TV. I was just a line cook and could barely afford my rent let alone cable. I was sort of very free-spirited about it, you know? If it works it works, everything's cool. But, you know, it worked out. I’m here now. It's the same with Knife Fight, it was just for fun, and then this happened. I just have really great luck I guess.

Zagat: Esquire is a men's magazine, and the show is very dude-centric. Do you think food TV is getting more masculine?
IH: Yeah, but it's also just becoming more inclusive. I just think that food in general, the landscape, is trying to cater to everyone. And there’s this push of young professional men to cook at home, and they think it’s cool. It’s a good in for a date. That was always my trick. It wasn't my charm or my awkward Jewish-Scottish looks, it was that I could cook. You taking the time out to prepare something for somebody. I think it’s a great thing that people are connecting to food. It’s weird that it was so male-driven for a long time, and then women was a larger percentage of cooking. And now it's this.

Zagat: The show takes place at The Gorbals in LA. If you were in any other city do you think the show would've happened?
IH: It could’ve. I mean, a friend of friend who’s been in TV for a long time came in to the restaurant. We became friends; he lives downtown. He wanted to do some television shows. He loves food, so he wanted to do something with it. And I told him that I didn't have any ideas but there’s this thing we do once in awhile at the restaurant, to come check it out. And he did with a couple small cameras, and that’s how it got turned into a show. We’re a bunch of foodie dudes. We weren't sure what the Esquire Network was about, but I'm glad it worked out.

Zagat: The chefs are all pretty much from LA, right? What surprised you about those who participated?
IH: For the most part it was all LA chefs except for two, Chris Kobayashi from Artisan in Paso Robles; his episode is on tonight. He was the farthest north. And Amanda Baumgartner from Herringbone in La Jolla. It's great because we had 18 competitions, two different chefs for each one. It’s just amazing to see the level of talent all right here. I know it’s exciting to be here right now, but it's truly amazing to see how diverse how LA is. I knew most of the chefs, but there were a bunch I hadn’t met yet. I hadn’t eaten at Dustin Trani's restaurants, Doma in Beverly Hills, or his family's place, J Trani's, in San Pedro. And his food was amazing on the show. There were people I was more familiar with, some not. It was awesome for me to taste food from such a diverse group.

Zagat: Did you walk away learning something new about cooking, techniques, ingredients, anything?
IH: I learned stuff from almost every competition. There were things that suprpised me, like foie gras and goat cheese. It’s such a beautiful combo. Some dishes were classic, some were completely off the wall, like nasturtium with boquerones and burnt Brussels sprouts. Who knew? It was one of my favorite dishes. You know, I run a restaurant and don’t have a chance to go out that much, so getting this hyper-intense taste of restaurants in one setting was amazing. Out of all the dishes we tried during the whole season, there was maybe one dish I didn’t like. I feel people were just fearless.

Zagat: Do you think it's resonating with viewers outside of Los Angeles?
IH: I hope so. It just did something amazing for me in regards of how I feel about LA. It was inspiration. When you get stuck in your bubble and don’t think about the outside. I had this intravenous rush of all these chefs' flavors. What I love about LA chefs right now is this fearlessness about the food. People are breaking rules and doing what they want to do, some people are doing exciting things and breaking down barries. Like Jordan Kahn from Red Medicine is awesome. He doesn’t care what the f*** anyone says. He’s just making food. I love that.

Zagat: Any news about a second season yet?
IH: Not yet. But hope so!

Zagat: If you do get a second season, will you get out of town chefs to come here or take it on the road?
IH: If we do a second season, my plan, and I don’t have final final say really, I’d love to just do all West Coast chefs at The Gorbals. Just up and down the seaboard, all the way down to even Mexico and up to Seattle. Portland, which has an amazing food scene right now.

Zagat: Anyone you’d love to see participate? You mentioned Jordan Kahn. He's not on this season?
IH: He’s not on the show; he’s a workaholic. I respect this drive of chefs who are working so hard. I'd love to see Woflgang Puck against Nobu. What a great challenge, a great episode. But the options are endless. There are people who had to cancel in the last minute, and the people who we had to replace them with were probably way better than who was originally scheduled. There's just so much talent. I feel like it’s even more important to them that there’s no prize, that they just can say I did it. It’s like when you get into a fight on the street you don’t want to lose.

Zagat: Let's talk about The Gorbals. You were there in the beginning of a new renaissance in DTLA, something you even reference in the show’s intro. A lot has happened since you opened. How’s it going?
IH: On Halloween it will officially be four years. I think it’s great the way things are moving. People living in Downtown LA like living a city life, even if it’s small in relation to other cities. The face of the area has changed a lot, but we still need a backbone to support it. It's a small community, but there's room for more. I hired Peter Haller who was a sous chef at Waterloo & City. He’s our new chef de cusiine, working on changing a lot on the menu. Putting a lot of new things on. I’m working on a second actual project now.

Zagat: Aha! Tell us about it.
IH: Well, it’s in New York, in Brooklyn. It’s kind of a big deal for me. It's going to be The Gorbals, in Williamsburg. It will be similar, it will have the same soul as here, but it's New York. It's a little scary, to tell you the truth. Los Angeles is a bit more nourishing and is excited about new chefs. New York is much more...I don't know. People are ready to pounce. But that’s why I hired a chef, I’ll have to be moving around a lot. My family is already there, and I'm going back and forth between the two restaurants now. I mean, I got here [The Gorbals LA] at 7 AM this morning.

Zagat: When will it open and why now?
IH: We're shooting for April 2014. At some point you have to expand, and this is it. I’m only going to be 31 once.