Appetizing adventures

Jeff Oliver’s satirical tale of a cooking competition in Eilat is a rollicking, bizarre read.

A chef preparing fish (Illustrative) (photo credit: LAURIE MCADAM/TNS)
A chef preparing fish (Illustrative)
(photo credit: LAURIE MCADAM/TNS)
Have you ever been forced to prepare halva with blue cheese, anchovies and durian? Nobody in their right mind would. But none of the characters in The Two-Plate Solution by Jeff Oliver appear to be anything close to sane.
Oliver, a TV producer who has worked at Bravo and the Food Network, has penned a rollicking, disturbing satire with an excellent punny name, subtitled: “A novel of culinary mayhem in the Middle East.”
The Two-Plate Solution opens with a culinary challenge: cook a Bible-themed appetizer with a limited set of ingredients... while standing over a trap door on a platform hovering 50 feet over a pool at an Eilat resort. Why would anybody do such a thing? Because they’re contestants on Natural Dish-aster, a reality cooking competition chock-full of caricatures of every character who’s ever appeared on a culinary TV show before.
There’s a “vegan food blogger in hipster glasses who had scored a book deal after her celebrated Twitter feud with Paula Dean,” as well as a guy from Portland with a “lumberjack beard and fully- tattooed forearms.” If you’ve seen Top Chef, MasterChef, Chopped or any of the dozens of other cooking competitions that are all over American television, you’ll be quick to laugh at Oliver poking fun at some of their outlandish creations.
“When I saw the figs and the swordfish, I knew right away I would do a crudo with miso foam on a toasted brioche drizzled with fig compote,” one competitor says in the book, perfectly lampooning such televised fare. One challenge involves a “deconstructed Seder plate” while another (sponsored by Crisco) asks the chefs to “walk in the shoes of those who escaped Hitler’s clutches and cook a dish native to his land... apple strudel.”
The author is a veteran of reality food TV, so it’s no surprise that his culinary satire hits the mark. But how much does he understand about Israel? Not quite as much. He peppers the book with Hebrew phrases, but when they’re ostensibly spoken by native speakers, they should at least be correct. So a character would know when she’s addressing a female that it should be “metumtemet” (idiot) and not “metumtam.” Likewise, Oliver notes that “bevakasha” means “thank you,” when actually it means “you’re welcome.”
And native Israelis would be surprised to hear of a hotel breakfast buffet serving up sufganiyot alongside shakshuka, labaneh and coffee; the fried jelly doughnuts are only really available in the month leading up to Hanukkah (and they’re really not a breakfast food).
So what exactly happens across the 215 pages of The Two- Plate Solution? A whole lot, and you’d be forgiven if you can’t keep track.
Right on cue for the trashy reality TV show, the producers have organized a “terrorist infiltration” to spice up the next challenge, with hired actors threatening the competitors – on the culinary battlefield.
But when an actual terrorist group crashes the hotel where the show is being filmed, the cast and crew are forced to redraw their plans, and hide the group in plain sight. But everyone seems to be hiding a secret identity – from the American TV producer to the Israeli medic on set and potentially even the terrorists themselves. What ensues is a madcap of activity involving food, bloodshed, bombs, blackmail and obviously several romances (or, as they’re known in reality TV, “showmances.”) Those who read the novel with a worried eye for criticism of Israel will find some complaints. Oliver dabbles in the justification of terrorism, and seeks to humanize many of the so-called (are they? aren’t they?) terrorists, including one who recalls as a young child when “men in white shirts, kippas and tallits” came to his village to terrorize Arabs and set fire to local olive groves.
One scene involves local Israeli police blackmailing the show’s producers into lying that the only Jewish contestant was the one who stumbled upon an archaeological find in the desert. And then, of course, there’s the flashback to a highly implausible IDF operation in Gaza – killing three Palestinians and an Israeli – and featuring an Israeli soldier who gets shot because he decides to relieve himself out the side of the tank.
Despite its many flaws, the book is undoubtedly hilarious.
Some of the most laugh-out-loud scenes occur when the actual terrorists are forced to record the classic reality TV interviews, with corny, scripted dialogue, like: “Choosing durian in a halva challenge is the culinary equivalent of your suicide vest failing to ignite while in police custody,” to which the terrorist mutters: “I’m not saying this. It’s crazy...” Or “When I took my fourth bride, it was romantic like this….” about which the terrorist complains, “This is offensive. I refuse to say such a thing.”
The concept of an American reality TV show set in Eilat and crashed by a terrorist group is a wild, outlandish one. And that’s a big part of what makes it such an entertaining read.