Where can you find a native kibbutznik, a British Haredi yeshiva student, an Ethiopian-born civil engineer who speaks eight languages, and an internationally acclaimed fashion designer? In Israel, of course, but more specifically on this season of the Israeli iteration of Master Chef, the reality cooking competition that originated in the United Kingdom and was popularized by Gordon Ramsay in the United States.
Now beginning its fourth season, Master Chef has become one of Israel’s most popular TV shows, with more than a million people tuning into its most recent episode, the most watched TV show in the country that week. The show has also passed the ultimate benchmark for entering Israeli culture: being parodied on both Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Land) and Matzav Ha’Uma (State of the Union), Israel’s two SNL-style sketch comedy shows.
The show’s four judges—Yonatan Roshfeld, Haim Cohen, Michal Ansky, and Eyal Shani—are all acclaimed chefs and food personalities in their own right, and are now recognized as celebrities in part due to the show’s popularity.
The competition works like all other versions of Master Chef, with a series of intense culinary challenges and weekly contestant eliminations, but the participants give the show an “only-in-Israel” feel. The group of 14 contestants on the “team” this season was whittled down from the thousands that showed up to audition, and are a diverse, intriguing, and motley crew.
First to make the cut was Shai Touboul, a 41-year-old fashion designer and event planner originally from Eilat. Touboul was named the “Israeli fashion designer of the year” in 2006 by Channel 2, and works now as a premium event planner, boasting such credentials as the 16th Maccabiah Games, the the 2008 Emmy Awards afterparty, and Joe Jackson’s 75th birthday party. Touboul, who lives in Tel Aviv with his husband and son, now wants to try his hand at cooking.
Next in was Nof Atamna-Ismail, a 32-year-old mother of three from Baka al-Gharbiya with a PhD in microbiology from the Technion Institute in Haifa. She told the judges she came to Master Chef to fulfill her dream of “opening a culinary school for Jewish-Arab cooking,” to bring people together in a positive way. Atamna-Ismail said she’s seen herself as part of two worlds ever since she switched to a Jewish school in ninth grade. At first, she said, she felt ostracized, since “nobody wanted to hang out with the Arab girl.”
“In the end it was a gift because you can enjoy two different worlds, know two different cultures,” she said.
Another woman who wowed the judges was Meseret Woldimikhal, an 42-year-old Ethiopian native who has traveled the world and speaks eight languages. Woldimikhal met her Israeli husband while traveling in Tanzania, and moved with him and their kids to Israel five years ago. Despite the large immigrant community in Israel, Woldimikhal told the judges she doesn’t think “Ethiopian food is very well known in Israel” and said she came to Master Chef to change that.
Also among the early favorites was Saranda Dilvesky, a 33-year-old native of India, who met her Israeli husband when he was backpacking there 14 years ago. She told the judges that when she moved to Israel, she was homesick for her native food, and though she’d never cooked growing up, she learned to recreate some of her favorite dishes through memories “and the Internet, looking on YouTube.” One of the show’s judges called her “the most interesting raw material we’ve ever seen on Master Chef.”
One of the judges called British native Josh Steele one of “the wackiest contestant we’ve ever seen.” Steele, a 29-year-old single rabbi who studies at the Haredi Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, showed off his breakdancing skills for the camera with his tzitzit flying. After flirting with Michal Ansky, the only female judge, Steele told the panel his dream is to open up “a glatt kosher gastro pub and show people that kosher food doesn’t have to taste like shit.”
Larry Sussman, originally from South Africa, showed up for his audition in a ‘King of the Grill’ apron. He later impressed the judges with his international cooking chops, which he learned through his travels to 47 different countries.
Tzila Ofer, a 67-year-old grandmother of nine from Ramat Gan, arrived in Israel in 1962 from Romania and met her husband the very next day. She was widowed four years ago, and Ofer told the cameras she’s vowed to continue to live life to the fullest, even looking to fall in love again.
Rounding out the group are 54-year-old Ido Kronenberg from Savyon, Eitan and Lior Solomon, siblings from Kibbutz Evron who are 30 and 25, respectively, 55-year-old Rikki Suissa from Moshav Aseret, 30-year-old Moran Shasha, a mother of three from Holon, Shlomo Azran, 42, from Moshav Beit Hanan, and Asher Levy, a 38-year-old from Haifa.
Hopefully they’re enjoying their newfound reality television fame while it lasts—one of the contestants will be eliminated on Wednesday’s show.