When Ilan Hall (The Gorbals) came up with the idea for Knife Fight, his motivations were simple: to recreate the after-hours cooking duels he and the rest of the staff used to engage in back when he worked in Casa Mono’s kitchen -- with chefs he’s friendly with now, and who he legitimately wanted to see in action. In anticipation of the show’s 3rd season, premiering May 26 @ 10|9c on the Esquire Network, we sat down with the Top Chef Season 2 winner and two Season 3 Knife Fight duelers, Franklin Becker (The Little Beet, hungryroot) and Leah Cohen (Pig and Khao), to talk about the limitations of culinary academies, the benefits of hazing, the difficulties of hiring in a world where the young have gone soft and everyone else is just crazy, and the thorniest issue of all: finding reasonably priced vegetables.
On what culinary school fails to prepare you for
Ilan Hall: Culinary school is cushy. It’s like, 20 people in a class and you’re all trying to make food for 10 people. My first proper restaurant job, high-end fine dining with high volume in NYC, was at Aureole. I think the first day, the day that I staged, I was there 18 hours? What’s funny is that I got phone calls, people thought I went missing because I was just gone.
Leah Cohen: I guess that’s the biggest thing. Just working all the hours, and super weird hours too. You’re hungry after work, so you eat after work, you drink after work with the staff, it fucks up your body. I feel like this industry’s not good for skinny people.
Franklin Becker: Culinary schools paint a rosy picture. They give you the basics -- and that’s great, I’m a big proponent of going to a good culinary school -- but that’s not what’s gonna make you a chef. You’re going to become a chef by working your tail off. They don’t tell you that you’ll be working in a hot kitchen, and you gotta peel off your shirt because you’re covered in sweat, and you just lost 10 pounds because you aren’t drinking water, so you go out afterwards, and rather than replace it with water, you replace it with beer…
Cohen: The first job I ever had was at David Burke’s Park Ave Café. I was just an extern, and the guy who was working hot apps had... issues. The chef kicked him out, and turned to me and said, “You! You know how to cook!” I was cooking something, pushed it with the salt, and I didn’t taste it. I was gonna serve it, and he was like “Did you taste it?!” and I was like “...uh yeah! I did!” and he was like “…really?” and I was like “yeah…” It was a butter sauce, and it was the saltiest thing ever. And he made me eat the whole plate. I learned my lesson that day: you better taste everything you cook. It’s kind of common sense, but it’s something culinary school doesn’t really stress.
Becker: …and they don’t tell you about the need for cornstarch on the line to powder your balls because you’re sweating so much that you’re literally getting crotch rot. Ilan, if [very large cornstarch company] knew about the success of cornstarch in the chef world, wouldn’t they be using chefs to promote corn starch for their balls?
Hall: I keep it in my freezer. Ice cold cornstarch on your balls.
Cohen: [Refraining from cornstarch commentary] And you smell. You smell like shit after you get out of work. You smell like a fryer, even if you’re not in front of a fryer. You smell like kitchen, I don’t know how else to describe it.
"The one thing I really like about Knife Fight, is it’s a Knife Fight. There’s no pride. I mean what do you get, you get a little cleaver that says 'I WON!' painted in nail polish and that’s it. There’s no big prize." - Franklin Becker
Hall: That first day, I was using a Japanese mandoline. They needed so much garnish for this tuna and soba noodle dish, I cut my hand -- you know those thin, julienne slices -- 40 times. I was bandaged up with paper towels and gloves because there wasn’t a band-aid that fits over an entire handful of cuts. I remember the day after still being incredibly excited to work there, then after my first week realizing that [14-17hr workdays, grievous bodily injury] was gonna happen six days straight. I loved food, but I had no idea what the workload was gonna be. So at the end of the week I called my mother from the bathroom in the basement, with this shitty cell service, and I was like, crying to her saying I don’t know if this is for me. But then after that, it became addictive. Every day I felt stronger, and every day I felt faster. I sort of haven’t stopped since.
On kitchen violence, accidental and otherwise
Hall: I was cooking rabbit terrines in a water bath, and the oven door was janky, so I put it on the oven door to sit for a second. I looked over -- someone called my name -- and so the door gave out, and the whole roasting pan fell down and boiling water went all up my leg and my pants stuck to my leg. And it didn’t look that bad -- I actually went to the hospital -- but then the next day it looked like my leg had been dipped in a nuclear reactor.
Cohen: Searing mushrooms. You’re not supposed to salt them while they’re in the pan, you’re supposed to get a really hot pan, sear ‘em, and then when they come out, you’re supposed to salt them or else all the water starts to leach out. So I fucked that up, and the chef threw the hot pan, the mushrooms and oil at me, and that was fun.
Becker: [A sous chef] was coming behind me screaming in my ear at the top of his lungs, ultimately resulting in me taking a knife and sticking it in from one end of my hand through the other end. [Pointing at his hand] There’s the scar and there’s the exit wound.
Cohen: Wait, someone stabbed you?
Becker: No, I stabbed myself, going at a leg of lamb, because someone came behind me, grabbed my shoulders, and screamed in my ear. While I was boning out the leg of lamb. He was basically trying to rattle me, and he did! So I took him down in the walk-in later, and y’know, straightened it out. I’m gonna leave that part vague because it involves knives.
