Garlic, Pepper and Politicians

Chef Haim Cohen hosts candidates on a special election night edition.

Last Thursday, Likud MK Gilad Erdan entered the house where a special election edition of the television cooking show, "Garlic, pepper or olive oil," was being filmed. Erdan is one of eight MKs who will be hosted by Chef Haim Cohen on his show, which is due to air on Channel One on March 28. Erdan arrived in a respectable suit and tie, but soon changed into jeans and a black buttoned-down shirt. He transformed from a stern-faced politician, into what the show's scriptwriter Guy Ed described as a "club-hopping teen." All in all, Erdan revealed his slightly more personal side on the show, but came out sweating a little. Like the other guests, he realized that food also had symbolic, if not political, significance, but arrived at this conclusion a little late.

Indeed, that is what happened when Cohen asked Erdan which foods he ate as a child when he was, according to the MK, "a healthy child and then some." Brought up in a Hungarian home, Erdan said his diet included chestnut puree and cherry soup. Cohen, who was in the midst of preparing fish-stuffed artichokes, responded offhandedly, "Sounds like you grew up in a palace." At that point, Erdan deflated and tried to move in a more popular direction: "If there isn't hot pepper, I don't eat it," he said. However, this twist also led him onto problematic turf: He likes Thai soup - not exactly a dish with stringent Badatz kashrut certification.

On the other hand, previous guest Zahava Gal-On's choice of potatoes was a populist one. "Fries are my favorite food, after that I cry that I look like a yam," she said in the makeup room before the broadcast. According to that brief conversation, it would seem 'fries' not only meant, "I don't eat the shrimps and gorge on non-kosher foods as is commonly thought of Meretz members," but also, "my place is not necessarily in the kitchen, as my party's platform indicates."

Gal-On knows where to shop, she says. Since her two sons moved out (the younger joined her on the show), there has been less need to prepare food during the week. "It doesn't do it for me," she says. "I'd rather read a book." At the moment she is reading "Saturday," by Ian McEwan (published by Am Oved.)

"Four months ago I celebrated my 50th birthday," she relates. "I sat with a few girlfriends and we talked amongst ourselves about what should change at this age and we reached the conclusion that it's time to stop with the junk food, time to dye your hair, and that you can no longer leave the house without putting on makeup, that you have to give up the fries and the chocolate." She has stuck to almost all the decisions, but it's hardest for her to give up the fries and the chocolate.

Gefilte fish or spicy Moroccan fish

The special election cooking show, which will be broadcast intermittently on the night of the elections, was also given a slightly different name: "Garlic, pepper or olive oil" (as opposed to Cohen's regular "Garlic, pepper and olive oil".) During the show, Cohen will prepare a dish to suit the tastes of each of the eight guests. The decision to schedule the show for the night of the elections was made two months after it was announced that the Israel Broadcasting Authority had decided to freeze the program. Gal-on was the first MK to be filmed. Because of her fondness for potatoes, she and Cohen decided to prepare a leek and potato quiche together. The word "together" perhaps does not accurately describe their collaboration. She asked for "uncomplicated tasks" and he, who specializes in demonstrating the preparation of very elaborate dishes as if it were nothing more than opening a tin of canned food, let her mix the dough a bit, flatten it, and stir the filling.

She says her husband Pesach was infuriated when she was the one chosen to appear on the show. "What's the idea of inviting you, I'm the one who watches Haim Cohen," he complained. The chef responded: "He learned that life is not fair," while she added a lesson she herself learned about her inability to cook - "I won't be the ideal woman," she said.

As usual, Cohen talks with her about the food in her mother's house, but in this special election program everything is shorter. The usual half-hour show is filmed over many hours. "I grew up eating Polish food," she says, to which he responds, "is it good or bad?" and she answers, "let's say that over the years I learned to like other things."

He asks her the question that was asked in the street survey (to be aired the same night), which he conducted in the Tel Aviv wholesale market, in Abu Marwan's hummous place in Jaffa (a stronghold of Hapoel Tel Aviv), in cafes and on the Tel Aviv beach on a weekday: gefilte fish or haraime (spicy Moroccan fish made from boneless fish filet with piquant tomato sauce). Her response is "neither." That was an honest answer, but again not one that corresponded with the feeling on the street. There, the response was decisive; "haraime won," said Cohen between filming sessions with the MKs. "Apart from real Poles, who felt it necessary to apologize for it, everyone chose haraime. The surprising thing is the things people hate to eat - turnips, carrots, peas, jellied calf legs, gefilte fish. There are all sorts of childhood nightmares; people hate foods that were once forced on them. Another detested food is porridge, except for a hospital nurse who said she loved it and eats the porridge from the food service trays." It amused him and he could even relate to the fact that 70- and 80-year-olds longingly recall "mom's cooking." Cohen hopes his three children - Tal, Maya and Ori - will have fond memories of the foods he prepared for them when they were little, "from Dad's kitchen, because Dad's the one does the cooking."

