In the high-stakes era of the celebrity chef, high-profile restaurant employees often live or die by their public image, and a cook’s persona is often crafted and finessed by a public relations firm long before he or she steps into the spotlight. By the time most of these people make their way in front of a television camera, they’ve carefully honed a trained personality made for media. Deviating from the script can mean a quick fall from grace.
That makes Ilan Hall, chef and owner of the Gorbals (98 North 6th Street, 718-387-0195) in Williamsburg, a bit of an anomaly. Hall won season two of Top Chef long before he thought about public relations, and he certainly didn’t have anyone behind the scenes coaching him on his antics. He admits that this is probably why he came off as a bit of an asshole at times. But that also freed him to create exactly the kind of restaurants he wants to create, to behave the way he wants to behave, and to build success on being himself.
“It gave me freedom,” he says resolutely of his experience on the show. “It gave me a platform to expand on.” And expand he has. His first location of the Gorbals, in L.A., made the Williamsburg outpost (and partnership with Urban Outfitters) possible; he’s now relocating the L.A. restaurant, and when it opens later this year, it’ll be all vegan. And he continues to do TV — he’s the host of Esquire Network’s Knife Fight, the third season of which airs in late May.
Hall grew up in Great Neck out on Long Island, and he attributes his love for cooking to his father. “My dad was and is the cook; he always had dinner ready when my mom got home,” he says. “He makes beautiful roasted chicken and simple food that’s tasty and delicious.” He started working in markets and restaurants as a teenager, and he did his last year in high school in Florence, Italy, where he worked in a restaurant and finished his credits. “It was the best five or six moths of my life,” he says. “I’ve always been independent, but that helped me be sort of fearless in where I went and what I did.”
He came back to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and though he dropped from the four-year program down to the two-year track, he tacked on a year in the pastry program out in Napa. When he graduated, he landed a job at Craft, but he was fired after six months. “I kept messing up,” he says. “I was kindly asked to leave.”
Undeterred, he considered returning to Aureole, where he’d done his externship, but wound up instead taking a position at Casa Mono thanks to his friend Liz Benno, who was the sous chef. He stayed for three years. “Andy Nusser was probably the most inspirational chef for me,” says Hall. “His approach to flavor was amazing. I’d been to Spain, but I’d never really thought about Spanish food. I fell in love with it. It’s one of my favorite places in the world culinarily now.”
Hall wasn’t looking for another job, but a friend suggested he audition for Top Chef, and despite the fact that he’d never seen the show, he decided to give it a shot. After he missed the open call, he bought a video camera at RadioShack — “because they had a good return policy on equipment,” he says — and then had his roommate film him cooking in his tiny apartment. Two weeks later, he was at a second-round interview in L.A., and a week after that, he was cast.
Hall maintains that he wasn’t the best cook on the show, but he had the soundest strategy, and that’s how he won. Ironically, the cast house was located across the street from what would eventually become his restaurant, the Gorbals. But in the aftermath of Top Chef, Hall didn’t get on writing a business plan — instead, he says, “I blew all the Top Chef money traveling.”
Soon, though, he conceived of a plan to combine the dishes of his mother’s hometown, Jerusalem; his father’s Scottish heritage (the Gorbals is named for the Glasgow neighborhood where his father grew up); and a healthy dose of technique from all the places he’d worked. He built out his downtown L.A. location on a shoestring ($60,000, he says), painting the walls with equipment he later returned, à la his RadioShack camera.
The chef plots dishes around seasonality and thoughtfulness — “It should be thoughtful beyond just what the ingredient is,” he says. And he consciously tries to make unique fare that’s impossible to compare with other restaurants’, because he doesn’t like how that feels. Struck by L.A.’s produce, he integrated tip-to-top vegetable cookery into his menu early, using all parts of every ingredient he procured. His “meat-lover’s perspective” on vegetables wooed crowds, as did his cheeky dishes, like bacon-wrapped matzoh balls and a BLT sandwich in which the bacon is replaced with fried chicken skin.
He’d begun a relationship with Urban Outfitters thanks to his wife, who worked there, but after a few years, the company asked if he’d consult on a café it was planning to open in Williamsburg. “It turned into a restaurant,” he says.
He relocated to focus on the New York space, and a neighboring bar offered a good sum for his L.A. address. So he shuttered in the City of Angels with plans to relocate, and focused, for a time, on being here. And despite not being able to get the Southern California produce, he thinks the city has inspired him to do better work. “I find the proximity of other chefs I love and respect to be a better ingredient for me,” he says. “Going to other people’s restaurants, seeing what other people are doing here — it’s so close and accessible.” He cites April Bloomfield, Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese, and Nate Smith at Allswell as particular inspirations.
And as he settles in, he continues to build — Hall is planning a series of events for the upcoming season of Knife Fight, which features New York chefs and was filmed at the restaurant in Williamsburg. And on Saturday, March 28, the Gorbals launches brunch. Expect cheeky plays on classic dishes, like French toast sticks with foie gras and smoked honey, Scottish oats with elderflower brown butter and pepitas, toad in a hole grilled cheese, and lamb neck hash.