Hall: Two days after that [the nuclear rabbit incident] was my last day at Aureole. They didn’t go easy on me because of what happened before. They took all my clothes, all my stuff, my wallet, everything that I had in my locker, and they boiled all my clothes and everything that I had with onions and garlic, and then they cryovac’d it all, and then froze it. It was very creative!
Becker: We live in a different culture now. Hazing’s not tolerated. At some of the top tier restaurants I’m sure there are still certain practices that take place, but I think they’re much more PC now than they were back then. Back then it was a rite of passage.
Cohen: It kinda, like, makes you remember to do things, if you know what I mean.
Hall: It builds camaraderie. You’ve got people from all different walks of life that are all there for the same goal, the same passion. When you’re in such a intense environment with people working so closely -- literally closely -- you have this relationship that’s unlike anything in normal life. It’s a sort of chaotic intensity that brings you all together.
On kids today
Cohen to Becker: Do you think that we suck as bad as…
Cohen: …as bad as I think this new generation sucks?
Becker: 100%! No it’s… every generation thinks the generation after them sucked.
Cohen: But not as bad as THIS generation.
Becker: This generation… When we were coming up, there were no televised chefs outside of Graham Kerr, Julia Child, Pierre Franey, and Jacques Pepin. They had celebrity status within our industry, but they weren’t household names. Then reality TV started to make the industry a little bit more glamorous than it really is. It made a lot of this younger generation think, “Oh, I can be a star overnight and I don’t have to pay my dues. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can boil water, the only thing I have to do is worry or not whether I can mix liquid nitrogen.”
Cohen: I got my ass kicked and I learned early on how to have tough skin. Everyone’s such a [anatomical term that sounds hilarious when Cohen says it] these days. You’re supposed praise people for doing their job and showing up on time. I just fired this poor kid. He called out one day, and then I called him and was like "Dude, I’m really short-staffed, are you going to come work at brunch tomorrow morning," and he was like "Yes! I’m gonna be there," and I was like "Okay! But you weren’t here today, and you said you were gonna be here…" And then he came the next day and he was 30 minutes late. And he goes, "I said I was gonna be here, I didn’t say I’d be here on time." Are you kidding me?
Becker: [Successful reality show contestants] have kicked ass in a kitchen for a while, they’ve gotten burned, they’ve gotten hurt, they’ve done things that prepare them for real life and then ultimately for the fame that they might achieve on television. The young kids coming out of school, they don’t get that, they just see “Oh I can go from A to Z, overnight. And I don’t have to pay dues.” It’s bullshit! If you’re a cook, you’re a cook. You can take anything and make it taste good. When a curveball’s thrown at you, you hit it. Anybody can hit a fastball, down the pipe, right? You practice enough, you hit a fastball down the pipe, done. Can you hit a curveball, can you hit a knuckle?
On how you just never know with people
Becker: There are times where you think a person’s gonna be a rockstar, and they’re gonna be amazing, and they’re gonna be somebody you can take with you forever, and then that’s the person that ends up not showing up to work, or steals, or gets arrested, comes in stoned or any of a myriad of things.
Hall: I had a prep cook in LA. He had these tiny little hands. We used to do potato latkes, and we weren’t smart about it like now -- we make sheets of them and then cut ‘em out -- but we would we do them individually and he would hand grate them all into this perfect cup, and then would grill them off and then we’d finish them in the fryer. He was intense, fast, organized, but there were a couple of times where he just didn’t show up to work. I didn’t really care because he was such a good cook -- like I didn’t want to think anything of it. We had an alley in the back of the restaurant, so one day I went out there to look for him because he was missing for a little while, and there he was, daylight, 1pm, smoking meth.
Becker: I had this one chef de cuisine, and I hope he reads this article. I was gonna make him the chef of this major project. And while this restaurant was being built, he had to spend some time in my flagship. He was talking shit about me behind my back, dealing drugs in the restaurant, drinking on the job, and he literally was the worst thing I’ve ever hired in my life. I threw him out on his ass, and any chance I get to talk shit about him, I do, because he was a piece of shit. I’m serious! Like a real piece of shit. And TALENTED as a motherfucker. Like beyond talented, but a real piece of shit.
"It's not a fashion show, it’s cooking." - Ilan Hall
Cohen: But… I also have my sous chef who’s been with me now for three years. He started off as a dishwasher and he learned everything -- the prep, the dessert, the line cook job, how to order -- and everyone loves working with him, he’s like family. He’s a great person, a great employee, and I wish that I had a million Jesses in my restaurant. So you get lucky, but you also get a lot of people you waste your time with.
On the rising price of vegetables
Becker: I just paid 10 dollars a pound for some potatoes today.
Becker: Yeah, I’m doing a special dinner tomorrow night, fava beans, pecorino, potatoes with lamb, and these potatoes... I pick them up on a pick, that’s how small they are.
Cohen: How much are favas now? They’re expensive…
Hall: Vegetables are expensive now. Seasonal, local vegetables are expensive. It used to be one of the reasons why you used them was that they weren’t. We always want to get the most local, the freshest -- it’s nothing special, we just wanna get the best stuff possible. There are a lot of great growing places, but it’s just... ramps, I remember when ramps were like $1.50 a pound. They were cheap because they were wild. Now the second something becomes a trend, it fucks up the entire economic structure.
Becker: It’s Thrillist’s fault!
Hall: Yeah FUCK YOU GUYS!
End of Interview