‘Middle Feast’ trucks across America, striking food gold

Tomer Marudi’s trio successfully brings Israeli flavor to the Food Network reality competition, ‘The Great Food Truck Race’.

(left to right) Tommy Marudi, Hila Marudi and Arkadi Kluger on the blue-and-white food truck, Middle Feast. (photo credit: COURTESY FOOD NETWORK)
(left to right) Tommy Marudi, Hila Marudi and Arkadi Kluger on the blue-and-white food truck, Middle Feast.
Los Angeles – Deep in the Florida Everglades, chef Tomer “Tommy” Marudi is deep-frying frogs’ legs and getting ready to serve them up to celebrity chef Tyler Florence.
The 32-year-old makes a point of trying to keep kosher as much as possible. However, today he’s going to have to both cook and taste the non-kosher delicacy because he’s part of an American reality television competition called The Great Food Truck Race, hosted by the country’s premiere cooking channel – the Food Network.
Now in its fifth year, the race concept is fairly simple: Take eight teams with a distinct culinary point of view, provide them with a food truck and send them across America for seven weeks to see if they can sell their food to locals. The teams are faced with challenges at each stop and winners are determined by how much money they make over a weekend.
Each week, the team with the least amount of money is eliminated until one team is left standing. The prize? They get to keep their truck and receive $50,000 to help kick-start their food-truck business.
Marudi, together with his sister Hila and best friend Arkadi Kluger, comprised the Los Angeles-based Israeli trio who named their truck Middle Feast and served up American-Israeli fusion cuisine. Throughout the race, they wowed people from California to Florida with everything from shakshuka to shwarma.
The frogs’ legs challenge is taking place during the last leg of the cross-country jaunt, and – spoiler alert – he not only goes on to win the challenge (declaring on-camera that the frogs’ legs indeed “taste just like chicken!”), the trio ultimately takes the entire competition.
The reality show was shot in May but wasn’t shown until August and September. The Jerusalem Post spoke with Marudi a week after the final episode aired. He was still on a high, delighted that the win had validated all his dreams. The tough two months away from his wife have all been worth it, he said.
Throughout the show, he always said he was doing the reality competition for his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I really want to show her what I accomplished,” he said in his final video for the show. “She’s not going to understand it right now, but when she grows up she will know.”
While the team is still preparing the paperwork to get their food truck on the road, Marudi is delighted that he now has the funds to put his dream into action. His plans are big. The most important thing, he says, is to get his truck up and running around LA, but the team hopes to eventually have Middle Feast trucks all across the US.
And while food trucks may not be big business in Israel, it doesn’t stop Marudi from hoping to maybe bring a truck, and the trend, to the Holy Land. “I believe they can be popular in Israel,” he says, “but we’ll just have to make them smaller [for Israeli roads]. Since Israelis like and appreciate good food, it can be a hit,” he enthused.
It’s not just the $50,000 which has enabled him to launch this new venture; it’s the publicity he’s received from being on the show, and the connections he’s made with other food truck owners.
And it doesn’t hurt that one of the people whom he considers a mentor is Tyler Florence.
The 43-year-old is one of the most popular celebrity chefs on the Food Network, hosting dozens of shows. He’s also the author of 10 books, and runs several restaurants and a small chain of kitchen supply stores in northern California.
The Food Truck phenomenon in the US is still nascent. It began to gain traction back in 2011, when one of LA’s most famous chefs, Roy Choi, decided to open a Korean taco truck called the Kogi truck.
The concept was simple, yet brilliant: Gut a standard truck and travel around the local area selling your wares. Choi realized the power of social media, particularly Twitter, and would roll around town and tweet to followers where he was serving food that day and at what time. Before you could say “Roll ’em,” dining establishments on wheels were popping up like weeds, gaining followers on their Twitter feeds and parking everywhere from outside office buildings at lunchtime to football games and concert venues.
Eventually, trucks would team up to rent out parking lots, where hungry patrons could buy everything from Indian food and barbecue to grilled cheese sandwiches and gourmet French cuisine.
For Marudi, like many others, he saw owning a food truck as a way to run his own restaurant without the huge overhead.
“I was tired of working for other people,” he explains. “So I started researching food trucks and somehow my wife came across the application for [The Great Food Truck Race] online.
We filled it in and put up our concept, which was Israeli street food with a twist. [The Food Network] called us back, and the rest is history.”
