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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."

''Some people probably find it amusing and funny. They recognize the food and what he's trying to do. To others, he may be offensive."

Hall was raised in a Conservative Jewish household on Long Island. His faith began to wane in Hebrew school when his teacher taught creationism, explaining to the class that dinosaurs were actually large dogs. "That was it," he said. "I was done with religion, but held on to tradition."

Judaism is more a claim to culture than a religious calling for Hall, a characteristic that, he says, translates to food.

Hall recalled the chicken-skin sandwiches of his youth, a meal that is characteristically Jewish, but more cultural than religious. Chicken scraps were easy to find in places like the Gorbals. Hall's grandfather was a kosher butcher, "and he would also smuggle in treif (non-kosher food) because it tasted good," he said.

Like his grandfather, the delectable transgressive ways of Hall's food is perhaps what keeps people coming back for more. Kellen Kaiser, a 28-year-old Jew from Los Angeles, kvelled with satisfaction after her meal at The Gorbals.

''I heard about this shticky little restaurant" and it "totally lived up to its potential," she said.

Instead of finding the food offensive, Kaiser delighted in the irony of swine intermingling with matzo meal. "Sure, it feels like something you're not supposed to eat, but how can you not?"

That's the eternal debate for Natan Zion, Hall's longtime friend and co-owner. Zion, 27, wonders if the menu is too gimmicky and the location too hard to find. At one point, the pair hired a promoter to dress up as a rabbi and prance around on stilts in front of the restaurant to attract customers. Zion said his Orthodox sister would likely disapprove, but he's more concerned that the restaurant's Jewish-themed menu is a novelty or passing fad.

Unlike most restaurants, The Gorbals was generating a profit within the first several months of its opening in fall 2009, a function of the cheap rent. "Now it's a matter of finding the right balance between good food and shtick," said Zion.

When asked if he is worried about offending people, Zion said The Gorbals is attempting to breed more tolerance of the palate than pain in the tuchus (Yiddish for derriere).

''When people like the taste of something they eat, maybe that makes them more tolerant of different cultures, Jewish and others," Zion said. "But I still can't eat the matzo balls wrapped in bacon. There's just something stuck in my mind, religious or not, that won't let me do it."



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