Ilan Hall graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked for some of the best chefs in New York City, and won Top Chef Season 2 before opening The Gorbals in 2009, delivering a unique, comforting mix of Jewish and Scottish influences to downtown Los Angeles. The second season of Knife Fight, his no-holds-barred competition cooking show, returns to the Esquire Network on April 15, and he adds a second restaurant to Williamsburg in May. Hall recently shared several insights into his culinary and televised existence.
Josh Lurie: How do you decide which chefs to feature on Knife Fight? What are the criteria?
Ilan Hall: There’s no criteria when we’re choosing chefs. This season we branched out a bit. There are quite a few people that I hadn’t met in the past, but I’d heard of, and I got recommendations from other chef friends. We just used our connections, because we had the ability to bring people from out of town this season, so it was a bit more exciting. Like, for the premiere, we got Tim Love and Mike Isabella. I’m more friendly with those guys. Tim Love, I’m really good friends with. We got him last minute. I didn’t even know we were going to get him. I thought he was coming out as a judge. We matched him with Mike Isabella, and that sort of worked out perfectly. People that have great reputations. People that want to do it. Usually, the show, and the competition, draws chefs that don’t take themselves too seriously. They take their food very seriously, but like to have fun. It shows with pretty much every episode, every fight. We had a blast this time. We had a blast last time, but being more established, people know about it more and then come in a bit more savvy of what the competition’s like.
JL: Is the format pretty much the same as the first season?
IH: It’s the same thing. Just two or three ingredients. There are a few episodes where the ingredient numbers change based on the feasibility of getting food done. If there was a whole animal to break down, or something live, we would pare it down to one or two ingredients, but same thing. Very little rules. People have that hour and can do whatever the hell they want.
JL: You said the only prize is a “shitty knife.” Why is it that you think chefs want to compete on Knife Fight?
IH: Not having a cash prize makes it more about your honor. It makes it more exciting. It makes it more honest about the food. It’s almost like an exhibition match in boxing. It’s really just for fun, and you actually get better product when you’re taking away the pressure. They’re not trying to win $100,000, which is life changing for so many people. When there’s nothing on the line, they put everything on the table.
JL: What will it take for you to consider Knife Fight a success? What are your goals for the show?
IH: I just want to keep doing it. I have a great time doing it. It’s fun. It’s like a party for me. I get to branch out and meet all these other chefs, especially now that they’re from around the country. There are some amazing guys and girls that came down from Portland. We had Naomi Pomeroy as a recurring judge on the show. She’s a good friend. It’s great to see what people are doing around the country…I hope we get another season, so I can do it in New York. That would be my dream to have all my bosses against each other in a melee. How amazing would it be to have Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali and Charlie Palmer all go against each other in one shot?
JL: That would be epic.
IH: It would be epic, amazing. I want to get Batali in there. I want Batali to cook. I love watching him cook and compete and I’m sad I don’t get to do it anymore.
JL: How does being a chef help you perform well on TV?
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