At its most basic, Master Chef is a cooking show. A team of amateur cooks compete in a variety of culinary challenges in order to prove to the panel of judges they deserve the title of “Israel’s Master Chef.” But, as the first audition episodes of the newest season of Master Chef Israel have shown, it is so much more than a cooking show.
The producers have created a program designed to tug at your heartstrings, tickle your funnybones and, of course, tantalize your taste buds.
This year for the first time the audition phase had two rounds. Though every contestant arrived from home with the ingredients to make their culinary specialty in the studio, they first had to create a sandwich to send out for a “blind tasting.” On the basis of that sandwich, the judges – renowned Israeli chefs Yonatan Roshfeld, Haim Cohen, Eyal Shani and Michal Ansky – would decide whether they wanted to meet the contestant waiting around the corner.
Like the Israeli population itself, the contestants come from all walks of life: young and old, secular, religious and haredi, immigrant and sabra, from down in Eilat to up in the Golan and everywhere in between.
Though not every audition makes it into the televised show, the most memorable personalities – both those who are voted through and those who aren’t – are spotlighted in the show.
One of the first early impressions was made by Josh Steele, a 29-year-old single rabbi originally from London – who arrived at the studio in blue wire-frame glasses and a strawberry-patterned apron and showed off his breakdancing skills for the cameras.
Steele, who studies at the Mir Yeshiva in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, wowed the judges with both his charm and his dish, a chocolate ravioli filled with pear compote and blue cheese on a bed of creme anglaise.
“When I was seven years old, I didn’t like my mom’s cooking,” he told the judging panel. “I mean, she’s alright, she’s OK for an Ashkenazi lady.”
Steele said he went to his grandmother and asked her to teach him how to cook.
“The first thing she taught me how to make was a pavlova,” he said. “I used to come home from school, make a pavlova, and eat the whole thing.”
Asked about his culinary aspirations, Steele said: “My dream is to open up a glatt kosher gastro pub and show people that kosher food doesn’t have to taste like shit.”
After telling the judges he was still single, Steele even flirted a little with Ansky, who told him in response “we’ll speak later.”
Roshfeld told Steele he is “the wackiest person we’ve had on all four seasons of the show.”
Despite his quirks, all four judges said they wanted to keep him in the competition.
“It says in the Torah you should find yourself a rabbi, no?” Cohen asked him. “Well we want you as our rabbi.”
As usual, immigrants from around the globe are well represented in the show (last season’s winner, Tom Franz, was a German- born oleh and convert to Judaism).
One who particularly impressed the judges was Meseret Woldimikhal, an Ethiopian- born civil engineer who traveled the globe (and speaks eight languages) before settling in Israel five years ago with her Israeli husband of 14 years, who she met while in Tanzania.
Woldimikhal told the judges she came to Master Chef because she doesn’t “think Ethiopian food is very well known in Israel, and the best way to reach people is through food.” She prepared for them kitfo, a traditional dish of marinated minced beef with clarified butter, cheese and injera bread, and, at the judges’ request, fed them by hand.
Cohen, after tasting a bite, said “it’s not like anything else I know.”
“Neither is she,” responded Shani.
Another woman who wowed the panel was Saranda Dilvesky, a 33-year-old mom from India. She met her husband 14 years ago while he was traveling in India, and said she “knew from the first minute” that he was the one.
Once she moved to Israel with him she was homesick for her native food, she told the judges. Though she admitted she had never cooked growing up, through memories “and the Internet, looking on YouTube” she learned how to recreate some of her favorite foods.
“I think you’re the most interesting raw material we’ve ever seen on Master Chef," Roshfeld told her, welcoming her to the next round.
A number of contestants shared life stories that made the judges quite emotional.
Tzila Ofer, a 67-year-old woman originally from Romania, met her husband the day after she arrived in Israel in 1962. They were together since then until his death four years ago, but Ofer has vowed to continue living life to the fullest, and is looking for another man to be her “No. 1 fan.”
The judges loved her sass, her humor and her beef filet in wine sauce with Hungarian- style gnocchi.
Helen Assad, originally from Lebanon, was shy with details of her background until the judges questioned her. Assad, who lives in Haifa, fled there – along with thousands of others from the majority-Christian South Lebanon Army – in 2000, after Israel withdrew from Lebanon, enabling Hezbollah to take control and exact revenge on those who it thought betrayed it by cooperating with Israel. Assad lost four brothers, two nephews and her father to the violence.
Asked why she wants to appear on Master Chef, she told the judges she wants “to send a message to everyone that we can all live together, Jews, Christians, Arabs and Muslims.”
The judges loved her sheikh al machsi, a traditional Lebanese dish of eggplant stuffed with ground beef, and empathized with her spirit.
“I hope that we won’t see any more sorrow,” she told them. “Not us and not anyone... it is only peace we want.”
But there was only one contestant that managed to bring every one of the judges – and certainly a good chunk of the viewers – to tears. That was Shifri Shapira, a 53-yearold mother of five. Shapira lost her sight 10 years ago in a terrorist attack in Haifa. A suicide bomber blew up Haifa Bus 37 in March 2003, killing 17 and injuring dozens, including Shapira, who was sitting in her car next to the bus.
“Before the attack I was a very active woman, I didn’t have a spare minute,” she recalled on the show. Shapira had traveled the world and held a doctorate in political science and criminology. But when she realized she was blind, “I didn’t want to live.”
After five years during which she said she was “a little down,” Shapira started to realize how much life still had to offer.
“After five years I returned to cooking, baking, inviting guests for Shabbat meals,” Shapira told the judges, as she prepared for them chicken with fennel and oranges. “I want to do, I want to live, I’m not pitiable, I am not afraid.”
“Cooking is just another proof that I can do things,” she said. “This is my triumph over my blindness.”
Roshfeld, normally the most stoic judge, was visibly moved by Shapira’s story.
“I would be honored to have you with us as an ambassador for anybody who ever thought they couldn’t pursue cooking because of some restriction,” he told her.
“You’ve proved it isn’t true.”
Master Chef airs on Channel 2 on Wednesday and Saturday nights.