While he is now determined to ride the crest of his winning wave, life wasn’t always so simple. He spent many years working for other people, and his first solo business venture failed. Born in LA, his Israel-born parents returned to Tel Aviv when he was 10.
“I moved back here when I was 18, and my sister Hila joined me here three years later. We met Arkadi [Kluger] when we were living together. He was staying in the same apartment building as us.”
But Marudi’s love of food and cooking began when he was still a child in Israel. “I started working in my uncle’s Chinese restaurant in Tel Aviv,” he says.
“He’s my mentor; he taught me everything I know.” However, he notes nothing could really have prepared them for the roller-coaster ride that was the Food Truck Race.
“It was the craziest thing we’d ever done in our lives,” he recalls. “It was a little bit of everything: a lot of emotions, a lot of pressure and a lot of craziness.
But it was also a lot of fun, as well as being very hard work. You’re in the truck for seven weeks. It’s long hours, it’s hot in the truck and it’s hard when you’re away from home.”
Staying determined, focused on his family and on the ultimate prize, he says, is what helped propel them to the win. “I’m proud of all of us. We tried to stay focused as a team and it was hard, because it’s very tight in the truck and we have different personalities, but we stayed united.”
He says he also believed – at least initially – that Middle Feast faced tougher odds than other teams. “We really thought we were at a disadvantage,” he says. “We were up against bacon trucks and chicken trucks, and we were definitely different. But as the race went on, we saw that it was actually an advantage.
People really wanted to try our food. We got great love and crazy feedback from people who had never tried Middle Eastern food before.”
And yes, he adds, that included trying to explain some of their dishes to bewildered locals in places like Oklahoma City and Alabama. “They couldn’t even say the word ‘shwarma.’ My sister was running down the streets calling out ‘Shwarma, shwarma,’ and they didn’t even know what it was.”
Because the show was filmed in May before the Gaza war, Marudi says the team didn’t have to confront any political hassles. But even if they had filmed during the conflict, Marudi says, “we try not to be political. We believe in peace, love and food.” He says they received no “bad comments” at any time in the competition.
“Most people knew where Israel was, and gave us a lot of respect when they found out we were Israeli.”
Incredibly proud of their Israeli heritage, Marudi says they never tried to hide their origins. In fact, he insisted they wear blue and white at all times, and his sister, who is a graphic designer, designed both the clothing they wore throughout the show and the blue-andwhite Middle Feast truck. “We are so proud to be Israeli,” he enthuses, ”and to cook great Israeli food.”
And, it turned out, all their dishes were a big hit, including “my mother’s Moroccan spicy fish tacos. But I’d say our signature and bestselling dish was definitely the chicken shwarma.”
Of course, there were times they had to cook non-Israeli food, specifically non-kosher food.
“I try to keep kosher at home and I usually don’t eat non-kosher stuff,” he explains, “but because of my job I don’t mind tasting a bit just to get a feel of the flavor and the method of cooking.” He quickly adds that on the show nobody forced them to eat anything they made.
At one of the very first challenges at LA’s Venice Beach, the teams had to cook bacon-wrapped hot dogs. “We made them but we didn’t taste them,” he says. And when they went to Mobile, Alabama, they chose not to use shrimp in a dish, although all the other teams did.
However, when it came to that crucial, final frogs’ legs challenge, he says, “I had to try them to see how to cook them and win the challenge. By the way, they were really good!” The teams were, in fact, given the choice of using frogs’ legs and/or alligator meat; Middle Feast passed on the alligator.
Now, though, he can focus on his own cuisine and creating his signature Middle Feast dishes. He’s part of The Great Food Truck Race family, with support from the dozens of alumni who have taken part in the show over the past five seasons. “The love we’ve gotten from so many food truck owners – not just those on the race – wanting to help us has been amazing,” he says.
Marudi is excited about this next phase in his career, and the opportunity to pursue his dream. “I think the foodtruck world has changed a lot since the old white taco trucks that served bland food,” he notes. “More and more chefs want to bring their food to the people, and menus are getting fancier.
Americans, he continues, “appreciate new flavors and are very open-minded about trying new stuff.” And Middle Feast is ready to whet their appetites.
So what is the secret to a great chicken shwarma? “The secret is to do it with love,” he reveals.
“And be careful with the spices.”
■ Middle Feast is setting up its website at middlefeastfoodtruck.com, where it will be sharing some of its recipes. Check out its Facebook page, The Middle Feast Food Truck, and follow it on Twitter at @midfeasttruck.