Life & Culture

Can he take the heat? Get ready to binge with The Chef

Looking for a new Israeli TV box set? Here's a kitchen sink drama to sink your teeth into says Victoria Prever


If you’re a Fauda fan or a sucker for Shtisel a new Israeli mini-series has just dropped here, and you need it in your life.

The Chef is a tale of two 40-something men: culinary king, Dori, and Nimrod — a former high tech high flyer. The former is struggling to retain his position at the top of Tel Aviv’s gourmet tree while the latter is desperate to support his family after 18 months without a job. They cross paths when Nimrod ends up in a prep cook role in Dori’s restaurant, Sophia.


Made by the same production company behind Fauda, it was the second most watched drama on Israel’s yesTV last year and has already been recommissioned for another series.

The kitchen drama is co-written and directed by Erez Kav-el — his directorial debut. Inspiration came, in part, from his own career history: “I had a short romance with the kitchen after the army and before I went to film school. I thought about becoming a chef and going to work in Paris, but it was not for me, so I chose film school.”

He studied at the film school at Tel Aviv University, now known as the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television, from the age of 25, but during his studies and for some years afterwards, writing by day and cooking at night to support himself in the early days of his career. “I worked at Italian restaurant, Joya. I worked on the pass — I did every job in the kitchen during my time there.”

He made his screenwriting debut on Israeli television in 2007, and wrote for the small and large screens in the early years. His big break came via a feature film script: “Screen writers are really in demand here, but you need to prove you can deliver before anyone will give you a chance. Once you’re proven, it opens a lot of doors. I wrote a film script and that’s how I became a little bit known in the industry and how I got my break for TV. I started seeing producers and director to make it and a lot of people in the industry read it which was how I became known.” Since then he has written for television, and worked as a script editor and adviser.

He said it wasn’t tough to get this series picked up by a producer. It was developed for Keshet [Keshet 12 — Israel’s largest commercial channel]. “I wrote episode one for them, but it wasn’t really their sort of material; but since I had the first episode, I took it to another production company — Yes TV in 2015, and they picked it up fast.” The tougher part was getting it written — which took four years as he was writing it between other productions.

Filming took place before and during lockdown. He describes the process of making the series as a roller coaster — “It was painful, fun — a lot of things. I loved it.” He would like to continue directing his own material.

The cast is a mixture of actors, musicians, comedians and well known television personalities. Everyone in a chef role actually cooked during filming. “I took the decision that I wanted everything to be done on set. I didn’t want hands to cook and then cut to the their faces. I wanted the actors to be able to do everything and to shoot them in real time.”

Before shooting, the actors worked at Bar 51 in Tel Aviv for chef Moshiko Gamlieli. “Moshiko was our culinary adviser and he took responsibility for training the actors. They all worked for him. Gal Toren — who played Dori — worked for him for more than a month. Bar 51 has an open kitchen so customers could see Toren [a well-known Israeli actor and musician] in the kitchen working at the pass.”

Kav-el’s wife, Yonit Maftali, who is a food editor now working to create the culinary branch of Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Diaspora, also advised on the menus for the show, giving feedback to Gamlieli’s ideas.

According to Kav-el, Gamlieli is nothing like Dori — a hot-headed, Gordon Ramsay-style character. “Moshiko is the complete opposite — he’s younger and from a new generation of chefs. He has a cameo role in episode six as a friend of Dori’s and Dori comes to eat in his restaurant.”

More than one chef was sure the Dori character had been based on them. “A lot of people had also been trying to guess who the character was, but it wasn’t one person. It’s based on a lot of people I know — and not only in the culinary world. I got inspired from chefs but also from people from my industry — the film industry.” He says he also had messages from chefs who he says were really “pissed about it” telling him “if I treated my staff like that I’d get sued.”

He says although chefs like Dori may be a dying breed in kitchens, they still exist in some ways. “Today chefs are much more sensitive to the environment and the modern values but the main thing is that — even if they’re polite today and more pleasant — they are still dictators of their own environment. Their egos are still huge and their vulnerability — the pressure hasn’t changed. Today’s chefs may be less violent and talk nicely to their staff but they still want things done as they see it.”

“It may not be exactly how it was portrayed but the essence hasn’t changed. The idea is that the kitchen can be a very tough, violent place.”

The physical kitchen in the show is also genuine — which proved both a bonus and a challenge: “Yonatan Roshfeld’s restaurant Herbert Samuel closed about three years ago and has sat empty ever since, so we were able to film there. It was a miracle for us as it would have been impossible to create the real thing. We had to dress it but the essence was there. There was a lot of glass and many mirrors which meant endless reflections, but I had the great luck to work with [cinematographer] Guy Raz, who took advantage of the reflections.”

Many of the kitchen staff were real chefs preparing actual food during filming. “Itan Panda who plays Ofer is a famous cook in Tel Aviv. He has done reality TV and has a restaurant called Pita Panda. When we were shooting he and the others were cooking, so we didn’t waste all the food. They used the food to cook for themselves mostly but did some meals and, step by step, the cast moved from the caterer’s meals to come on set to eat what the cooks had been making during the shots. It was much better food!”

Some wastage was unavoidable although they tried to limit the unused food to vegetables. In an early scene, Nimrod is given 60 kilos of tomatoes to skin — the work of hours. It was a task that Kav-el had, himself been given during his kitchen time. You feel Nimrod’s pain at the immensity of the task. “Actually, that was really exciting for me — to bring the real feel of work in the kitchen and the hard labour. It’s hard and painful sometimes but it brings good things out of you. You have to view it as a challenge. When you start it seems impossible — not do-able by one person. But you peel one tomato after another and other cooks will come and help you and at the end of the day you get it done. It gives you a tremendous feeling of success — it’s a big achievement.”

Beyond the food, the overarching theme concerns the two men and their mid-life crisis: “They’re complete opposites but they meet in the kitchen which is a place that tends to diminish differences. When you work in a very intense environment, it can bring together people from different backgrounds and lives.”

Is it credible for a man of Nimrod’s age to be starting out in what’s sometimes viewed as a young person’s game? “The premise is completely possible. That’s what I came from in writing this — a man coming in with no background, not even wanting to be a chef. And seeing if he lasts more than one day. All you need to do is work hard and shut up. The work is very repetitive and boring but for a few people it really becomes something they love and find themselves in.”

There are also some strong females — pastry chef, Sani — real life comedian, Gitit Fisher; co-owner of Dori’s restaurant, Osnat — played by Rotem Sela, a model, presenter and actress and Sara, played by Yael Elkana, one of the line chefs, who talks herself into a job in episode one and forms a friendship with Nimrod.

“Sara is inspired by my friend Sarit [Packer — of London’s Honey & Co] whose nickname is Sara. I worked with her and her husband Itamar Srulovich at Joya and I still call her that. So as an homage to her, I named the main female character, Sara — and to make Itamar jealous!”

Although filming was stopped for three months by the Covid lockdown, Kav-el says that this turned out to be a plus. “Things change — scenes that you think work when shooting work in a completely different way as you’re editing. During the shutdown we started editing and rewriting and were able to discuss the storyline and do it differently when we saw scenes working in a different way when they came to life.

“We were making changes until the last minute. Until it’s aired you can do whatever you want — you always have an opportunity to make it better. I love it — knowing that it’s constantly evolving and you always have another opportunity to make it better, more interesting, different.”


UK viewers can get a taste of this drama via UK Jewish Film, who have it on demand until August 6 and are offering a discount if you download the box set before July 9.


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