Cooking up Israel

    By Sarah Carnvek
    A German man who converted to Judaism, an Arab-Israeli woman in a hijab and an orthodox Jewish woman walked out of a fully stocked kitchen and into the limelight. While it may sound like the opening line of a joke, this was the reality of the latest season of the popular MasterChef television series in Israel.
    "It sounds like a joke but it worked out that way. The chefs chose them because they had the most interesting cooking," says Dorit Gvirtzman, senior content editor of the show. "That's what makes MasterChef so popular. Israel is filled with different people and different styles of cooking. This is Israel, with all the different ethnicities of people, a true melting pot."
    Tom Franz, a lawyer by profession, won the contest. He brought a European-style of cooking to the show. His dishes were presented beautifully, aesthetically and precisely. Franz's personal story mixed in with his creations. Eight years ago, at the age of 31, he left his Catholic upbringing in Germany and moved to Israel, where he converted to Judaism. From to start, Franz was considered a frontrunner to reach the finals. During the MasterChef season he added Israeli spices and dishes into his menu. He also chose to keep kosher throughout the contest.
    "The pantry is packed with everything and the beauty of this is the contestants can cook to their tradition. People can cook kosher, halal or however they want," says Gvirtzman.
    Salma Fiomy-Farij, a 28-year-old Masters student in neuroscience at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, came in second place. Fiomy-Farij, from the Arab community of Kfar Kassem, was actually the first contestant to be eliminated from the contest. But the producers set up a second chance lifeline for the contenders and she won the spot. She too added to her cooking repertoire during the contest. At first she brought the traditional Arab kitchen to the judges but along the way added bits of European cuisines.
    And the third finalist's story is just as motivating. Jacki Azulay, a religious Jewish woman from a family of 14 siblings, came in third place. Azulay, who wears a wig for modesty sake, was a viewer favorite. People loved her Moroccan style homey dishes and her bubbly nature. The 29-year-old mother of two grew up cooking for her large family. Since her mother was busy giving birth time and again, Azulay was put in charge of cooking for her growing family from the age of eight.
    "Everyone represents something else, we're a slice of Israel," says Azulay, who worked at a car rental service prior to the show but is now entertaining offers to stay in the television business. "Tom represents someone from the outside world. Salma and I show that it's possible to connect even though we're Moslem and Jewish. We all got to the final because of the food, the good food we made and not because of our ethnicity."
    Cooking up a story
    The MasterChef series originated in the UK. Today, it is popular across the globe and is produced in more than 35 countries. The Israeli version enjoyed a 37.5 percent rating and was the most watched series during the winter of 2012-2013. The finale scored a record-breaking 52.3 percent rating – the highest score for a single TV episode in Israeli history.
    "Every series conforms itself to the local culture," says Gvirtzman. "Our MasterChef is very Israeli. It tells the Israeli story."
    The premise of the show is simple: Amateur chefs who think they have what it takes to whip up magic in the kitchen are invited to take part in a cooking contest. Four of Israel's top foodies – chefs Eyal Shany, Haim Cohen, Jonathan Roshfeld and Michal Anski – set up tasks for the would-be chefs, taste their offerings and judge their creations.
    Hundreds of people from across the country auditioned for the show. Fourteen contestants made the cut. The winner was awarded the title 'MasterChef of Israel' and NIS 200,000 (over $55,000).
    "I didn't tell anyone that I was going to audition for the show. I wasn't sure I'd get in," says Fiomy-Farij, who is expecting her first child.
    The secret to MasterChef's success, say those connected to the show, is that it is a reality show but it doesn't encourage malicious competition between contestants like others in the same genre.
    "There's a love and friendship between the contestants that you don't find on other reality shows," says Azulay. "It's all about the food and food comes from the heart."
    Fiomy-Farij agrees. "The competition was friendly. We complimented one another and came out good friends. I had the honor to meet the people on the show," says Fiomy-Farij, who became best friends with a contestant who lives in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).
    "The beauty of MasterChef is that it's a show that looks at a person through food. There are stories in the food. Each reality has its own style. This is a journey of a person through food. And it works and is a success. It’s a show that charms people. You see yourself in the show," says Gvirtzman.
    Story on a plate
    MasterChef Israel's latest season served up a plethora of great stories alongside mouthwatering goodies.
    In addition to the three finalists – and their personal triumphs – the other contestants brought heartwarming and heartrending stories to the small screen.
    There was a retired teacher who shared a dream with one of her daughters to open a restaurant together. Her daughter passed away from cancer but her other two children pushed her forward to compete in MasterChef and fulfill her vision to cook for others.
    Another contestant had viewers crying every time she explained a dish and the memories it brought up of her family. Her parents, aunt and uncle were murdered in a terror shooting last year. The tragedy, she says, showed her that if she was going to fulfill her longtime dream of working as a chef then now was the time.
    Other contenders included a dancer, a computer engineer, a public relations officer, a tour guide and a disabled projects manager.
    The food also shared the limelight. Recipes were posted on the web following each show with gorgeous photos accompanying them. Producers of the show will also publish a book with all the recipes.
    MasterChef Israel wrapped up its third season with a casting call for the fourth season.