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Raw Deal ~ The Ilan Hall Interview: get into the mind of a chef whose new show “Knife Fight” returns the focus of food television back to food

Ilan wall

Born in a real life kitchen stadium in downtown Los Angeles, Knife Fight is a fresh and raw competition cooking show on the all new Esquire network. Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef season 2, deals the dilly on what makes his new show stand out and along the way we find out what cheese goes best with Foie Gras, why Los Angeles has an edge on the national dining scene and which Rocky movie is his favorite.

What is Knife Fight?

Knife fight is a cooking competition television program on the Esquire Network. It was an event we were doing at the restaurant{The Gorbals}, just for fun. Some people came in with cameras and it turned into a TV show very quickly.

So this isn’t a television show concept per se. This was something already happening at your restaurant?

We were just doing this{chef competition} for fun, a friend of a friend needing something to shoot, he loved it and shot it with a couple friends, we went to ESQUIRE and it was a good match.

For those not living in LA, tell us about {your restaurant} The Gorbals and your background before that?

I have been cooking for quite while. I was on Top Chef in 2007{winner Season 2}. I opened my restaurant in 2009. It was named after the neighborhood in Glasgow where my Father is from, and it’s inspired by my fridge growing up as a kid. Lots of traditional foods but with no rules. In the end of the day{at Gorbals} we are cooking food, not curing cancer and we want people to have fun at the restaurant. We don’t mind bending the rules and I take that approach to my food.

The show has a very unique, gritty look – intentional or not intentional?

It really just captures the event, it’s dark, low lit, the cameras are small, and there aren’t big lights.

Competition shows aren’t new. You have been on one. This show obviously looks different, and you’re not just a new show, you are on a new network. Is this a new chapter for Food Television?

You can say that, Im not gonna say that, but you can say that. I feel like it captures what we are doing, in a real place with real people that are picked not for their personality but for their skill. And these are people that I pick because I’m excited to eat their food, excited to see what they do under pressure. We are really not trying to force the issue and that is what separates us. We are unlike any other food competition show. Knife Fight is unique because we weren’t trying to be anything, just trying to make good food and have a good time doing it.

If there was a second season(and I’m crossing my fingers) what would you like to see added or changed to the show?

Nothing. I love the way we do it. It’s honest. It doesn’t take chefs for granted. It’s challenging because cooking food is challenging.

What are you most excited about when we watch Knife Fight?

The creativity. We had eighteen competitions and it was just amazing to see what is going on in Los Angeles, from chefs that are well known and those that are up and coming. I don’t think Los Angeles is publicized enough in being such an important food city but there are things going on here that people don’t know about and I’m excited that we can highlight that. There is a fearlessness here that chefs have because it is not as established, so breaking rules, which I’m kind of a big fan of, is commonplace here.

What was the most surprising dish of the season?

I had some combinations that I would have never considered logical. Goat Cheese and Foie Gras – it is amazing. Pasta with white anchovies, burnt brussel sprouts and a pesto made with an edible wildflower called nasturtium – I will never forget how that tasted.

Is this a competition food show for chefs? Is this a show that would inspire other chefs?

I wanted to keep it true to the industry. I wanted to respect the craft. I cared that chefs cared about it{this show}. I wanted to keep the competition real. I didn’t want to add silly elements to it. There is no big prize. It is just about the food.

There is an essence of this show that reminds me of the old anime classic “Fist of the North Star”, where we are in a post apocalyptic world, fools just battle and that’s it.

It is like fist fight, at the end you don’t expect anything from it, you hope to win, if you don’t – what are you gonna do? Nothing.

Is this show the “Rocky 5” of cooking competition shows? Do remember how Rocky 5 ended? It was a street fight.

(laughing) Yeah, listen I don’t want to over describe the show but I take that as a very extreme compliment. Yes it is. I love Rocky 5, it was a sleeper but I loved it.

Who would be your dream contestant?

I have a dream scenario where I either have two huge people going against each other or a huge chef and their number two. I would love to have Wolfgang Puck vs Nobu{Matsuhisa} but at the end of the day I think it would be a better match to pit Puck against his number two: Lee Hefter. People who have history together make great competition.

Who would be your dream judge?

Renee Redzepi, the chef and owner of Noma, in Copenhagen. I really respect his opinion, I love his outlook on food and I would love to hear what he has to say. I ate at his restaurant when I was in Copenhagen a few months ago and it blew my mind. It exceeded everything I ever thought of. It was a food experience that made me change the way I thought about food and cooking.

Will there ever be a kid’s version of Knife Fight?

Maybe in that post apocalyptic world{mentioned above} where only the strongest children survive.

Final thoughts on the end of your first season?

These chefs changed the way I cooked. You learn something every time you eat a meal, every time you go somewhere. It made me think in such an intense way about food in this city, it makes me excited that I have a restaurant in Los Angeles.

Knife Fight airs Tuesdays at 9pm/9:30pm EST/PST on Esquire

About The Author

Ali Khan

I have been eating through Los Angeles for 18 years and along the way I helped pen a dining guide for BlackBook Magazine back when people used pens. Also author of the series Bang for your Burger Buck on LA Taco(www.lataco.com). Also made the jump to the small screen for Food Network. Producing credits include $24 in 24 hours with Jeff Mauro, Thanksgiving Live, development credits include new shows for Alton Brown and Iron Chef Judge Simon Majumdar. You may have seen my mug grilling lamb with Bobby Flay or stuffing myself with hot wing subs on the Best Thing I Ever Made. Yup, I really like food, like, really.

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