There has been much fanfare, intrigue and mystery surrounding the newest season of Israel’s MasterChef cooking competition show. Firstly, because this time around the contestants are “VIPs” – meaning a motley collection of B- and C-list celebrities, who share little expect a passion for cooking.
But also because the series has been subject to a long line of delays: After being filmed two years ago in early 2013, it only finally saw the light of day last week.
Why? An excellent question, one that producers gave no clear answer to, leaving it wide open to the speculation of the press. Some wondered if it was simply not very good, and Mako was contemplating scrapping it entirely, others speculated that they wanted to re-edit it, while one hypothesized that they wanted to wait until after Help, I Don’t Know How to Cook – starring celebrities with no culinary abilities – had aired (it finished its run in December).
Whatever the reason, the show finally made it to air on Tuesday, bringing with it a crew of 12 “luminaries,” including actors, models, writers, singers and, of course, TV personalities.
One of the biggest names in the bunch – at least to Israeli audiences – is Noam Tor, a model and TV host perhaps best known for being married to singer Keren Peles, and appearing on the Israeli Survivor – a veritable Kardashian of the local celebrity scene. His most famous professional accomplishment is likely his 2008 series of advertisements alongside Bar Refaeli for the Fox store.
Also among the more recognizable faces is Norman Issa, an actor best known for playing Amjad in the TV series Arab Labor. Issa, a Christian Arab from Haifa, is also a frequent stage actor.
TV host Harel Eden – famed for her stint as an MTV VJ in Europe in the ‘90s – also adds some color to the cast.
The bubbly Eden, pregnant during the filming, today co-hosts a show on Channel 20 with her husband Oded Menashe, entitled Eden and Oded: Family Inc.
One of the only contestants who will be familiar face to American audiences is wedding dress designer Pnina Tornai, whose designs have become some of the most sought after in the world, including by celebrity brides.
She’s also made a name for herself on TV, appearing on the US show Say Yes to the Dress, the Israeli Celebrity Big Brother as well as acting in the Israeli sitcom Polishuk.
Aya Kremerman, a former TV host, brought a unique viewpoint to the show, explaining how she mostly left the public eye when she and her husband became religious. Today she’s a hair-covering, tehillim-reciting mother of five who said she came to the contest to do a little missionary work.
“Hopefully I can show that religious people aren’t that bad after all,” she said, and that “kosher food can be tasty. Kosher food is not a limitation. It’s a choice.
I’m proud to cook kosher.”
Viewers even got a shot of Kemerman – alongside Harel, whose deepening religious practice has been the subject of much media speculation – kashering the pots and pans in the kitchen with a blowtorch.
Rounding out the cast are actor Shai Avivi, legendary soccer player, coach and now sports commentator Shlomo Scharf, author Dorit Rabinyan, comedian Avi Nussbaum, journalist Shlomi Eldar, Mizrahi singer Etty Levi and Betty Rockaway, head of Israel’s first modeling agency.
The participants are not treated with kid gloves, rather they’re subject to the same often-biting criticism as all past contestants from judges Eyal Shani, Yonatan Roshfeld, Michal Ansky and Haim Cohen. The first round of tasting saw them present their dishes to the judges blind – so as not to be judged by any preconceived notions.
They’re not given an easier time in the competition either – halfway through creating their first dish, meant to express their culinary point of view, the contestants were ordered to cook a second one, and were allowed to grab only one more ingredient from the pantry in order to do so.
With all the star power in the kitchen, it would be easy to let the food be secondary, but luckily that was not the case.
Tor and Harel both presented fish two ways to the judges: the former offered a baked whole fish with salad and seared fish with tomato sauce, while the latter cooked up traditional Moroccan chreime and fish smothered in pepper jam.
Tornai prepared a crepe filled with porcini mushrooms with a bechamel sauce, and steak served alongside chestnut puree, while Levi went more homey with fish patties with chickpea and tomato sauce and meatballs with peppers and garlic sauce. Issa channeled his Arab roots to make majadara out of bulgur and chicken with lentil and tehina rice, while Rabinyan expressed her Persian heritage with a bean and pasta stew and a spinach quiche.
Vegetarian Avivi served shakshuka baked inside a pita with spinach and lentils, plus a cassata with mascarpone cheese and tomato jam, while Scharf showed his love of meat with beef-stuffed eggplant and steak fillet alongside eggplant puree.
Kemerman served both meatballs with lentil mash and fried “schnitzels” of beet greens stuffed with beef, while Eldar presented stuffed cabbage and meatballs in a tomato cream sauce. Nussbaum did chicken drumsticks two ways, while Rockaway presented fish two ways, neither managing to impress the judges too much.
Practically every contestant was ready to compare the challenges of culinary life to their professions – likely prompted by the producers to provide a steady stream of cliches.
“Food for me is a scene, every ingredient is an actor and to build a good production is beautiful,” said Issa.
Nussbaum added that “just like in stand-up, with food you get an immediate reaction – did they like it or not?” Relating to the competitive aspect of the show, Eldar, who writes for Al-Monitor, said: “I write my best articles under pressure.” He added that he loves being able to create in the kitchen, since his work as a war reporter “is serious all the time, with no room for self-expression.”
According to Tornai, “Cooking is creative in the same way that fashion design is – for it to come out well it has to come from the heart.”
Rabinyan – best known for her novels Persian Brides and Strand of a Thousand Pearls – said “writing and cooking have some tangent points. Both of them have a mixing of different components for creation.”
Avivi, a vegetarian, who came to the show with the “agenda” of cooking without animal products, offered that “with cooking and acting – in both fields, you make something and then you yearn for applause.”
And Rockaway, who founded Israel’s first modeling agency and served as a judge on reality show The Models, said: “when a girl comes to me, I can already see how to turn her into a swan. Also with food, you need a lot of creativity to make it come out the best it possibly could.”
Despite the heavy-handed professional metaphors, the contestants turned more personal when they talked about cooking for their families, and childhood memories of food.
Harel (now a mother of five, but she was pregnant with her fourth during filming) spoke of cooking for her children, while Eldar mentioned using food to impress his wife, and Scharf related the joys of preparing meals for his grandchildren.
“‘Saba, the food is tasty, we want more,’” he recounts them saying. “I love it when they ask for more. That’s what’s important.” The legendary sportsman added that “I have this public persona of a tough guy, but in the kitchen you need a lot of love, and I try to put that into my pots.”
There were light-hearted moments as well, particularly from Nussbaum, the funnyman of the group. Asked by Roshfeld why he came on the show, he replied: “Well, The Voice wouldn’t take me. I tried.” And once he was assigned the second dish, he exasperatedly cried out: “I can’t multitask, I’m a man!” As is the norm in MasterChef, there were even some moments filled with tears.
As Levi presented her food to the judges, she recounted her mother’s recipe, the inspiration for the dish, before breaking down in tears. Her mother, she told the judges, died five years ago, and cooking her food brings back vivid memories.
And when the judges tasted Tornai’s dish, before they knew who had prepared it, Shani surmised that the cook behind it must be “a woman without children.”
Tornai walked out to the panel, visibly upset. She told the judges that she does have a son, “who I raised until he was seven years old.” Then, after a complicated legal battle, he ended up with his father in France, and she did not see him for 10 years. “How could you know this from my food?” asked Tornai.
“Food is like a book,” Shani said, “that you open it and read it.”
MasterChef VIP airs on Channel 2 Tuesdays at 9 p.m., and full episodes are also available on mako.co.il.