Last summer, Josh Steele had his bags all packed to move from Jerusalem back to his native London.
“I decided I didn’t want to live in Israel anymore,” Steele told The Jerusalem Post. “I was just about to reserve a flight and I’d boxed up everything in my apartment.”
And then he got a phone call that changed everything.
“I got a phone call from Israeli Master Chef,” he recalls. “My 14-year-old cousin, when she found out that I was going to move back to England, decided she didn’t want me to. She believed I was so good that I would definitely get on to the show and then I would stay in Israel.”
The rest, as they say, is history, and the 29-year-old haredi rabbi made it onto the show’s fourth season before being booted off during the fourth week of competition.
Steele impressed the judges with both his goal – “to show people that kosher food doesn’t have to taste like shit” – and his creativity and risk-taking, though he admits it may also have been his downfall.
“I got on the show because I showed ambition in my food and I think that’s reason I left the show as well,” he said. “At the original audition there’s people making dishes their kids really love, while I made poached peach in a caramel glaze with a vanilla cardamom panna cotta with a coulis, passion fruit ganache truffles and tropical fruit crisps to decorate the plate.”
Steele said he was “100 percent surprised” he made it as far as he did in the competition, not because he isn’t talented, but because he lacked the experience of the other contestants.
“If you go through all the contestants, pretty much everyone there has cooked every day of their lives,” he said. “I was learning in yeshiva for the past five years [at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim], and I probably cooked on not more than 20 occasions during that whole time.”
His more limited experience wasn’t the only challenge for the UK native, as he also often struggled to keep up with the Hebrew.
“It was very, very difficult because I’ve never been very good at languages,” Steele told the Post. “At the beginning of every challenge, as soon as they said ‘go,’ everyone ran to the pantry, and I ran off to the side to one of the producers to translate it for me.”
Though he usually understood the main goal of each challenge, “the judges – God bless them – like to talk a lot, especially Eyal [Shani], and so sometimes I missed the details of what they were saying.”
STEELE STILL keeps in touch with many of the contestants, who he says became like family during the filming.
“I got very close with the contestants, we all got very close,” he said. “The producers have said we’re the closest group of people they’ve had. We’re all characters, we’re all fun-loving people we all love to spend time with each other.”
While he’s kept in contact with many members of the group, he says he was always closest to Nof, the 32-year-old Arab-Israeli mother of three from Baka al-Gharbiya who holds a PhD in microbiology.
“From the beginning I said if anybody was to beat me on the show I would want it to be Nof,” said Steele.
“Because of her culinary dream of opening up a school for Israelis and Arabs and because of how much she knows and because of the way she speaks about her family and how much she loves her kids and her husband.
“She calls me up on Friday to wish me a Shabbat Shalom, and I call her up all the time to say hello,” he said. “Nof and I have an idea; we said the two of us would love to cater the next Arab-Israeli peace summit.
If the two of us can work together in a kitchen – which is a lot more high intensity than sitting around a table – then maybe they can be inspired by us. And we’ll do it for free.”
Steele sees food as a way to build bridges – and not just between Israelis and Arabs.
“Everybody in the world needs to eat and that is something everybody in the world shares,” he said.
“The unique thing about this show in Israel is that I’m sitting there with [Indian immigrant] Saranda on one side and Nof on another side and [gay contestant] Shai on the other. In a country that’s so polarized, we don’t care about any differences in our personal lives. Because we share a passion we’ve been brought together, and all the barriers have come down.
“I’m a religious Jew on a television program showing everyone that haredim don’t all want to throw stones at buses,” he continued. “At the end of the day we can have fun in life, and we can follow our passions, even if they’re not directly linked to Torah, you can make them linked to Torah... I believe saying a blessing on food is the most tangible way of connecting to God, and if your food is amazing and fabulous in front of you, then you end up saying an amazing blessing and you build a connection with God.”
Steele says since he appeared on the show, he’s been stopped on the street dozens of times by people with moving stories.
“This security guard came up to me on the Light Rail in Jerusalem,” he recalls. “He sat down next to me and held my hand and said ‘When I was a kid my parents lived in Har Nof. Every time I would say that I don’t want to learn in yeshiva all my life they used to belittle me and therefore I completely and utterly left religion, and I haven’t spoken to my parents in 20 years. After seeing you on the show I realized I can be an Orthodox Jew and still follow my dreams, and I called my mother last week and it’s all because of you.’” IT’S BEEN a life-changing few months for Steele as well, as he is now engaged, about to settle in Jerusalem and hoping to pursue a culinary career.
Though he flirted a bit with Master Chef judge Michal Ansky, he says it was all in good fun – and was filmed before he even met his now-fiance.
“If it was a 90-year-old woman with one eye standing there I also probably would have flirted because that’s the way I am, I’m a cheeky Englishman so I’m cheeky with everybody,” he said. “[Michal and I] both knew there was no way anything would happen, so that allowed us to have a little bit of fun on camera.”
But once the show began to air, Steele was inundated with hundreds of requests for a date: “people who either wanted to have a shidduch or just girls saying ‘I could become a little bit more religious for you.’” But by the time the program debuted, Steele was already smitten with his future bride, native New Yorker Elana Mittel.
A friend of his from New York had been trying to convince Steele to go out with Mittel for years.
“He’s been telling me, Josh, I’ve met the perfect girl for you: she’s gorgeous she’s got a great personality, she’s really religious, she’s very intelligent, she’s perfect for you.”
But since he knew Mittel wanted to settle in Israel, and he didn’t think he could, Steele had always said no.
But in the middle of the audition process, the burgeoning chef began to realize that perhaps he could pursue his dream of a culinary career in the Holy Land.
“When I got on the show,” he said, “all of a sudden I had this ability to fulfill a dream career of mine that I never thought would be a possibility.”
The timing was perfect, as Mittel was arriving in Israel for a vacation just before Steele filmed the final stage of the auditions.
“I called her literally when she got off the plane,” he said. “Our first date was on November 11 and then the rest is history... we both said at the beginning we want to take our time in dating, but pretty much after a couple of weeks it was just like a Hugh Grant movie.”
Steele realized he needed to fly to New York to meet Mittel’s parents and ask for her hand in marriage. But the show wouldn’t allow him to leave the country during filming.
“Even though I was upset when I got voted out, I realized that now I could actually go to America and propose to the girl of my dreams,” he said. “There was a bitterness but then the biggest sweetness that you can get in your life.”