Master Chef Israel: A melting pot on the stove

New season of ‘Master Chef ’ shows off an eclectic Israeli nation taking to the kitchen.

November 20, 2016 20:40
THE ‘MASTER CHEF’ judges – (from left) Yonatan Roshfeld, Haim Cohen, Michal Ansky and Eyal Shani – a

THE ‘MASTER CHEF’ judges – (from left) Yonatan Roshfeld, Haim Cohen, Michal Ansky and Eyal Shani – are ready to start eating.. (photo credit: MAKO)

Eran Beznos told the judges of Master Chef that he started watching the show while he still lived in Canada, before he moved to Israel more than five years ago. He implied he wanted to get a feel for Israeli culture and personalities before arriving here.

The truth is I started watching Master Chef for the same reason, and around the same time. It was partly to improve my Hebrew – particularly in the world of food – and partly to get an insight into the unique, multi-faceted makeup of the Israeli populace. And, season after season, that quirkiness is on display, in the moving stories, the only-in-Israel tales and the sparkling personalities that populate the auditions. Beznos didn’t make the cut – in fact the biting critique he received from judge Yonatan Roshfeld aroused a firestorm on social media – but his statement rang true with me. You can learn a lot about Israel from watching Master Chef, though I wouldn’t make it your only source of information.

Now in its sixth season, Master chef sticks to much of the same format, with a slew of new gimmicks and tricks up its sleeve. This year, the show’s producers opted to add a level of “star power” – finalists from the past five seasons delivered boxes to contestants from all around the country to set them on their first mission. The same judging team is still in place – Roshfeld, Eyal Shani, Haim Cohen and Michal Ansky – just with egos that have grown exponentially since the show first premiered in 2010.

They often pointlessly squabble, with Shani even yelling at Roshfeld at some point: “You don’t understand anything about food.” There is clumsy product placement, and cheesy video segments, but the show still delivers what it promises: a focus on food from the eclectic residents of Israel.

Take Yonatan Biton. That is, Sgt.- Maj. Yonatan Biton. When a past Master Chef contestant arrived to deliver to him a box of pasta and the letter announcing the rules for the first round of competition, they were denied entry to his closed IDF base. So they called from outside and he came out to greet them.

Handed the box, he received the task that would grant him entry to the real audition: create a dish based on the primary ingredient of pasta. The catch – the ingredients have to all be assembled in 20 minutes, and only one of the four judges will determine, via blind taste test, if the contestant will meet them. Who picks which one? The contestant himself.

Biton cooked up an only-in-Israel creation of ravioli chreime, a mashup between the Italian classic and a Tunisian fish stew. It was enough to get him a foot in the door, where he presented the judges with a dish of veal brains. The verdict? Roshfeld took a gamble to declare him the winner of this season. With no spoilers here, you’ll have to watch for yourself to find out.

Biton represents one unique facet of Israeli life, but there was no shortage of other characters on display.

From the contestant who used a chunk of her allotted 20 minutes (meant to gather ingredients) to apply makeup, to a 47-year-old woman pregnant with her second child – this one from a sperm donor – to an engineer with four degrees from the Technion University, there were diverse and surprising stories to be told.

From the young – like 21-year-old Tomar Kovalsky, who answered the door to cameras shirtless, to the old – like 75-year-old Noga Yahel, a grandmother who immigrated to Israel alone at age nine from Morocco. From the tear-jerking, like 21-year-old Amit Chaya Twitto, who, at 18, desperate to lose weight, underwent gastric sleeve surgery, which left her in a coma for three months and eating via an IV for a year and a half, to the inspiring, like Sophie Porat, originally from Lebanon, who raised four of her own children in Ramat Hasharon and adopted an orphan her son brought home one day.

The ingathering of exiles unique to Israel is on full display, with contestants born in Morocco, Lebanon, Russia and more, and mixed backgrounds of all types, including half-Moroccan and half-Romanian.

And the jobs are unique as well, from a farmer and shepherd to a guitar builder and restorer, a religious dance teacher who leads classes for mixed secular and religious youth and even a bonafide mikveh lady.

But nothing is more intriguing than the incredible and unbelievable tales that could only be told on this little scrap of land.

Take Eli Matzri, a 72-year-old from Tel Mond. Motzri spent close to 25 years in the Mossad, in a job he, of course, can’t talk much about. But that’s not the whole story. As part of his work, Motzri took part in Operation Moses, which brought around 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s. And one of the small children on the plane many years later became Motzri’s son’s wife, who has provided him with beautiful grandchildren “the color of cocoa,” he said.

Ayat Dina, an Arab Muslim from Jaffa, originally from Gaza, wowed the judges with her pasta and eggplant dish. She told them how she was set up in an arranged marriage that would allow her to move to Israel, to a guy who was addicted to drugs. But the judges were most touched when she told them how she finally reunited with her sister at Erez Crossing after 19 years of not seeing each other.

Then there’s Ela Halevi, a native of South Korea who came to Israel in 2003 on a Christian tour. She fell in love with the country – and her future husband – and converted to Judaism, got married and now lives on a kibbutz near the Kinneret with their two kids.

Tom Aviv, 28, is second generation restaurant royalty in Israel.

His parents owned the famed Picasso restaurant in Tel Aviv for many years, which was incredibly popular – and once employed Roshfeld as a young chef. But at the height of its popularity, Assi Aviv, spooked by the second intifada, shut the restaurant in 2001 and fled to London.

Now Tom is ready to reclaim his culinary heritage – or so the producers are framing it.

And while there’s often a token American in the pack, there hasn’t been one quite like Aydan Turner.

Originally from New York, Turner, an architect, now lives in Jerusalem.

She was born to an African-American father – a former football player – and a white mother – a former boxing champion. In addition to loving cooking and food, Turner loves to work out, and lift heavy weights, prompting an impromptu arm-wrestling match with Ansky.

It’s easy to be cynical and mock the stylized, emotion-tugging stories of the show; I would know, cynicism is my second language.

Yediot Aharonot, in its review of this season, called the show “sentimental kitsch in which the dishes are just the pita used to mop up the main idea: the ‘authenticity’ of the contestants.”

Of course the show is edited within an inch of its life and designed to tug at the heartstrings of every viewer. But knowing that doesn’t change the contestants on display.

To be fair, many of those mentioned above didn’t make the top 10 of the show: it is not always those with the most interesting life stories who are the best cooks. But even while personal lives fade away and cooking becomes the focus, as the show progresses, there is still joy to be found in the eclectic crew remaining.

In its sixth season, Master Chef is a kitschy, cheesy, over-produced celebration of Israel’s foodways. And there’s much to love.

‘Master Chef ’ airs Sundays and Tuesdays on Channel 2, and full episodes are available online at

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