The secret of Tom Franz’s success

The ‘MasterChef’ winner opens up about his surprising path to conversion, and his not-so-surprising love of all things culinary.

Tom Franz cheers his wife, Dana, over an intimate dinner in Tel Aviv’s Lumina restaurant. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Tom Franz cheers his wife, Dana, over an intimate dinner in Tel Aviv’s Lumina restaurant.
A few days before the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, we sat down in Tel Aviv with the big winner of MasterChef, Tom Franz, and his wife, Dana.
We had not had a surreal meeting like this in a long time. On the one hand, as the rockets from Gaza flew incessantly at the Center, the sirens went off nonstop and a lot of heroic work on the part of the soldiers running the Iron Dome missile defense system was necessary. On the other hand, our interviewees told us a Jewish-Israeli story that was poignant and optimistic.
Meet Tom. He was born, raised and educated in a Catholic family in Germany, but something “went wrong” along the way and he was drawn to Israel and Judaism.
After his conversion he met his future wife, Dana, who works in public relations in the culinary field, and she became religious along with him. They have two sons and live in Tel Aviv.
The story came out on the highly rated reality show MasterChef, which transformed Tom’s life from one extreme to the other – turning him into one of Israel’s most beloved figures, touching viewers all over the country. The coverage in Israel led to great exposure in the German media, where he became a star – and where he appears frequently on cooking shows, lovingly hosted by the country.
Naturally, Tom became a “culinary ambassador” who respectfully represents the Israeli kitchen in Germany. He recently launched his new cookbook – titled So Schmeckt Israel (This is The Taste of Israel) – in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, based on kosher Israeli food. A best-seller in Europe, it was chosen to compete in an international cookbook competition in Beijing this past May.
Objective: To learn the secret of Tom Franz’s success
Secret Objective: To not let Hamas ruin our quality of life
The Means: A gourmet meal at Lumina, chef Meir Adoni’s new restaurant in Tel Aviv, with 2012 Shoresh wine from Tzora Winery (both kosher)
You are a chef who was Catholic, and today you are Jewish. Which religion is tastier?
(Laughs) Naturally I am nostalgic for many things, flavors and foods that I was raised on. But it is actually this stage, since I have been Jewish, in which I have flourished most in the kitchen and in my cooking. Nothing is lacking now.
If we summarize it in one line: It’s tastier with us?
Look, there’s nothing like your mother’s cooking, but today I cannot think outside the framework of kosher. For 15 years when I developed my recipes, I only thought about a kosher kitchen. I sacrificed with my whole heart and I got the gift of flavors in return.
Catholicism is almost antithetical to Judaism. What, specifically, drew you here?
I was not looking for this; my heart chose for me. It all began when I was in high school, and one day during recess I saw a group of Israelis who came as foreign exchange students. They behaved differently than the Germans and I really loved what I saw, they sang and danced. They had a lot of joy.
Within a short amount of time I developed a good relationship with them, it just felt right to me. I knew that I want to come to Israel to visit and, indeed, after a year I arrived for a visit that just left me wanting more.
In the ’90s I came to do national service with the organization Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. Instead of getting drafted into the German army, I volunteered to work with Holocaust survivors, and it felt right and wonderful to me. Over the course of my service, I learned Hebrew and came face-to-face with Judaism for the first time.
At the end of my service I returned to Germany and began developing my career in Opening The Heart with Israeli Wine law. After a few more years, I could no longer resist my heart’s desire to convert.
How did your parents accept your conversion?
The beginning was very difficult, even though they had a long preparation.
When I decided to convert I was 31, but for many years before that I was in touch with Israelis. It was not strange for my parents, but no one thought that a 31-year-old man, with a career as a lawyer, right before establishing a family, would make such a big change.
It was so different from the place from which I came. I broke with my parents’ tradition, and pained them greatly. It would be like if an Israeli guy who traveled after the army decided to stay in India and become a Buddhist. Or, in general, if a Jew decided to convert to Islam or Christianity. It would be a big break for the family, and is just not acceptable.
Fortunately, my family members are secular Catholics. If we were religious, it would have been a lot more difficult.
They say it is difficult to convert. What was the lowest point in the process?
Tom: When I began the process, I was determined and ready for hard times.
I sacrificed my career and family, but then I got to Israel as a tourist and it was here that I was not accepted. After a long time I received approval to convert, but not to work.
Understand, I was 31, a lawyer, and I had no way of supporting myself. I had to depend on my savings and the help of my friends, and it was very difficult.
This was a real trial for me and my desires. I ended the process in debt and with a big fissure in my family.
Dana: Today the situation is completely different, there has been a reconciliation and acceptance from his parents.
Tom: It improved greatly when the first grandson arrived, but closure finally came after MasterChef. After the show aired in Israel, I became famous and people recognized me in the street. Suddenly people who hadn’t spoken to me for years got in touch with me, it was very touching. But none of this reached my parents. Before the finale, a German reporter heard from friends that there was a German on MasterChef and that he is very good. He met me and wrote a feature article about me.
This made such a great wave in Germany, and suddenly the media was awakened.
Staff reporters from a number of channels there came to the finale, and they aired a story about me on the main news channel at prime time. It made a big impression on my parents, and they were very proud of me.
Today, they are at peace with my decision.
It sounds like one must have to be very balanced to get through this process...
Tom: One has to reach this decision independently and with true motivations, and not expect support from his surroundings.
One has to be prepared for the possibility that people will break off contact, and be truly ready for it. That is the only way to survive this; it is a very important lesson for someone who wants to go through with the process.
Dana: In general, Tom is a very balanced person. I will reveal a secret, every summer he wakes up at about 4 a.m. almost every day, and does yoga on the banks of the Yarkon.
Tom: When I do yoga the people who were partying the night before are still dancing, and the early-morning runners are still sleeping.
What was the first thing you cooked for Dana?
Tom: Potatoes.
Excuse me??
Dana: That is exactly what I said to myself in the beginning. It was right before the fast of Tisha Be’av, a short while after we met, and Tom told me that he would prepare a pre-fast meal. When I arrived he said, “Look, I haven’t had a chance to buy groceries, but I made potatoes.” I thought to myself, “Potatoes? That is all we will eat now, before the fast?” But when I tasted it, it became clear this was the best dish I had ever eaten in my life.
Tom: I made a mistake when I prepared the potatoes, and I turned it into a technique.
Dana: As he should have! A real chef does not surrender, even in times of hardship.
Tom: The morning before the meal, I put potatoes in water in an old copper pot. I put it on a low flame and went to work, and forgot to turn off the fire. In the afternoon I suddenly remembered, and rushed home. I found the potatoes in the pot without water, browned but not burned. I looked at it and thought, “All right, it is not burned, this can still be fixed.”
So I started to play with it, some salt, olive oil, and it came out so delicious. When Dana ate it, she began to cry.
Dana: (Laughs) Well, not everyone has a private chef at home.
It sounds challenging to live with a chef. Share with us.
Dana: Once he tried spaghetti bolognaise on me, but he substituted tuna for the meat… It seemed so strange to me to call it bolognaise.
Tom: In Germany they make it with meat and cream, which is not exactly kosher. I invented a substitute for it which is made with a lot of onions, and it came out great.
What makes you laugh?
Dana: The world of food interests both of us greatly. A few years ago we were on a bus and were planning a menu for a meal we were hosting for our friends. Suddenly, someone who sat near us asked, “Excuse me, do you have a catering business? Do you accept orders?” Tom: We burst out laughing, and she said, “You talk about food so seriously that I thought it was your business.”