The Man Behind the Masters

Culinary consultant Adi Ben Dan was responsible for organizing the complicated logistics behind the 'Master Chef' TV show, and ensuring that studio storerooms were stocked with tons of foodstuffs.

Navot Shelah, the man in charge of preparing the ingredients for the "Master Chef" reality TV show, glanced in alarm at the messy counter in the center of the set and shouted at the production people: "Has anyone seen the sirloin Eyal needs for the next course?"

Silence. Then, after a few minutes one of the producers piped up in a small voice: "The contestants ate it."

Shelah, now both alarmed and angry, growled: "I don't believe it! I just don't believe it. Who gave them permission to do that?"

Ten minutes earlier the scene had been much jollier. Just after chef Eyal Shani finished, in his poetic manner, demonstrating how to cook a prime cut of meat, the attack began. The 12 contestants, starved after a tough half-day of filming, fell upon the leftovers with impressive cooperation. The men zoomed in on the plancha; the women on the mixed Jerusalem grill. The small, juicy pieces of meat swiftly disappeared.

This occurred on the last day of filming for the season, two weeks ago, in the huge, well-designed hangar allotted to the popular Channel 2 program, broadcast by franchisee Keshet. On that day the participants received an explanation of how to prepare the food by two members of the program's jury: Eyal Shani and Haim Cohen. When they finished their labors, the contestants were tired but happy, Shani was looking pleased and only the cameramen and the producers were still alert and focused.

Adi Ben Dan, the program's culinary producer, watched what was happening with a certain amount of indifference. "Send someone to the supermarket to buy a new cut of meat," he said. "It's no big deal."

Ben Dan was in charge of seeing to the supply of food during the show. For the past three months he was seen filling the huge pantry with every conceivable kind of food: cheeses, fish, spices, dried fruit, Asian ingredients, pastas, various types of rice and much more.

A veteran entrepreneur, Ben Dan has "leveraged" a personal love and professional talent and built himself up over 20 years into a one-man company: He advises individual restaurants and chains, takes courses in preparing strange and varied meals around the world, and specializes in consulting producers of TV shows on culinary matters. In some ways, then, his most recent work marked a pinnacle in his professional career. "Master Chef" is an Israeli version of a BBC television show. As in other reality contests, in this case too, amateurs vied for the title. The program came on the air a month and a half ago, and succeeded in achieving impressive ratings: At its peak, during the final show, broadcast this past Saturday night, when contestant Ina Kravatzky was crowned the winner, it garnered about 43 percent of Israeli viewers. For comparison's sake, the finale of the last season of "Survivor" chalked up 16.7 percent, and the last epidosde of "Big Brother" received a share of 36 percent.

As distinct from other reality shows, the real star of this one is the food. Every episode involved gigantic quantities of foodstuffs, so much so, says Ben Dan, that only 10 percent of the food on hand was actually consumed. The rest was donated to a charity in Jerusalem.

Nine months ago, Ben Dan began plotting out the show. Right from the start, even before everything took shape, complicated planning was required for supplying the food, refrigerating it, setting up cooking stations, ovens and grills, etc. After the "training camps" for the contestants were completed, Ben Dan started building the set, a process of a month and a half.

"I had to fill a pantry with 600 animal and vegetable products of every type, also from abroad, that I could think of," says Ben Dan. "I chose seasonings from every culture."

The quantities of food that flowed into the Neveh Ilan studio outside Jerusalem in recent months were vast: four to five tons of vegetables, half a ton of meat, half a ton of fish (200-300 individual fish ), 300-400 liters of various sorts of oil, no less than 20 types of rice, half a ton of butter and thousands of eggs.

"The trick was that nothing would be missing, " Ben Dan explains. "I also had to plan correctly so that all the ingredients I ordered from abroad would arrive on time. I had a mandate to buy everything I wanted."

He estimates the cost of the food used in filming the "Master Chef" series was NIS 200,000 to NIS 300,000, though most was donated by a large supermarket chain that gave its sponsorship. About NIS 100,000 of the budget was used for purchasing meat, fish and other products that weren't supplied by the supermarket.

"There are regular suppliers I work with, and there isn't a type of food on the face of the earth that I can't receive within 48 hours," declares Ben Dan, adding as an example the near-kilo of truffles that he ordered from Europe at a cost of about NIS 4,000. (In the end they weren't used during the filming, so the crew feasted on some and the rest were donated to a nonprofit organization. )

What was the most difficult thing you had to obtain for the filming ?

