Tears, laughter and dish after dish of delicious food have been the key ingredients so far in this season of Master Chef. Throughout seven episodes of auditions, the judges – often acting more like part-time therapists – met dozens of aspiring chefs willing to battle it out for a spot on the show.
Just 12 finalists – six men and six women – emerged unscathed from the harrowing audition process, presenting not just one but two dishes to the show’s four veteran judges – Yonatan Roshfeld, Haim Cohen, Eyal Shani and Michal Ansky – to even be considered for the show. Every contestant had to first send in a rice-based dish to be taste tested blind by the judges, who would decide if they wanted to then meet the participant.
The 12 selected for the show impressed the judges every step of the way, and beat out the other 38 who’d also received a prized apron for spots in the final team.
Yves Anan, a French-born architect, prepared risotto with mushrooms and blue cheese. When all four judges agreed they had to meet him, Anan entered the studio and presented a pear and persimmon tart for their approval.
The judges laughed when Anan recounted how he plays “Master Chef” at home with his family: “They judge me and decide if I make it to the next round or not.” But things grew more emotional when he described his journey in Israel. He made aliya in 1977, and didn’t serve in the IDF. But during the 1982 Lebanon War, despite having no army experience, Anan was called up to the reserves. He watched his friend die next to him in battle, and suffered profound post-traumatic stress disorder. Even now, he said, “it is hard sometimes when my kids come up and hug me from behind.”
Fellow immigrant Misha Lederman, 27, is a much more recent oleh, arriving in Israel from Sweden less than a year and a half ago. He cooked “black rice” for the judges – mixed with black mushrooms, portobellos and sichuan peppers, and topped with chicken, broccoli, red pepper and carrots.
Things got more adventurous in the main audition round, when the soft-spoken new immigrant served “Swedish veal brains on a bed of green” – fried calf brains atop an herb salad with yogurt dressing.
Roshfeld said repeatedly during the audition process that he was seeking something unique this season: contestants who represent – and perfect – a specific regional cooking style.
They certainly got that in Massimiliano de Mateo, an Italian who arrived in Israel just months before his Master Chef audition. Speaking in a mix of English, Italian and broken Hebrew, de Mateo said he met his Israeli wife while working in New York, and they and their three kids decided to relocate to Israel earlier this year, where he is now studying in ulpan.
Sticking to his Italian roots, de Mateo prepared risotto with chestnuts, pecorino cheese, red wine and vegetables – which was more than enough to get him in front of the judging panel. There he continued to wow them with his crepes filled with grated parmesan and floating in a light broth.
“I put the spoon in my mouth, I closed my eyes, and I felt like I was in another place,” said Shani.
Closer to home, Jerusalemite Ben Aviad, who owns a shoe store in Mahaneh Yehuda, stayed true to his own cuisine, offering up Jerusalem mixed grill with rice for his first dish – liver, spleen, heart and chicken, stir-fried and seasoned with cumin and turmeric. After coming out to meet the judges – and successfully guessing all of their shoe sizes – he further impressed them with his souvlaki made of pargiyot – grilled boneless chicken thighs.
Ron Soriano, from Kibbutz Omer just outside Beersheba, is a start-up entrepreneur with a love for cooking that shone through in his arancini, or fried risotto balls.
But it was his unconventional dessert – layers of parsnips, caramelized bananas and cream – that caught the attention of the judges and got him a spot in the cast.
Rounding out the top six men was another Swede – or is he? Eyal Gersh, 42, of Givatayim, arrived at the Master Chef kitchen eager to bring the under-appreciated flavors of Scandinavia to the Israeli palate. Speaking intermittent Swedish, he cooked rice with anchovies, salmon, capers and herbs. It was enough to get him into see the judges, where he told the confused panel – in all sincerity – that he learned Swedish at age four from an ABBA album, and has been hooked on the culture ever since. His princesstarta – a traditional Swedish cake – earned him a spot on the show, and had Roshfeld demanding to see his I.D. card to check where he was really born.
The female contestants are less geographically diverse, but are a group of strong, battle-ready women – inside the kitchen and out.
Racheli Kadosh, a 41-year-old mother of four and major in the IDF, showed off her rice skills with onions and mangold stuffed with beef and rice in a beet sauce.
But it was her handmade ravioli – filled with veal brains, lamb sweetbreads and turkey testicles – that convinced the judges she had to stick around.
Michal Epstein, a 34-year-old former professional basketball player, hasn’t left the court behind. Working now as an assistant coach, she still eats healthy food and stays in shape – and embraces that in her love of cooking. She served the judges a brown rice salad with sweet potatoes and onions in a chili dressing – a simple dish done right. She continued the theme by preparing a classic recipe – spicy Moroccan fish – in a simple but perfect manner, causing all four judges to vote her through to the next round.
Natalie Finkelstein, a 27-year-old stay-at-home mom, presented dishes with so much flavor that Ansky described her as a “100-year-old woman in the body of a child.” She started off by cooking mansaf, a traditional Arabic dish of ground beef, rice, onions and almonds. The judges were impressed – and continued to be so with her next dish, meat-filled dumplings in her version of shishbarak stew.
But it was Rachel Ben-Alul who had the courage to do what almost nobody else did with their rice dish: sushi.
Her unconventional creations filled with mushrooms, leeks, salmon and tuna left all the judges excited to meet her, and they weren’t disappointed. The 51-yearold from Jerusalem also tugged at the judges’ heartstrings with her life story – she lives in a tiny apartment with her mother, sister, nieces and nephews, but her upbeat attitude – and her simple yet perfect sandwich with poached egg and sauteed mallow leaves, propelled her into the next round.
Ruth Rozovski, a divorced mom of three, left behind not just her husband but also the strict insularism of her haredi upbringing. Rozovski remains religious, cooking kosher but inventive food like Asian rice balls filled with chicken and ginger next to a curry aioli. But it was her main dish – fish crusted with walnuts alongside artichokes and mushrooms – that convinced the judges she needed to stick around.
Every year there’s at least one participant who is labeled a finalist before the show even begins. Such was the case with Lama Shahadeh, a 31-year-old Arab Israeli from Nazareth who now lives in Tel Aviv. Roshfeld called her grape leaves stuffed with rice atop yogurt a dish “worthy of the finale.” Shani said in their 200 years of combined experience, the judges “have never seen grape leaves as beautiful as these.”
Her next dish, kubeniye, a mix of raw beef, cooked beef and bulgur, left the judges suitably impressed – and predicting she’d sail her way through to the final three competitors. Now we just have to sit back and watch.
Master Chef airs on Sundays and Tuesdays at 9 p.m., and all episodes are available on www.mako.co.il.