GUY RAZ, host:
It's just before the doors open for the dinner rush at the Gorbals Restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles. Inside the kitchen, soups simmer on the stove and sauces are froth in a blender. The chef/owner, Ilan Hall, watches his staff at work. Hall's just 28. And back in 2007, he became the youngest winner in the reality show "Top Chef." And right now, he's putting the finishing touches on his signature appetizer.
Mr. ILAN HALL (Chef; Owner, Gorbals Restaurant): Right now, I'm taking a traditional matzo ball...
RAZ: A matzo ball.
Mr. HALL: A matzo ball.
Mr. HALL: And wrapping it in bacon.
RAZ: And wrapping it in bacon.
Mr. HALL: Wrapping it in bacon.
RAZ: Okay. I don't think that my Polish-Jewish Sofka Frida(ph) would approve of (unintelligible) but let me watch what you're doing anyway. So what do you have here? You got a matzo ball.
Mr. HALL: Very simple. It's a pretty simple recipe, except in place of vegetable oil, we use either rendered bacon fat or lard, 'cause the pork fat makes it incredibly fluffy.
RAZ: So this is a regular matzo ball that you would eat at Passover...
Mr. HALL: Yeah.
RAZ: ...on a Jewish deli.
Mr. HALL: Yeah.
RAZ: And you're mixing it with the most un-kosher food possible.
Mr. HALL: The most un-kosher.
RAZ: And - but the result is?
Mr. HALL: The result is lovely 'cause there's something about the bacon fat when it's roasting in the oven that sort of gives it this delicate, sort of crumbly fluffiness that just doesn't exist when you use other types of fat and when you don't wrap it in bacon. And it almost takes on the texture of a really, really light meatball.
RAZ: The bacon-wrapped matzo ball. Call it a hybrid of Ilan Hall's iconoclastic style. And it's what made The Gorbals one of the hottest restaurants in L.A. The restaurant offers the most unlikely combination of cuisine: Jewish and Scottish.
And when I sat down with Ilan Hall at The Gorbals this week, he explained where the idea comes from.
Mr. HALL: My mother's from Israel, my father's from Scotland - both Jewish. And I feel like when you really want to make your best food, you need to go back to your roots and where you're from and where you're bloodline's from. And that's sort of is where it all came from.
RAZ: So this is what you grew up eating?
Mr. HALL: Well, not really what I...
RAZ: Not bacon-wrapped matzo balls.
Mr. HALL: Not bacon-wrapped matzo balls. But I grew up with influence from everything. I grew up with a lot of Mediterranean, Israeli influence on our food. My father was the cook of the house, and he loved to cook. But he always loved chips and haggis and all the...
RAZ: Delicious stuff.
Mr. HALL: ...delicious, hopefully lovely dish.
RAZ: And it's really healthy food. Yeah.
Mr. HALL: Schamltz - yeah, schmaltz and kishka.
RAZ: First off, tell me about the name, The Gorbals.
Mr. HALL: The Gorbals is the neighborhood that my father grew up in, in Glasgow.
RAZ: In Glasgow?
Mr. HALL: Yeah. It's right on the River Clyde. And it was a bit of a slum when he grew up there, very rough neighborhood.
RAZ: Jewish neighborhood at the time?
Mr. HALL: Partially Jewish, lots of immigrants. And that's where he spent his formative years.
RAZ: You have - and you've taken this kind of combining these two cultures to, I guess it's to its natural place, right? I mean, you've got blotka(ph) and pork belly hash. Things like - you offer up gefilte fish and chips, pork belly braised in Manischewitz...
Mr. HALL: Delicious.
RAZ: ...the sweet kosher wine that many Jews use on Sabbath. How does Manischewitz make pork belly taste better?
Mr. HALL: Well, pork belly lends itself really well to sweet cooking preparations.
Mr. HALL: And so when we were doing it, we were braising it coq au vin style, almost like they do in France with braised chicken. And so we did it like that. We marinate it overnight and then slow cook it in the Manischewitz, and then glaze it with it and made this beautiful bright red-purple crust on the outside of it. Very, very good. It's not for the sake of being offensive, I promise.
