It began as a simple duel: two line cooks pitted against each other for culinary bragging rights in the kitchen of downtown L.A.'s the Gorbals. It was after-hours, ringmastered by chef and owner Ilan Hall. Sometimes Hall would compete for old times' sake — he'd been participating in underground culinary dogfights since his early years working in New York restaurants, and he won the second season of Top Chef. Eventually, chefs from other restaurants started coming in to battle. Small masses gathered to watch. After a few drinks, a bit of smack talk and a serious display of skills, time was called, and incredible food hit the plates.

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This was early 2010 but the format remains the same in Knife Fight, a cooking competition show inspired by those battles. It premieres Sept. 24 on Esquire, a new network — rebranded from G4 by NBCUniversal in partnership with the well-known magazine — that hopes to capture a sophisticated male audience. Nearly every contestant is a celebrated L.A. chef, including Waterloo & City's Brendan Collins, Le Ka's David Feau, Ray's Kris Morningstar and Superba Snack Bar's Jason Neroni.

Cooking competition shows have become increasingly outlandish as they attempt to outshine the others. There's the unabashed Cutthroat Kitchen on the Food Network, in which contestants trip up opponents with unsavory ingredients or ridiculous utensils. Even the more traditional Top Chef Masters had its chefs skydiving for an extra hour of cooking time in its latest premiere. Sure, it's dynamic and entertaining. But a distraction from the cuisine? Arguably.

Conversely, what sets Knife Fight apart is its simplicity. Save for a few secret ingredients that kick off the bout, there are no curveballs. No stealing your opponent's proteins or prepping ingredients with a Swiss Army knife. There isn't even a prize, other than winning the big cleaver over the little one.

Instead, Knife Fight intends to swing the pendulum back to good food, and the good mojo that surrounds it. As Hall puts it, “We're not creating a fake situation. We're not producing drama. We're just throwing a party and having two really talented people with really high-quality ingredients go against each other.”

Matt Hanna, Esquire Network's head of original programming, says of Knife Fight, “At the end of the day, it's about hanging with your friends and doing what you love.” That philosophy also applies to some of the channel's other shows, such as Brew Dogs, about traveling craft-beer crusaders, and Boundless, which follows pals obsessed with going to physical extremes.

The channel's guy-centric brand seems to fit with the show's gregariousness and lack of frills. “It's a manly show,” Hall says, although that doesn't mean it's a boys club.

Drew Barrymore is an executive producer, and she says that right away Esquire made sense as a home for the show. “I thought about the history of what that magazine, and name, and brand is,” she says, “and it has that classic, gentlemanly aspect.” However, she says the show is a little “down and dirty” and “brawlier.” She adds, “There's a lack of preciousness with this cooking show, and I think that's the thing that makes it more masculine.” (See also: Our quick guide to the fall's new cable channels.)

Still, Hall is quick to say, the show doesn't ignore women, as it features chefs such as Nyesha Arrington, formerly of Wilshire. “Some of our best competitors on the show were women.”



Sept. 24

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*This article was updated to acknowledge NBCUniversal's ownership of the network.

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