Since even runners up use Top Chef as a springboard to open restaurants and launch careers in various media, it’s a surprise that season two winner, Ilan Hall, has stayed under the radar for so long. Not that he hasn’t been busy; he owns the popular, eclectic The Gorbals in L.A., is currently working on opening its Brooklyn outpost in June, and hosts another exciting culinary competition (watch out, Padma!) called Knife Fight on Esquire. But Hall has consistently let his sense of personal preparedness dictate the course of his career, instead of attempting to capitalize on TV-earned notoriety. “I wasn’t really ready to open a business after Top Chef,” and I certainly wasn’t ready to open a business in New York,” Hall admits. “Because even though I was still a line cook when I was on the show, it would have seemed like I was regressing to take a sous chef position after it. It put me in a spotlight where people thought I was better than I was.”
“So I traveled around a lot and took my time,” he continues. “And when I felt like I was ready to open a restaurant, I figured that L.A. would be a lovely, warm, nourishing place.” And all these years later, Hall finally feels ready to take a chance on New York, opening a second location of The Gorbals inside of a massive Urban Outfitters complex (complete with a rooftop bar) in Williamsburg. The menu will include many of the original, quirky dishes Hall is known for, like Bacon-wrapped Matzoh Balls and a Gribenes, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich, although he’s equally excited about more mature, restrained inventions, like Grilled Lamb Sweetbreads with Cool Ranch Hummus, and Silken Tofu made with Pigs Blood (still sounds pretty kooky to us!)
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped relying on tricks and gadgets. And I don’t aspire to owning ten different restaurants either,” he insists. “I have a friend who is a very successful restaurateur, is very wealthy, and he’s miserable. I want to have some resemblance of a life. C’mon, I’m a dad, in a committed relationship with two restaurants and a TV show,” he adds. “Who needs much more than that?”
We also chatted with Hall about what it takes to be successful on Top Chef, the ugly season two “head shaving” incident with Marcel, what he loves and hates most about Los Angeles and New York’s dining scenes, and why he believes that it’s celery’s time to shine.
In a very committed relationship. I call her my wife-lady, because we might as well be married.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
I didn’t. I knew I never wanted to work in an office though. And I always loved food and was adventurous with food. My father was the cook of the house, still is, and I guess his love for it eventually got me cooking, too.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
Working at a local fish market that served a lot of prepared foods when I was in high school. That was my first real physical connection with food. I’d bring different fish home from work and my father would show me how to cook it.
How would you describe your culinary style and point of view? How does your own background play out in your cooking?
I draw from everything; everywhere I’ve worked, my fridge growing up, having hummus alongside ham. My grandfather was a butcher in Israel and didn’t keep kosher in the house. My grandmother was from England with a Russian background, and my other grandma was from Vienna, so there was a lot of Eastern European influence in my family paired with Middle Eastern influence paired with British influence, and we all just loved food. So it’s hard to label the kind of cuisine I do today. It’s just about using ingredients that I love and think go well together.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s not surgery on a spinal cord, it’s food.
When you were on Top Chef, it was only in its second season, and not necessarily a proven entity. So how did you originally hear about it and what made you decide to participate?
I had never seen it. A friend of mine told me about it, so I decided to audition for fun. I got all dressed up to go to the open casting in NY, and when I looked on the website, I realized it had already happened the day before. So I decided to send in a video. I went to a RadioShack that I chose based on their return policy, got a camera I couldn’t afford (and returned the next day), and cooked some crappy ramen noodles with leftover stuff in the house like eggs and mayonnaise. And got a callback. The first thing they asked me was, why didn’t you come to the live audition?
Obviously you won, so what do you think it takes to be successful on a show like that?
It’s more strategy than skill. It’s about understanding who your customer is, and what people want at certain points. You have to be able to adapt to a lot of different situations. And it’s a marathon; you don’t want to win every single round, have to top yourself each time and burn out. I also went in not needing to win, because I was still young. And maybe that’s another thing that worked in my favor; if you want and need it so badly, and are away from your spouse and kids, you get too stressed out. I couldn’t do it now — I have two restaurants to juggle, a wife-lady and a son.