RAZ: One critic, who actually, I think, gave this restaurant a great review and gave you a great review, he called it confrontational cooking, that it's food designed to provoke people. Obviously, Jewish people who are kosher may not find it so amusing.
Mr. HALL: Well, we needed to get people's attention. We're stuffed inside the lobby of a very nondescript building, so...
RAZ: Here in downtown.
Mr. HALL: Here in Downtown L.A. So we don't have lots of street presence. So I really wanted to do something that would get people's attention.
RAZ: Did you grow up eating matzo ball soup at Passover and...
Mr. HALL: Absolutely. I grew up with lots of traditional Jewish foods.
RAZ: How did you come to deciding to wrap a piece of bacon around it?
Mr. HALL: I was making a birthday menu for a friend of mine, and totally as a joke - he's a fellow Jew - when I submitted the menu to him, I told him that I was going to put bacon-wrapped matzo balls on it, and he thought it was really funny. And I had no idea how they were going to turn out, and it turned out to be unbelievably delicious.
RAZ: So clearly, you are not going after the Jewish deli crowd.
Mr. HALL: No. No. Well, yeah. I mean, not everybody keeps kosher. In fact, most of the negative response that I've gotten for dishes like that have not been from Jews at all.
RAZ: Oh, really?
Mr. HALL: They've been from people that just, you know, want to be offended for the sake of it. The Jews find it incredibly funny, actually.
RAZ: I'm assuming - I read that you grew up on Long Island.
Mr. HALL: I did. Right.
RAZ: And I should mention that as we're speaking, food is coming to the table. We just got some, what are these, they're latkes?
Mr. HALL: These are latkes with smoked applesauce.
RAZ: With a smoked applesauce.
Mr. HALL: Yeah.
RAZ: Looks great.
Mr. HALL: We use the same...
RAZ: Potato latkes, traditional potato latkes. Any twist in there?
Mr. HALL: Not really.
RAZ: Any bits of bacon or anything?
Mr. HALL: We just use - no. No bits of bacon. We just use fresh herbs inside and Kennebec potatoes, which are what In-N-Out uses for their fries.
RAZ: I love those fries.
Mr. HALL: Yeah.
RAZ: In fact, I had some today. First thing I do when I land in L.A., I go to In-N-Out.
Mr. HALL: I know lots of people that do that.
RAZ: Yeah. Both your parents are Jewish: mother is from Israel and father is from Scotland.
Mr. HALL: Yes.
RAZ: I'm assuming you did not grow up in a kosher home?
Mr. HALL: I didn't grow up in a kosher home. In fact, my grandfather on my mother's side was a kosher butcher in Germany, in Jerusalem and in New York.
RAZ: I should mention that I notice some pigs' heads in the kitchen.
Mr. HALL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. We have - we do whole roasted pig heads.
RAZ: So you do have butchering in your blood?
Mr. HALL: Oh, yeah. No. I have lots of - yeah. He was a wonderful butcher.
RAZ: Probably not adept with pig.
Mr. HALL: Well, he was a kosher butcher. But what's ironic is that when he lived in Israel, you couldn't get non-kosher food. You couldn't get pork products anywhere. So what he would do, he would have it smuggled in through Lebanon.
RAZ: Oh, really?
Mr. HALL: And - not to sell in the store. It was just for personal consumption. But it was all big hush hush because, you know, he couldn't let the community know, 'cause he was a kosher butcher. He couldn't let the community know that he was smuggling in pork from, you know...
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: So he would be proud of you.
Mr. HALL: Yeah. I think he'd be very proud of me.
RAZ: That's Ilan Hall. He's the chef and owner of The Gorbals here in Downtown Los Angeles. To find out how to make his famous bacon-wrapped matzo balls -but, please, don't serve them at Passover - visit our website, npr.org.
Mr. HALL: Thank you.
RAZ: And let's eat.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.