With resolve to succeed

Pauline Shoval made one heck of a career change when she moved from the Knesset to the kitchen to follow her culinary talent – and is conquering challenges along the way.

PAULINE SHOVAL (photo credit: Anastasia Shmuelov)
(photo credit: Anastasia Shmuelov)
‘Food is so much fun that it’s hard not to connect to it,” says Pauline Shoval, discussing her career shift to the culinary arts.
Since immigrating from France at the age of 22, the professional chef has had a diverse professional life. The daughter of two lawyers, she says it was assumed that she, too, would go into the family business, and so it came as no surprise when she decided to pursue a law degree in France. But although she enjoyed her studies, she says she never “really saw myself working in the field of law.”
Upon graduating from university, she immigrated to Israel and became a political consultant to the 15th Knesset. She describes her time at the Knesset as “interesting and ideological – I enjoyed every moment of it. On the one hand, it was a very abrupt shift into Israeli society, but on the other, it was fascinating and I was thrown right into the action.”
But when the 16th Knesset was inducted, she and a number of her coworkers chose to leave.
“The 16th Knesset was made up of a very different group of people, and the work at the Knesset itself was intense,” she explains. “I typically worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and with a small daughter, long hours were not easy.”
This is how she began her first major career shift, becoming a content editor for the Channel 9 show Ta’anugot Hahaim (“The Pleasures of Life”).
“From the world of politics, I fell into something entirely different. It did me good, because after my work at the Knesset, I couldn’t read a newspaper. It was an opportunity to rest.”
As content editor for a lifestyle show, Shoval “did everything,” and it was through program development that she was first introduced to the world of the culinary arts.
“I didn’t really cook much, though I always liked food,” she says. “But through the program, I met a number of chefs and culinary professionals.”
She recalls that after each week’s culinary section, she would go home and repeat the recipes and techniques she had seen on the show.
“I’m a person who learns quickly,” she explains affably. “I see something done once and I know how to replicate it.”
Using her new skills on her guests and family alike, she was repeatedly told that she should consider opening a restaurant. “And that’s really how it started,” she says. HER JOURNEY to professional chef continued when she appeared on the third season of MasterChef Israel in 2012. MasterChef originated in the UK in 1990, and versions of the show are now produced in over 40 countries. The show – which made its Israeli debut on Channel 2 to good reviews and high ratings – sees amateur chefs from around the country battle for the title of “master chef” and NIS 200,000 in prize money, with a panel of successful Israeli restaurateurs and chefs serving as judges.
The show’s third season was the most watched series during the winter of 2012- 13, and when the season finale aired last January, it drew the highest ratings for a single TV episode in Israeli history, breaking the previous record – which was held by the show’s Season 2 finale.
Shoval’s own journey on MasterChef Israel began in the same way as that of the show’s 14 other contestants: She applied online.
“Working in television, I had a lot of connections I could have used, but I was worried that I wouldn’t get in,” she explains. “Embarrassed in the event that I wouldn’t be accepted, I decided not to tell anyone that I was applying, and I was honestly surprised when [the show’s producers] got back to me.”
After an initial phone conversation, she says, she didn’t get too excited. “It was miraculous that they had called me in the first place.”
However, she was then invited to audition, and found herself continuing to advance in the audition rounds. “I initially had no expectations, but I slowly became excited about the possibility of appearing on the show.”
In contrast to other reality television shows, which she says she would “never consider participating in,” MasterChef is not based on “contestant gossip or general scheming,” but on preexisting knowledge and talent.
“What I like about the program is that there’s no competition between contestants.
Everyone is working against him- or herself, and is judged based on his or her own abilities, rather than the general level of the other participants,” she says.
Shoval notes that the acceptance process for contestants on the show is long, as the show’s producers want to see “not only that you know how to cook, but to see who you are as a person. It’s a television show, so they want to be sure that you’re flexible, that you’re going to be easy to work with.”
She says that akin to actors auditioning for a role in theater, not everyone has the personality or temperament for work on the MasterChef stage. For this reason, the application process includes several different levels of assessment, including a conversation with a clinical psychologist.
The final step of the application process – and the show’s final audition – takes place in a large kitchen, where the show’s judges come and assess the potential candidates’ cooking. Shoval says that by this stage she was fairly confident and thought she would likely make it onto the show.