All told, do you feel mostly positively about having been on Top Chef, or are you sort of tired over it?
It was a great experience and I honestly had a lot of fun. You’re around likeminded people — it’s kind of like being in a kitchen in that you’re closed off to the rest of the world. And I was making a TV show, which I’d never done before.
The second season is notorious for that ugly episode when you and a bunch of other chefs cornered Marcel, and tried to shave his head. Do you feel like that colored people’s perception of you, going forward?
Yeah. Listen, it’s a TV show and I get that the producers have to make it interesting. But it was a real situation. You don’t get along with everyone. Maybe we trained all of the competitors after us to watch what they do a little more.
In what ways is the Brooklyn outpost of The Gorbals similar to the original, and in what ways is it different?
I’ve become a bit more mature and restrained with my food. Less shock value. We’re using a big, beautiful wood-fired grill for a lot of our dishes. After having gadgets and tricks for years, I realized it was important to remove things to make the food more clear and true. But it’s still a little bit weird, and I hope that Williamsburg will embrace that.
I would imagine the dining scenes in L.A. and N.Y. couldn’t be more different. What do you really love about each, and what frustrates you the most about each?
People are very adventurous in L.A. Actually, 80% of our diners are of Filipino and Korean descent, and they love what we do, and their cuisines have influenced me a lot. I love how diverse and multicultural L.A. is. What I don’t love? Despite L.A.’s reputation as a bastion of health and vegetarianism, people just want to eat burgers and fries. If we took our burger off the menu, we’d never hear the end of it, and I hope that’s not the case in Williamsburg. Portion sizes are also tremendous. It makes me crazy. I’m not trying to gyp people out of food; our portions are reasonable. But I don’t want people to fill up on one thing. I’d rather make the portions smaller and drop the prices. New York has always had incredibly high standards when it comes to service and food. You can’t get anything by New Yorker’s; they’re ready to pounce and are hypercritical, so we need to have all of our ducks in a row.
What current dishes at The Gorbals to you think best encompass what the restaurant is about?
I always use a cheek over a loin. We’re doing a Monkfish Cheek dish. We’re using a lot of dehydrated vegetables to concentrate their flavor. We’ll have a Celery Gazpacho with Celery Cheese and Fish Sauce. Grilled Lamb Sweetbreads with Cool Ranch Hummus and Pickled Garlic. Lamb Breast with Smoked Ginger and Vinegared Potatoes, and Fresh Tofu made with Pigs Blood and topped with Ramp Oil and Uni. A lot of out of the box surf and turf stuff, and animals in their larger form, like Schnitzel with the hooves still on it. And a lot of the dishes from L.A., like the Bacon-wrapped Matzoh Balls and Gribenes, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich. Ramp Funnel Cake with Green Onion Sugar. And there will be some approachable stuff, too!
How did your culinary competition on Esquire, called Knife Fight, come about?
It was just something we used to do for fun late at night at The Gorbals. Two chefs would duke it out on the clock to make a better dish with certain ingredients, and then we’d have the manager or a couple of servers taste them and determine the winner. We originally started it as a way to try and come up with new dishes, but then chefs from other restaurants in the neighborhood began coming around and wanted to compete as well. I was not interested in being a part of another TV show, but a friend filmed it one day, brought it to the Esquire network, and it turned into Knife Fight.
What are some current culinary trends that you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I love treating vegetables like meat. For years people have put them to the side, even though they’re way more diverse than meat. But I’m also completely over kale as a thing. I like it, but I don’t get it. It’s easy to grow, it’s one of the cheaper vegetables. So what’s with the Kale Caesar, Kale Caesar, Kale Caesar? Enough! What about celery? I’ve loved it since I was a child in all forms. It’s celery’s time to shine.
What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement to date?
Opening a restaurant and going on to the second. It’s way harder to do than anyone can ever explain. It’s nonstop work and preparation and stress. You can’t turn the restaurant off. There must be a support group of wives and husbands of chefs that meet on Wednesdays.
And what’s your end game goal? What do you continue to strive for, hope for, wish for, and work for as a chef?
Ask me that in a year and a half. Right now, my only end game is opening this restaurant. I just want to make good food that people like.