Ilan Hall has had an interesting six months, between the opening and closing and reopening of his downtown restaurant The Gorbals. But now that the building inspectors are finally happy with him--a problematic boiler necessitated the closing of The Gorbals after only a few days--he's opened for lunch as well as dinner, and is settling in very nicely, thank you. We caught up with the chef and asked him about his Scottish-Jewish fusion menu (Hall's father is from Scotland, his mother is Israeli), traveling for Top Chef, what it was like to reopen after an unexpected hiatus, and his take on the Los Angeles dining scene. Check back tomorrow for part 2 of the interview, plus Hall's recipe for a GLT, or gribenes, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Who needs bacon when you've got crispy chicken skin.
Squid Ink: What do you think about the Los Angeles dining scene?
Ilan Hall: I think it's great. It's very diverse; it's kind of how Los Angeles is as a city to me. I moved here [from New York] because it's very weird and very interesting and it has lots of culture, but it's not a traditional city. BUT it's a really American city. It's not like New York, which is sort of the gold standard of what a city should be. It has a proper public transportation system; it's designed; it's very easy to get around; it's compact. Los Angeles is sort of this wild west, spread out, it doesn't make much sense. And that's what I love about it. And the food is as such. That's sort of what attracted me to this [restaurant] space: it's inside, it's sort of out of the way and weird. I feel like with finding food in LA you have to go and seek it out. It's not right in front of your face like it is in New York. But that's also what I love about downtown. It has notes of New York, but it's not New York. Los Angeles is just weird. Parts of it are beautiful but it's not as a whole a gorgeous city. I feel like there's a grittiness to it that I miss about New York, that New York doesn't have right now.
SI: You have to like strip malls here.
IH: I don't like strip malls, but I like that there are amazing restaurants hidden in strip malls. Like my favorite sushi place, on Beverly. Hirozen. I love that place. It makes no sense that it's there. I love how it's a little nook stuck in the middle of a strip mall.
SI: You initially wanted to do a food truck?
IH: I wanted a truck before I moved here, actually. Because I was kind of enamoured by taco trucks and I thought they were kind of amazing. Before I moved here I didn't really know anything about the Los Angeles dining scene. I'd heard about the Green Truck. And I thought it would be kind of cool to open up a restaurant on a truck, maybe a little tapas place, maybe something where I'd be able to park and fold out a few tables. Because my dream is to have a tiny 10-seat restaurant, where it's just me cooking whatever I feel like, and I thought maybe I could do that on a truck, where I'd have a counter and stools that I could pull out. I still think it would be kind of awesome. Like, 7 or 10 seats? Sit down, very quick food, small plates. I mean, I don't know if you could set up a truck like that, but I'd like to find out.
SI: If you had your 7-seater restaurant, what kind of food would you cook? This kind?
IH: I don't know. I mean, what is this kind of food? This kind of food changes. I put out a dish last night that was like straight from Spain and it was great.
SI: Can one call this Scottish-Jewish fusion?
IH: You can, but it's sort of what an alien would interpret Scottish-Jewish food to be. All it really is, is food that I think is tasty together. I was talking to my dad about it this morning. He says I cheat. He says I use enough salt, lemon, garlic. You know, if there's enough acid, enough seasoning, enough fresh herbs... He cooks very simply, he cooks Mediterranean style, and he cooks all the time. People say it's so good; he says, I cheated, I used good ingredients.
SI: How is that cheating?
IH: Well, it's a joke. He's being sarcastic. I don't know, I use good ingredients and I put things together that I think are tasty. Some of it has Scottish inflections, some of it is Eastern European and old Jewish, a little bit Israeli. I just got some za'atar and sumac today.
SI: You've made haggis taste good. That's never happened in my lifetime.
IH: Haggis is good. I was in Scotland a year ago and I had haggis that was phenomenal. Tiny little restaurant, more of a pub, in Scotland north of Glasgow. My father's best friend has a house there. Tiny little place called The Devil's Cauldron--you can tell it's been there forever--and I had this incredible meal. Beautiful haggis, with whiskey poured on top, really nice.
SI: What's your favorite ingredient to cook with?
IH: What does that mean? Everybody always asks that. No, I don't think it's a stupid question, but I don't know. I like cooking with all ingredients. Right now I'm on an oxtail binge.
SI: What would you have been if you hadn't become a chef?
IH: A carpenter, like Jesus. I always make that joke, but I kind of love it. We made all the benches, I made this table, we made all the stools in here. I like working with my hands.
SI: So who would you say was the most influential person in your cooking life, so far?
IH: My father and second my cousin, who's a chef. He lives what Anthony Bourdain does for television. He travels and cooks and is very nomadic. He was working at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Raymond Blanc's restaurant in England, while Marco Pierre White was yelling at Gordon Ramsay. He was there working with those guys. He's never had his own restaurant, he's just been traveling. He's awesome. He's handsome. He'd kind of make a good secret agent, disguised as a chef.
SI: Did you go to the Philipines with him? You said you'd been there recently.
IH: No, actually I went to the Philippines to do a Top Chef event. Everything in Manila is a shopping mall; that's the social center. It was me and Dale Talde, who was on season 4 of Top Chef, from Chicago. He's a Filipino-American, so we went together. There was a giant billboard of us off one of the highways. It was really creepy. My face was like storeys-high. And what was even creepier about it was that I couldn't get them a proper picture, so they took my head and they put it on a Filipino chef's body and they like made it bigger. On a giant billboard. It was kind of crazy just being on a giant billboard.
SI: Did they fly you around a lot, doing Top Cheffy things?
IH: I did that for a really long time. I did that for 2 years. A lot my time was spent doing that and really just traveling. We went to the Phillipines, that was my most recent one. It was fun, we did events. We went to this island, I was on a jet ski.
SI: It was like Miss America, you got to do all kinds of things.
IH: A little bit. It was weird. I really just like excuses to travel, especially when it's someplace exotic. I mean, I went to a lot of different places: I went to Venezuela, I went to Romania, I went to Spain with my family a few months after the show. Been around.
SI: So would you do Top Chef again, if you had it all to do over?
IH: Oh yeah, of course. It was fun.