Chef's fusion cuisine stirs confusion among Jews

Associated Press Modified: March 4, 2010 at 2:14 pm •  Published: March 4, 2010

LOS ANGELES (RNS) Ilan Hall received his first piece of hate mail a couple of weeks ago. The writer expressed disgust with the chef's sacrilegious take on Jewish cuisine, specifically Hall's decidedly unkosher matzo balls wrapped in bacon.

But for the 27-year-old celebrity chef, the letter was more validation than anything else. It proved his ability to penetrate the palate and minds of patrons at his new Scottish/Jewish fusion restaurant, The Gorbals.

Raised on hummus-and-ham sandwiches by an Israeli mother and Jewish-Scottish father, Hall's rebellious appetite began at a young age.

''We were bad Jews," said Hall, an impish smile spreading across his face. "My father was anti-establishment, and how could he not be, a Jew who finds himself living in Scotland?"

A sense of rebellion seems to course through Hall's DNA. His grandparents, all Holocaust survivors, immigrated to Scotland and Israel, disillusioned by the governments they left behind. Living through World War II shaped his family's culinary tastes toward whatever was available.

Hall's hard-knocks heritage is palpable in his personality, as well as his downtown Los Angeles restaurant, which is named after a gritty section of Glasgow that was home to many Jewish immigrant families.

Yet beneath his scrappy and renegade exterior lies an introspective chef who taps into his religious and cultural heritage to concoct a tenuous, albeit tasty, relationship with food that conforms to tradition.

On tonight's menu: latkes with smoked applesauce; marrow with mushrooms and walnuts; and Manischewitz-braised pork belly. "It's what I call 'sacrilicious'" said Hall, eyes darting around the restaurant to make sure his staff is buttoned up and the cedar-top tables are scrubbed down.

The Gorbals occupies a corner of the lobby in the Alexandria Hotel, a low-income apartment building built in 1906 and recently renovated to attract the urban loft set. The restaurant is awash in yellow light, knobby wood furniture and stainless steel counters.

Hall is usually found holding court in the open-air kitchen, fingers pressing the flesh of fish and pinching salt. The question for The Gorbals is whether the food or Hall himself is the draw.

Hall has developed a celebrity following since winning the second season of Bravo's "Top Chef" competition. His kvetchy ways and hipster looks certainly play a role, but observers say diners resonate with Hall's innate ability to cultivate what one might call a newish Jewish style of cooking.

''He is having fun, mocking Jewish food, yet at the same time indulging in its flavor," said Joan Nathan, the acclaimed chef and author of "Jewish Cooking in America."