Ilan Hall‘s road to culinary greatness started at a rather unexpected spot: a fish market in Great Neck.
It’s where he worked part-time during high school, and how he managed to get his hands on fresh produce every day: a variety of fish and other raw ingredients with which his father—the veritable cook in the family—trained him how to create simple yet elegant dishes. Coupled with the colorful and colossal appetite and passion for food he inherited from both of his parents, the experience ultimately stirred his desire to pursue cooking on a professional level. Asked how he got started in the business, however, Hall modestly replies, “I came to work in food because I was terrible at everything else.”
Perhaps best known for his victory over fellow CIA graduate Marcel Vigneron in the second season of the reality cooking competition Top Chef, Hall—then a line cook at Casa Mono, a Spanish restaurant in downtown Manhattan—opened his own restaurant in Los Angeles shortly after his win. Named after a neighborhood in Glasgow where his father was born, The Gorbals serves “oddball” dishes that are designed to be delicious and thought-provoking; crafted using unconventional methods and ingredients, the creative concoctions reflect Hall’s fondness for experimenting with food and flavoring his edible works with a bit of cheeky humor.
This past July, the chef opened the second location of his one-of-a-kind eatery three thousand miles away from the first, at a spot some may argue is as pleasantly strange as Hall’s cuisine: atop Space Ninety8—a retail concept from Urban Outfitters—in Williamsburg. Like the original, the The Gorbals Brooklyn serves out-of-the-box dishes including bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, falafel-crusted sweetbreads, and beef tongue. Did we mention its signature dish is a whole pig’s head?
Below, we probe the 32-year-old for insight into his restaurant’s fresh east coast outpost. He also relays his experience hosting Knife Fight—a fun culinary competition featuring cooks who vie simply for bragging rights by whipping up dishes using unorthodox, ever-changing ingredients chosen by Hall. The Esquire Network reality series just wrapped up a very successful second season, and is presently filming its third—quite appropriately, at The Gorbals’ newly minted New York locale, which is shuttered for the occasion until October 24th.
How big of an impact did winning Top Chef’s second season have on your career?
Since Top Chef I haven’t stopped cooking, and that’s allowed me to be as creative as possible. I learn from everything I do. When you’re around lots of talented people, it rubs off and you get bits and pieces.
Why did you decide to open a second The Gorbals in New York City? (More specifically, why atop Brooklyn’s Space Ninety8?)
Everything came together perfectly. Urban Outfitters was looking for a consultant; I loved the space and thought it was better for a restaurant than a café. And then I became more than a consultant. It was a great opportunity to bring me and The Gorbals back home to New York.
In what ways do the restaurants’ two locations differ from one another (in terms of menu, ambiance, and overall vibe)?
The L.A. location is very much off the street with no natural light, like a dungeon, whereas the Brooklyn locale is light and airy with its skylight—the room has a breathiness about it. The food has the same soul, and some dishes carry over between the two.
How often do you change up the restaurants’ menus? Who (or what) determines what gets a spot on the menu?
We try to change it every couple of months at least, with some specials and other changes in between. For example, our grilled rabbit dish was once served with cherries, [but is now garnished with apples instead]. We’re also very seasonal.
From your bi-coastal perspective, what’s the main difference between the (culinary) taste of Angelenos versus that of New Yorkers?
I’ve found Angelenos prefer larger portions. They don’t mind paying for it; they just want the plate of food to be bigger. Our banh mi poutine is probably the most popular dish in both locations.
In your opinion, what’s the kookiest/most unexpected item on The Gorbals Brooklyn menu?
Steamed pig’s blood custard topped with uni. I’d say that takes the cake.
Which dishes on your menu are you most proud of/are your personal favorites? Which drinks?
I love our rabbit—the technique [used to make it] is solid. I love the lamb ribs—the introduction of freeze dried fruit is awesome. And our entire cocktail list is amazing; our head bartender Christine has a real knack for balance.
Name three ingredients (aside from the basics such as salt, pepper, flour, etcetera) The Gorbals’ kitchen would be completely lost without.
Malt vinegar, toasted milk solids, and olive oil.
Let’s talk about your signature creation. What inspired the one-of-a-kind dish? What other (perhaps peculiar) ingredients do you use/showcase in it?
The ingredients that we choose are based on the market that week. We try to put sides with it that really highlight the season and what’s available. Honestly, it was inspired by Fergus Henderson, whose roasted half pig’s head is served with watercress and shallots.
Photo Credit: Taste Savant
Which drink on your cocktail menu pairs best with the Pig’s Head?
A hoppy pilsner like Firestone or a dry English cider.
Why does the kitchen need 24 hours notice before serving the eye-popping platter?
In New York City, you don’t. We’re fast here.
Were you ever afraid that the peculiar (and arguably morbid) selection would be a major turn-off to your diners?
Never. The people who want to come and eat my food hopefully enjoy it.
Talk about Knife Fight, and how the idea of the show came about. What sets it apart from other competitive reality cooking shows?
We were doing late-night competitions in my restaurant long before Esquire got wind of it. Chefs from other restaurants would come by after work, have a meal, and get rowdy. Some brought along their own followers. Surprisingly, adding TV cameras to the mix hasn’t made all that much of a difference!
No plans. New York is taking all of my attention right now.