In this particular kitchen, there is blood, sweat and plenty of tears... but also laughter, jokes and, oh yes, food.
The long-awaited second season of Reshet’s Game of Chefs premiered a few weeks ago, and with the audition process well under way, it’s clear there will be plenty of drama, big personalities and delicious dishes yet to come.
The feisty cooking competition show kicks off with its signature “blind auditions” – where the three judges have to choose to advance or reject each competitor based on their dish alone, before even meeting them.
Unlike Master Chef – the Keshet show which has already aired five seasons – Game of Chefs allows both professional and amateur chefs to compete. This fact, coupled with the blind nature of the audition and the small Israeli culinary world – often leads to a range of surprises for the judges.
The premise of the show is simple: Each competitor gets an hour to prepare their audition dish, and sends it out to the judges without any introduction or explanation. The judges taste the dish and lock in their decision before the culinary hopeful comes out to greet them. There, they reveal their votes – if two out of three opted to keep the competitor, they advance to the next round: culinary boot camp. All in all, 30 participants will make it through to boot camp, and 18 are set to be selected to join the judges’ final teams.
The three famed chefs – Meir Adoni, Assaf Granit and Moshik Roth – are all reprising their roles as judges/mentors/ competitors from last season. If anything, the threesome are even more famous than last season, with new restaurants, awards – and, for Granit, even another TV show – under their belt.
The rapport and respect between the three chefs appears genuine and leads to some of the best moments on the show – both when they’re agreeing and disagreeing on the food (or contestant) in front of them.
“If you say something good about this dish, I will get up and walk out of here,” Granit told Adoni when faced with a particularly distasteful plate of food.
While the judges often rib each other (and have a somewhat disturbing tendency to break out into song), they also don’t shy away from emotion – in particular Adoni – especially when faced with the show’s signature: contestant sob stories.
From the rape victim who left religion, came out of the closet and still remains close to her father to the Ethiopian mother and daughter who opened their own restaurant in Rehovot to the young kibbutznik who found a love of cooking while recovering from cancer – the tear-jerking stories come thick and fast.
Karam Dadu, a 23-year-old Arab drag queen who grew up in Acre and now lives in Tel Aviv, told the judges he hasn’t spoken to his family in four years. He cooked shishbarak – meat dumplings in a yogurt soup – for the chefs, but said in reality he was making it for his little brother, who he misses every day.
“My family doesn’t know if I’m alive or dead,” he said. “I hope they will see me on the show, know that I’m okay, that I’m being who I am.” He made it through to boot camp with two out of three votes – and quite a few tears.
Even when turning the competitors down, the judges often show style and grace, both the emotional Adoni and affable Roth but also the more gruff Granit.
“We’ve all failed much worse than this,” Granit told a competitor who couldn’t finish his dish in the time allotted. He also followed more than one rejected contestant outside to remind them to keep cooking and not give up on their dreams.
Often the failed competitors offer some of the most heart-wrenching stories, including the tales of two mixed Muslim-Jewish couples, who have stuck together despite the overwhelming rejection of their families and communities.
The show has plenty of lighter moments as well – when faced with undercooked chicken, Granit wondered if it “was someone from Master Chef, trying to kill us” – and also surprising ones.
The great melting pot of Israel is on sharp display on the show, with natives of Russia, Turkey, France, Ethiopia and almost everywhere in between showing off their culinary chops.
But there were some other “Only in Israel” stories that were a bit more disturbing.
One of the most awkward experiences came via Gil Ackerman, 31, of Tel Aviv.
Describing himself as a “culinary entrepreneur,” Ackerman has a catering business and serves as a restaurant critic for Time Out.
While often the chefs regret not accepting a chef once they meet them, in Ackerman’s case, it was the opposite. While all three chefs opted to advance Ackerman on the basis of his ravioli, once they got to speak to him – and realized who he was – they seemed to regret it.
Ackerman, recounting the critical things he wrote about the kosher fare at Adoni’s Blue Sky restaurant in Tel Aviv, was interrupted by Granit, who said he “really didn’t like this conversation.”
Roth, in turn, told Ackerman he made it through “only because this is a blind taste test.”
“There’s something incredibly annoying about you,” Roth told him.
The perpetually smirking redheaded Ackerman seemed mildly chastened by the interaction, admitting that he could “try to be a bit more modest.”
But no audition was more jarring than that of Bat-El Samia – not because of her cooking or her personality but due to her family background, and the way the show opted to portray it.
Her experiences with cooking, she said, came about when she was living in Africa, working at her father’s business. There was no kosher food available, she said, so she started to cook herself, and became a sort of “Chabad House” for other Jews in the area.
Her father? None other than Meir Abergil, the notorious mob kingpin – who showed up in the studio to support her.
The business? A casino.
While Samia mentioned her father’s name, he was described simply as a “businessman,” without any mention of his long rap sheet, which includes drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, tax evasion and – of course – murder.
Since Samia made it through to the next round, it remains to be seen how much will be made of her background as the show progresses. And if all the other contestants will make it out alive.
Game of Chefs airs Sunday and Monday evenings on Channel 2 at 9 p.m., and full episodes are available online at reshet.tv.