Ben Dan: "One of the tasks was to prepare a dish by a French, three-Michelin-star chef. He used a certain kind of cabbage, which grows in Europe."

And it wasn't possible to use any cabbage?

"There are things you don't compromise on."

So what did you do?

"Not far from my home, in the fields near Ramat Hasharon, they grow cabbage that is suitable for the dish. We brought it in - and it worked."

'Food is passion'

Adi Ben Dan, 42, is a sociologist by training but has been interested in food since childhood ("I come from a home with a lot of wine, and which was influenced by French cooking" ). He has managed restaurants, including the branch of Giraffe in Herzliya, helped establish places like Lavan and the Beach Bar, and has studied gourmet organic cooking in San Francisco and culinary consulting in Budapest. From 2004 to 2009 he served as chief operating and acquisitions executive for the Yarzin Group, which owns restaurants like Ad Haetzem, Zozobra, Cafe Italia and Moses.

Nowadays Ben Dan is coordinating the restaurateur track at the Tadmor School in Herzliya Pituah, and working in a consulting capacity at various eateries. He sums up his love for food thus: "Food is the essence, it's passion - you get on a plane for it. You have to keep up-to-date about it all the time. I invest a lot in improving my knowledge, and make a point of going abroad two or three times a year for culinary trips. Now, for example, I've just come back from a course in Alsace and a food show in Paris."

What do you most love to cook?

"Simple food. A good fish, a plain cut of meat."

That sounds predictable.

"But it's true. In London I once ate a meal that cost thousands of euros per couple, with the wine and Champagne, but I am proud of the fact that 80 percent of the dishes I tried in Alsace I ate on benches and not at expensive restaurants. Israelis are very open to everything having to do with food - as long as there isn't a clash with kashrut, since about 60 percent of Israelis observe the dietary laws. The beautiful thing about Israelis is the eclecticism of the 80 different cuisines [that exist here]."

Culinary consulting is a relatively new field in Israel. Until recently, it was the sole purview of leading chefs, who were hired by entrepreneurs who wanted to open restaurants. The chefs would often put together the menu, give fancy names to each dish and go on their way, though not before receiving fees estimated at NIS 5,000-7,000 a month for up to a year. Among others, chefs Eyal Shani and Haim Cohen have worked in the field; Avi Steinmetz also consults.

Now food experts like Ben Dan are entering the consulting fray. They don't pretend to know about cooking, but rather about food management, he explains. They decide which dishes justify their price and which do not, which can be taken off the menu and which should be promoted. Payment for consulting is on an hourly or a percentage basis.

Ben Dan says he has done such work at restaurants like Toto, Dalal, Sergos and Reviva & Celia in Tel Aviv, and adds: "I return the investment within a month. The restaurant becomes more efficient, and may become profitable or at least increase its profits. Everywhere in the world, including in Israel, there is a considerable turnover when it comes to restaurants," he notes. "Only one out of 16 restaurants survives its third year. ."

Why is that?

"Poor management, clientele that moves on. For the most part cooks don't have managerial experience, plus in restaurants there are big hygiene problems. There is no obstacle to anyone who wants to enter the field. If you don't have the skills and the ability and you opened a clothing shop - the worst that can happen is the pants will not be of good quality. But in a restaurant someone can end up in the hospital and even worse than that. A restaurant owner has to have a conscience and has to be orderly and clean."

What management problems do restaurateurs have?

"Most places are biased toward service, rather than management, logistics or other culinary elements. There are lots of things that need to be done in order to be efficient and profitable: You need to know what to buy from whom, and how to build a menu that is properly 'interconnected' - so you use the pulp of a tomato for one thing and its seeds for something else. It is important that the menu be constructed right visually, you need to price correctly in the knowledge that there are dishes you can make more money on, plus you need to balance the wine menu with the food menu."

Nevertheless, it appears we have made a great leap with regard to good places to eat.

"Definitely. There has been a wild leap forward in good local places to eat for NIS 100."

Have you thought of opening a place of your own?

"No, because I don't want to live like that around the clock. I also enjoy my creative work. I am good at the 'heavy' logistics ... [It's like] taking a spaceship to Mars and knowing I will land it on time with zero hitches."