Ilan Hall knows a thing or two about turning heads. His, ah, bold personality, on display during the second season of "Top Chef," and his bacon-wrapped matzah balls from his restaurant The Gorbals have both riled up the food world at various points. Right now Hall has embarked upon a far less controversial project and menu: adding some flair to Downtown's Urbano Pizza Bar. His new items include the scimmietta pizza (with applewood smoked bacon, pumpkin, and goat cheese) and charred corn with balsamic butter. We chatted with the chef about his experience with Urbano Pizza Bar, his status as a "Top Chef," and his take on the Los Angeles food scene.
What is your role at Urbano Pizza Bar?
Hall: I've been brought in to bring my view on the menu and to rework the structure of the menu and add some pizzas, add a whole bunch of small plates, and just put my personal touch on it.
How did you first get involved there?
Hall: I'm friendly with the owners. They're fellow Downtown business owners and so we've known each other for a few years. We always wanted to do something together, and this was a good opportunity.
Which new dish are you most proud of?
Hall: There's a pizza that we just put on the menu that's coming out right now that's really, really good. It's got wild mushroom mixed in with ricotta cheese, hen egg, and bottarga.
How do you find inspiration for adding items for a menu that's already been created?
Hall: You have to rework a lot of dishes. Everything needs to have some sort of a balance, whether it be a balance of acid and sweet, or bitter and savory and salty. There's a balance of every dish and I feel like you need to, no matter what it is, whether it's a simple arugula salad or a multi-component pizza, everything has to play off each other. There shouldn't be too much topping. It's all about balance of things and the flavor inspirations come from places where I've cooked, where I've eaten, every sort of little bit and piece of experience in my life.
Were there challenges in making your own taste profile suitable at Urbano? Or did you think it was a good fit?
Hall: I feel like it's a good fit. I feel like I appreciate a wide range of cuisine so I really feel like I was comfortable. There's another pizza I put on with roasted pumpkin, bacon, sage, and goat cheese. Those flavors I'm comfortable with. It's something that I know, something I had the ability to experiment with. The most difficult part was me getting a grasp on making out the pizza dough and rolling out pizza. I still have a hard time with that. But I think flavor-wise, it was a very good fit.
Are there any lessons from your experience with The Gorbals that you have brought to your work at Urbano?
Hall: All the management experience and just trying to be respectfully in control of people and impart things that I know without me forcing myself too much on people because it was already an established business. I didn't want to come in and be like "Hey, I'm boss man and I'm here to take you over." You have to do it from a point of respect where the employees want to do right by you. It's not just because they have to because you're telling them to. That's one of the things I'm constantly learning is how to become a manager of people. I think that's the most difficult part of this business.
Have you felt that your experience with The Gorbals and your status as a Top Chef winner has affected business at Urbano?
Hall: I think to a degree. I have an established business Downtown in Los Angeles that gets significant amount of publicity so all of that helps. Everything helps. And I don't think it's just the fact that I was on Top Chef. I think that it helps because I'm somewhat of a successful restaurant owner. I'm doing food that I want and enough people are coming to support it.
Have you felt any pushback from customers or people in the industry for coming from reality TV?
Hall: Yes. I've felt it from fellow chefs. Everybody has their opinion on what they think you should be, what they think you should be doing. It's hard but you have to just stay true to who you are and cook the food you love to cook and hopefully enough people will like it. Top Chef was good. It got my name out, it made things go a bit faster. I'm not doing anything differently.
You're now involved in two restaurants in Downtown L.A. Is there something about that area that speaks to you?
Hall: Downtown has this sort of...it's metropolitan. It makes me feel comfortable. It's more of where I'm from so I really feel like it's a place that I feel good about. I think Downtown is a great new scene in LA. It's one of the oldest neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles and it feels like the newest. There's something exciting about that.
Do you have any plans to spread out to other parts of the city?
Hall: Right now I don't have anything planned for outside of Downtown, but you never know. I love all other neighborhoods. I love Venice, I love Los Feliz, I love Silverlake. I think it really depends on what situation comes about.
Your career started in New York. How would you say that the L.A. food scene differs from that of New York?
Hall: There's a much higher percentage of restaurants in New York than there are in L.A. I think it's way more competitive in New York because people have seen everything multiple times over. And in L.A., it's more of a fresh ground and you can do something and you'll stand out more. You'll be more of a commodity, but you're more on the scene and more present than you would be in New York. In New York, there are thousands, tens of thousands of restaurants and to have your own place where people know who you are is kind of hard.
What do you hope the future holds for Los Angeles restaurants?
Hall: I hope that people just become more open. I feel like LA is big on jumping on certain styles, certain bandwagons. I feel like it's good because it's a fresh scene. There are great restaurants here for a very long time. There's a huge interest in it now for the masses. I think it's an open book. We'll see.
Urbano Pizza Bar
630 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90017
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