Head to Head / Why Are Israelis Wowed by Master Chef?

An interview with show producer Asaf Gil.

A television viewing record was broken Saturday night when 1.6 million viewers, a 36.9 percent audience rating, had their eyes glued to the final episode of the culinary reality show, Master Chef. It was the most viewers since Macabbi Tel Aviv clinched the Euroleague championship in 2004, and the highest rated non-sports event in the last decade.

Beyond this victory, Master Chef producer Asaf Gil also marked a personal best. Over the last few weeks, he has produced the highest-rated television programs for all three major channels. And - for the first time in the history of commercial television in Israel, programs from one production house, Gil's, were slotted for six nights out of seven, though none of them were as successful as Master Chef.

chef - Tomer Appelbaum - November 29 2010
Tomer Appelbaum

In January, Gil will take part in a conference of producers of the program, which has been replicated all over the globe, and present his developments and the Israeli success of the show.

Asaf Gil, why are Israelis wowed by a cooking show?

First of all, it is not a cooking show. Its charm stems from the fact that it reaches across different audiences. It isn't a program [just] for adults, or for young people, it's not for women or for men, not for the educated and not for uneducated, not for the wealthy and not for the poor. What fascinates people is not the food but rather that it is a show about people, people at their best who have an unrealized dream, and in this way it connects to the audience and the viewers' impossible dreams. The program is naive in the sense that we allow the audience and the participants to touch their dreams without mocking or criticizing them.

But you can't ignore the fact that this is a food show.

Food is a significant factor in Israeli society and a very Jewish issue, which connects to heavy issues like exile, the Holocaust, and the Jewish mother with her soup pot. But food here is a means and not an end, to my mind, in order to communicate with people who ordinarily don't watch reality programs. We didn't have beautiful men and beautiful women. Over the course of the season I spoke with Avi Nir [director of the Second Channel franchisee Keshet, which aired the program], about how commercial television, which is always looking for beautiful and young people, paradoxically succeeded with this program. The answer in my opinion is that it is television which is innocent and positive. I have never produced a tricky, manipulative show, and it is my great luck to produce a human, positive reality show, which is what won out in the end.

That's an interesting statement, especially when we recall that Big Brother will replace Master Chef in the TV lineup, and your comments do apply to that program.

I don't want to talk about Big Brother specifically, but I've been in television for 20 years and usually the clashes or arguments I've had with colleagues are about this. I can't tolerate cynicism, at work or about the subjects of work - the heroes. Television's sin is to treat people who are exposed by it with cynicism, instead of giving them the respect they are due. To me, [creating] positive reality is a much braver decision than creating manipulative and tricky television.

Have you tasted the contestants' dishes?

No. I am a square and a stickler and one thing I insisted on was that only the judges would taste the food. There was respect and the game had clear rules, according to which only three people would taste and decide. There were times when it was very enticing and the judges' responses were too, but it is also a matter of being a personal model. And that's how it was at the finale; I tasted mostly coffee and cigarettes.

You mentioned the three judges (Haim Cohen, Eyal Shani and Michal Anski ), but the season started with four. Pretty quickly, and with rumors flying, you announced that the fourth judge, Rafi Adar, would be leaving the show.

I don't have anything to add or say about this. I was careful not to respond and I am not going to do so now. Keshet issued a statement that Rafi would not continue on the show and I don't have anything to add.

Another judge, Eyal Shani, was also the object of unflattering attention last weekend. He was profiled in Yediot Aharanot's weekend magazine, and some claim he was targeted because of the rivalry between Yediot and Keshet.

I don't know the complete history of Eyal Shani, but I can say that I have a feeling that he was drawn into the fight against his will. He got caught in a hail of bullets not aimed at him. It is an ugly and unfortunate event, in my opinion.