She was therefore both disappointed and surprised when she was told that this was not the case: She had not been selected. However, due to a disagreement among the judges, she ultimately gained a spot on Season 3.
Now, having reached the season’s semi-finals and left the show in fourth place, she feels she proved that she earned her place on the program.
The producers brought in a social worker to oversee the contestants and “help whomever and whenever was necessary” – something that, to Shoval’s mind, is an important part of the MasterChef experience. She explains that this was part of a larger, central aspect of the program: having a positive work environment.
She attributes this priority in part to the show’s senior content editor, Dorit Gvirtzman, who Shoval says is one of the most “amazing and honest people I know. It was very important to her that people feel good and work in a positive environment, and she did everything in her power to ensure that this would be the case.”
SHOVAL DESCRIBES MasterChef as a brand of “soft reality television,” sharing more with documentary than with reality programs such as Big Brother. “They’re not creating a story line or telling us what to say. They don’t change the truth, but of course they’re making what’s happening interesting for a television audience.”
And since leaving the show in February, her life has most assuredly been interesting.
Shoval, who had been working for a French-speaking international news program, realized she could either continue with her culinary work or stay in production.
She cites a meeting with culinary agent Idan Spivak as changing everything.
After talking extensively with Spivak, she decided to “throw herself at full volume” into all things food-related. She left her job at the news station in June, and has since proceeded to do just that.
She has used her background in communications to write culinary-focused columns for several national publications such as Ma’ariv and the magazine Lihiyot Horim (“Being Parents”). In addition, she started a company that makes “dukim” – a form of churros, which are now a popular children’s snack all over the country.
“I brought the churros trend to Israel,” she says. “People didn’t know what they were last year, but now many are familiar with the brand and are ask- ing for it. Our customers really seem to like them, including chefs whom I have spoken to, which is very exciting.”
The name “dukim” is a derivative of the name of the game “Mikado” (pick-up sticks), as common Spanish churros are traditionally long and thin. Shoval’s brand is sold at amusement parks and candy stores all over the country.
Over the past year, she has also made regular appearances on Channel 10’s morning show Seder Yom Hadash (“A New Agenda”) with Hila Nahshon. Offering kitchen tips as well as cooking demonstrations, the spot has grown in popularity, and Shoval is currently in talks to begin her own cooking show on Channel 2.
With the many recent changes in her professional life, she feels that the biggest shift she’s experienced since competing on MasterChef is an increased sense of self-confidence.
“Being on the show made me realize that I can cope with hardship. In almost every episode, I felt like giving up, asking myself, ‘Why do you need this?’ I think that it’s a natural tendency to want to give up when things are hard, but I saw that I was able to provide comfort – for others, but primarily for myself – when things were difficult.
The fact that I have this strength, and the ability to succeed, is something I learned [from being on the show].”
This strength will likely help her as she continues along her culinary path. “In five years, I might open my own place. Maybe not a restaurant, perhaps a bar, something like that. I love having guests and creating a good atmosphere for my friends. I’d like to have a place where people can invite anyone, and have a good time – and of course, a place where people can eat.”
Right now, she says, she is learning – in terms of her own cooking, but also conceptually.
“I’m always thinking forward with regard to what I can do next and where else I can go with my existing recipes.”
FOR SHOVAL, cooking “is relaxing and is a place where I can return to myself. It’s a time when I feel at peace with who I am.”
She says every cooking experience is different: Working in a restaurant or cooking for 150 people, it is not always easy. However, she describes a sense of true gratification when she sees people enjoying a meal she has made. “There’s often a lot of feedback when you cook, so it’s also something from which you receive instant satisfaction.”
Shoval feels that everyone is capable of cooking, and cooking well. “I don’t really understand people who say they don’t like to cook. It’s such a giving experience, it’s 200-percent giving, and perhaps that’s another reason why I enjoy it.”
And giving starts at home. Her two daughters, ages six and 14, often help their mother in the kitchen. “More and more, I see my older daughter going into the kitchen, and it’s fun. With my younger daughter, I often make dough and stuffed grape leaves.”
It wasn’t always easy for her children when she was on the show, she says, but “they really give me time to get recipes just right and make genuinely good food.”