Israelis are hungry – no, starving – for more food television. Just a couple weeks after the debut of the fourth season of Master Chef Israel, Reshet launched its newest cooking competition show, Mischakei Hachef (Game of Chefs).
Is there enough room in the lineup for the competition? Well, for the past few weeks the show has come in consistently at No. 3 on the most-watched TV shows of the week, sliding in right after the two weekly episodes of Master Chef. Food TV is certainly what’s on the menu for the Israeli public, and they’re loving it.
With an exciting format, three engaging chef judges and a unique crop of contestants, Mischakei Hachef is certainly a memorable entry on to the primetime TV scene.
The judges are all acclaimed chefs in their own right: Meir Adoni, of the Catit restaurant in Tel Aviv (as well as Mizlala and BlueSky); Assaf Granit, of Jerusalem’s famed Machneyuda, who also won the second season of Israel’s Iron Chef; and Moshik Roth, who holds two Michelin stars for his restaurant “&samhoud places” in Amsterdam.
The premise is simple, based on the US show The Taste which first debuted last year. Each contestant arrives at the studio ready to prepare their carefully selected signature dish. Once their dish is complete, they load it on to a conveyor belt and send it out to the three waiting judges, who have no idea what to expect. The judges don’t know anything about the person who made the dish, or even what it is supposed to be. All they know is what is on the plate in front of them.
Based on the dish, they have to make their decision whether to advance the contestant to the next round, all without ever meeting them. After they’ve locked in their choices, the contestant emerges to meet the judges.
The “blind tasting” format leads to both emotional and amusing encounters, especially as the judges try to guess who might have prepared the food before they arrive.
Unlike Master Chef, the show is open to both professional and amateur cooks, and on several occasions the judges were surprised to encounter former coworkers, colleagues and other people from their past.
There are plenty of laughs and jokes throughout the show, and the three judges share a comfortable rapport, but the emotional stories of many contestants are front and center.
A moment in the very first audition episode set the tone for the show early on.
Daniel Rachamim, a 22-year-old former soccer player for Hapoel Petah Tikva, stood in front of the judges and cried and cried.
He was seemingly inconsolable. Rachamim hadn’t been rejected by the judges, in fact he didn’t even know their decision yet.
He’d told the judges how his whole life had been about soccer until he was injured.
During the six months he spent at home recovering, he watched TV cooking shows and helped his mother to cook, and he felt alive again back in the kitchen.
When the judges praised his dish – a filet of Corvina fish on a bed of curry sauce and served in an oyster shell next to a Jerusalem artichoke cream – saying they were certain a professional chef had prepared it, he burst into tears. “It’s the first time I cried since the injury,” he said. Adoni and Granit were visibly moved, and Roth went over to try and comfort him.
Two out of the three judges passed Rachamim through to the next round, and Roth, who said he didn’t select him because he had been sure Rachamim was a professional, and there were some technical problems with the dish, knocked over his glass in anger. “I failed,” he said.
Often it was the contestants who didn’t make it past the judges who were the most memorable, and provoked the most emotional responses from the chefs.
Shelly, a 17-year-old who said she learned how to cook because her mother became sick and she had to feed her younger siblings, didn’t get the approval of any of the judges for her fish in an Indian-style masala sauce. But Roth chased after her into the back room to tell her to keep trying, and that she could certainly have a future in the profession.
More than one contestant that didn’t make it through was offered a position at the restaurants of one of the judges. But Tal Sasson, a professional cook from Jericho, provoked a different response.
She told the judges of her years of struggle with drug abuse and depression, and how she started to work in the kitchen at her rehab clinic, ultimately leading her to a life of professional cooking.
Though Adoni was the only chef to choose her after tasting her dish of kubbe filled with salmon and mozarella (at least two have to select a contestant for them to move on), Granit chased after her to talk, exposing his own emotions.
“This program is so hard for me, I’m killing people,” he said. “It was really important for me to see that this [experience] didn’t break you. I’m such a fan of your strength.”
He ended their conversation with a promise: “Anytime you want help, just pick up the phone, call me, we’ll talk. Even if it’s just to ask advice, just to talk, you touched my heart. I’m so happy I met you.”
While emotions run hot, the show isn’t all doom and gloom, and the judges offered many zingers about the dishes they didn’t really like.
“Who could have made this? My grandmother, if she took acid,” one judge said about a particularly muddled dish. Another unappetizing concoction provoked Granit to dub it “the thing a guy should think about if he wants to prolong things in bed.”
The chefs poke fun at each other as well.
In a snippet filmed backstage while Adoni – the judge most easily moved to tears – called his wife, Granit shouts in the background so she can hear: “He cried four times today!” Not true, not true, Adoni told his wife, “I only cried once.”
While the judges were touched by the story of Margarita – a Russian immigrant who came to the studio without any friends and family, since she said she doesn’t really have anyone close to her in Israel – they were even more impressed with her food, the traditional Russian dish varenyky, a stuffed dumpling with cheese in a sour cream sauce served with cherries and pistachios.
All three judges passed her through to the next round, and after she left the room, they started to run through the other single contestants they’d seen that day to find a good fix-up for her.
“We need a cute chef, hot and serious, to catch her,” said Granit. “But it has to be someone, a serious guy.”
A few of the contestants presented “only-in-Israel” stories, like Ahmed Okala, a Beduin from the Maghar village in the North, who blew the judges away with his lamb kebab with freekeh and wild chicory.
Though his first love is Arabic food, he’s worked in Italian and French kitchens, and he even represented Israel at Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international competition hosted in France.
“I’m annoyed at this dish,” Granit said of Okala’s food. “I’m annoyed because I know nobody in my kitchen cooked this and I would die if my chefs knew how to cook like this.”
Or Pamela, a British immigrant who became the official secretary to the Oslo Accords in the 90s. Her chicken soup with won tons didn’t impress any of the judges, but they loved her spirit, calling her “brave, passionate and incredible.”
And then there was Carmit Elkayam, who for 20 years worked for “the security establishment.”
“Until today there are people who think I worked for the Education Ministry,” she said. But after leaving that career due to “exhaustion,” she studied to become a health-foods cook. The judges loved her Arabic-inspired fish and chicory, but when they questioned her about her past job, she had to warn them away.
“Moshik, you don’t want to stay on the program?” asked Granit. “Do you want your plane back to Amsterdam to disappear?” After a whopping eight episodes of auditions, the field was narrowed to 30 competitors who made it to boot camp. After being put through a set of grueling tasks, the judges were supposed to each select five contestants each for their teams. At the last minute, they couldn’t let so many people go, and so they each picked six people.
Sunday night the real competition begins, and the blind tastings are back, which means a chef could potentially send a member of their own team home.
But will it bring them to tears? Mischakei Hachef airs on Channel 2 at 8 p.m. on Sunday and Tuesdays.