He has some understanding of the nostalgic memories of food. "Mom's food," is also a sign of something else. "How many mothers really knew how to cook?" he says. "And even the ones who knew, would alternate making the same ten recipes. There were no food virtuosos. They would eat the same thing every Friday night, the same thing on holiday eves. But the longing is for more than that. It's the phone call on Thursday where she tells you 'I made kubbeh for you.' That already tugs at me," says Cohen, who lost his mother four years ago and every mention of her makes his eyes watery.

Very rare steak

He thinks this understanding of his is one of the reasons for the show's success among older women. "It starts with the fact that I don't work in a Bulthaup or Habitat kitchen, but in an authentic home set, to which we've added really just a few things for filming purposes," he notes.

The house that the IBA rents to film the show, a landmark building built in 1880 and later refurbished, is near the Jaffa shore. The area has refurbished Arab mansions where ambassadors now live, a rapidly developing construction site that threatens to block the sea view from the veranda, old and abandoned homes, and potholed streets where, almost as if on request, two donkeys are roaming around, with kids riding on their backs. In the living room, many crew members sit around, some of them dozing off in front of the television showing a soccer match ("I have a bigger staff than Spielberg," Cohen jokes about public television's work style.) Outside the prayers of the muezzin of the nearby mosque waft overhead, almost swallowing up the sound of what is being said in the kitchen.

"Everyone touches him," says the chef's long-time producer, Amana Cohen, who without noticing, hugs him. "If Haim were to run for the Knesset, rows of people would line up behind him."

In the street survey that was filmed, Haim asked passers-by what Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List-Ta'al would rather eat - majadra or tiramisu? The overwhelming majority said majadra, but the food Cohen prepared for Tibi, he said he is very fond of sweets, was in fact tiramisu (but without alcohol, so as not to offend his customs.)

Passers-by were also asked what Avigdor Lieberman would rather eat - steak or corn meal. The reactions were "he'll eat everything" or "he eats Arabs." During the filming of the show, Cohen asked Lieberman what he thought the passers-by answered and he answered with a large hand gesture: "Steak full of blood." Here too the public was wrong. The Yisrael Beiteinu MK in the end chose mamaliga with his favorite wine. Lieberman, who emigrated from Moldova, understands wine: He "comes from a culture of food and wine," says Cohen. When asked whether it matters to the public what its elected leaders ate, most answered no.

Who got calf cheeks

Ronit Tirosh, of Kadima, another guest on the show, enjoyed a dish of ravioli filled with ricotta and cherries. Zevulun Orlov of the National Religious Party asked to eat kugel. "I prepared kanafa with apple filling for him," says Cohen. "At first it seemed he was disappointed, he sensed either opposition or fear, but he was surprised in a good way."

Yitzhak Cohen of Shas asked for haraime, thereby hitting the people's taste on the head, but he asked for it to be made from grouper, which sells for around NIS 160 per kilo. Is he aware of the high cost of the fish? There were divided opinions on this matter. Some said he didn't know and others were convinced that he did know: "When he goes into Segal fashions and asks for an Armani suit, he also doesn't know that it's the most expensive one in the store?" they asked rhetorically. In any case, in the end he didn't eat the fish, due to kashrut reasons, and that was even after the dishes had been made kosher.

Yuli Tamir had a dish made from calf cheek. She was the most light-hearted about everything. "She was the only one who came without a driver and consultants, as if she had dropped by for a break from the whole race. She understood more than anyone else what the purpose of the show was," said the show's production staff.

In honor of all the diners, Cohen raised a glass of Israeli-made champagne ("we learned over time not to offend the sensitivities of local winemakers," says the show's producer, Hannah Atias-Baruch) to offer a toast.

On his regular show, Cohen has never hosted politicians and this was a conscious decision. From this encounter he learned that they "understand television better than anyone else." According to Cohen, "It was a wonderful decision on the part of Channel One to air such a program on the night of the elections, where politicians are seen in intimate moments, but it's an illusion. To me it seems that even when they're having sex, they sense the camera lens."