You might remember Ilan Hall as the winner of Top Chef season 2, but these days he’s graduated from contestant to host and judge for Esquire Network’s Knife Fight. In addition, he runs The Gorbals restaurant in downtown L.A. and its newer outpost in Urban Outfitters’ Brooklyn concept store, Space Ninety 8. We talked to him about juggling careers, Yelp reviews, and the difference between East and West Coast diners.
Knife Fight seems like the Fight Club version of Iron Chef.
That’s a good way to describe it because it really started when I was working at [Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s restaurant] Casa Mono in New York. We were all fans of Iron Chef so every once in a while at the end of a shift, we’d have these little five-minute competitions. Two cooks would take each other’s leftover mise en place [prepared ingredients] and try make two things in a really short period of time. I’ve always been a competitive person, but I’ve never really played sports, so this was the thing I could be competitive in. And I loved doing it so much that when I opened my restaurant in L.A. I kept doing it. I’d have my line cooks go against each other, and a chef from another restaurant would be there having a drink and would jump in, and it just turned into a thing we did on a semi-regular basis.
Is TV harder work than cooking?
It’s a lot of hard work on both ends. The show is tough hours but I’ve trained for that by working in restaurants for 17 years. Really I don’t feel like it’s so much of a job because it’s too much fun for me. I get to eat amazing people’s food and give my thoughts on it. And it’s exciting to see incredibly talented people, under pressure, doing what they do best.
Hall with Knife Fight contestants
How will you feel if you end up being a more successful TV personality than a chef?
Every job I’ve had I’ve tried to do really well at, and this is no different. I’m a chef and I cook in my restaurant every night, that’s really what I do. But I’m not going to be angry if this thing becomes more successful.
Are there other careers you’d like to try?
I’d like to become a carpenter. I say that sort of jokingly but I genuinely enjoy it. I built all the furniture in my restaurants with the help of a few friends. I like working with my hands, I’m not an answering email type of guy.
Why did you decide to open your first restaurant in Los Angeles?
I have some family and friends in Los Angeles, and I’d always wanted to live there. And I went at a time when the new, young dining scene was in a Renaissance, if you will. Especially in downtown L.A., I feel like I was part of a movement of people marching to the beat of their own drum, really doing what they wanted. Also, Southern California has the most amazing produce all year round that I’ve ever seen in my life.
Do you ever have to compromise your creative vision for commercial reasons?
Absolutely. I’m changing something on my menu every single day. For instance, we have a schnitzel dish on the menu. Initially, when we would butcher the chicken we would keep the claw on the schnitzel. And a lot of people commented on it; some people thought it was cool, some people thought it was funny. But then we were reviewed [by Eater] and the review talked about how that element of the dish was superfluous because it wasn’t broken down enough so it was difficult to eat. And I read the review and I absolutely agreed with it, so I removed it.
Do you always read the reviews?
As much as humanly possible. I listen to everything all the time: I look on Yelp, I try to talk to as many customers as possible, my parents give me feedback, my employees give me feedback. I want to make people happy, so I listen when they have comments. The point of us doing what we do is to make people enjoy themselves.
You’re pretty brave to read the Yelp reviews.
I think what I do is of a certain quality so my feelings don’t get hurt. I’m not so egotistical that I look at it and say “oh, they’re just idiots.” They’re my customers, they’re the people that are paying my bills, they’re the people that are going to put my son through college, so I have to take what they’re saying seriously. It’s just bad business to not listen to what people are saying.
New Yorkers do like to voice their opinions.
They’re very quick to tell you how they feel without trying to soften anything. People in New York eat out way more often than they do in Los Angeles, so they’re more opinionated. I think it’s a good thing. They have high standards in every element of the way they dine—in service, in wine, in every part of it.
Have you noticed any other differences between diners in New York and L.A.?
Our portions are slightly larger in Los Angeles. It’s not about value for money because it’s scaled appropriately, percentage wise we’re not charging any more. We just learned that people prefer larger plates of larger food in Los Angeles, it’s just the way it is. And in New York they’re a bit more accustomed to smaller things.
Knife Fight airs at 10pm ET Tuesdays on Esquire Network.