The Food Network
From the moment Joshie Berger, a former Hasidic Jew, appeared on screen wearing a white tank top and holding a Tupperware container full of burnt chulent, a Jewish Sabbath stew, it was clear that Worst Cooks in America would be unlike most reality cooking shows. Or any show on the Food Network, for that matter.
Worst Cooks in America, having just finished its second season, has managed to straddle the line between startlingly conventional, family-friendly reality entertainment and groundbreaking television. A campy and competitive contest first and foremost, the show also implicitly—and unexpectedly—broaches major cultural themes from food taboos, to ethics and values in eating choices, to the shame of the Western diet. The success of Joshie, an ebullient 36-year-old from Borough Park in Brooklyn, who overcomes his aversion to treyf (non-kosher) foods, was a highpoint of this past season.
It felt like something unique was happening that was worth watching. Joshie's dentist in Borough Park told him that all they talked about in synagogue was how Joshie was progressing on the show.
Here is the premise of Worst Cooks in America: take 16 awful home cooks, train them through a culinary boot camp with chefs Anne Burrell and Robert Irvine, then pit them against one another in a series of contests to see who improves the most. It is a clever, unglamorous spin on popular shows such as Chopped on the Food Network or Top Chef on Bravo. The chef-instructors provide lessons to the contestants on what it means to julienne, chiffonade, pan-sear, or braise. Worst Cooks successfully introduces advanced cooking concepts to the average viewer since its contestants are indeed average viewers.
Many of the show's stars seemed to have food aversions, whether a juvenile rejection of all things green, a dislike of the texture of okra, or a fear of the unknown. ("Does anyone know what veal is made from?" one contestant asked. Nobody else could answer.)
However, two food aversions stood out all season-long. Kelly Gray's vegetarianism was challenged by the meat-centric menu offerings. And Joshie's erstwhile kosher eating habits, a holdover from his former religious life, led to interesting exchanges and squeamish movements. Shellfish in particular challenged Joshie, who "used to not kiss girlfriends after they ate it."
Nearly 10 years off the path of an Orthodox Jewish life and now a tireless critic of Orthodoxy, Joshie still displays a characteristic Jewishness, not just through his fear of squid but also through cadence of speaking and storytelling style. "He uses humor to tell stories, and then he can be unexpectedly profound," explained Jay Novella, co-host of the radio show The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and supporter of Joshie's newfound atheism, who saw Joshie's ability to craft his own narrative as the key to his success.
The Worst Cooks producers chose not to make Joshie's religious background and struggles with food taboos the center of his persona. Joshie on his own is loud, coarse, flamboyant, and the sort of meta-reality TV contestant of which reality television producers dream. He was hugging other contestants, crying, flailing his arms, and jumping up and down the entire season.
"Since he is so eccentric, there wasn't this need to harp on his unique background since he was just different in his everyday behaviors," explained Nitzan Ziv, a dedicated viewer and a school teacher who was drawn to Joshie's unexpected improvement throughout the show and his healthy student-teacher relationship with his instructor, Chef Anne.
Nevertheless, as a Brooklyn-accented former Hasid, Joshie does represent a new archetype to add to the Food Network's roster. According to Ziv, the network has been trying to branch out from their American and Euro-centrism with a new Indian chef and Thai chef added to the roster. She has never seen foods like chulent and shakshuka on the Food Network until Joshie prepared them, however unflatteringly.
"Joshie was the first real Jew I've seen on television," said Sunny Capland, a fan of Joshie's who attended the public season finale viewing party in Brooklyn. "He broke barriers."
And with Joshie breaking thousand-year-old taboos, it felt like something unique was happening that was worth watching. Joshie's dentist in Borough Park told him that all they talked about in synagogue was how Joshie was progressing on the show. Avi Berger, Joshie's religious brother in Midwood, Brooklyn, said that friends from the neighborhood regularly ask about Joshie. He was a very popular kid according to Berger, and his story encouraged religious Jews to watch the Food Network.
"There's something admirable about leaving the Hasidic world and being successful," said Alexandra Sobo, a filmmaker working on a film about former Hasids. She noted that seeing Joshie move beyond his upbringing and try these new foods in public and win the admiration of fans represented a big step for all former Hasids.
When Chef Anne Burrell forces Joshie to taste the shrimp she prepares on the show—what he says looks like a "cockroach on steroids"—Joshie hesitantly approaches the plate. He takes a slow bite, then declares with a grin: "It's delicious." The other contestants all laugh. Then in a rare display of sincerity on reality television, he says softly, as if begrudgingly admitting it to himself, "really, it's good." Of the experience in hindsight, Joshie said: "It might have been one of the most memorable days of my life."
In the final episode of this past season Joshie took home the $25,000 grand prize by besting another contender in a final cooking showdown with his fried zucchini blossoms, panzanella salad, pork three ways, and his blueberry-nectarine crisp.
Joshie speaks often about opening minds to science and secular thinking, as well as encouraging Orthodox Jews to eat better. According to Joshie, fans and strangers have written to him via email or Facebook that they were inspired to cook, based on that idea that "If this shmuck can go out there and cook after burning cholent," says Joshie, they can cook anything.
Recipe: Joshie's Chulent
For the chulent :
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 medium-size Spanish onion, coarsely diced
• 1/2 fennel bulb, finely diced
• 3 to 5 cloves garlic (depending on preference), smashed
• 1 pinch crushed red pepper
• 1 jalapeño pepper, finely diced and seeds removed
• 1 pound flanken or cubed stew beef
• 1/2 cup barley
• 1 cup kidney beans
• 1 cup garbanzo beans
• 2 medium-size Idaho potatoes, peeled and quartered
• 1 cup chicken stock
• 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
• 1/2 roll kishkeh (from the frozen section of a kosher grocery)
For the sauce:
• 1 can tomato paste
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
• 2 tablespoons BBQ sauce
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar
• 3 tablespoons onion soup mix
• 1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
• 1 heaping tablespoon of zhug (Israeli/Yemeni spicy paste)
• pinches of salt, pepper, Hungarian paprika, and garlic powder (to your liking)
Sauté onion and fennel in a pan coated with olive oil. Add a generous pinch of salt and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Add the garlic. Transfer all contents to a pre-oiled crockpot.
Using the same pan (add oil if necessary), sear a pound of flanken or other cubed stew meat until just browned on all sides. Transfer to crockpot.
Add barley, kidney beans, garbanzo beans and potato to the pot. (Depending on how "beany" you like your chulent, remember to add more water if you like more barley because it will really soak it all up.)
In a separate bowl, combine all sauce ingredients. Mix well, then add to crockpot.
Add chicken stock to crockpot.
Fill the remainder of the crockpot with water, making sure to cover all the contents.
Add parsley to the mix and stir well so that all ingredients distribute evenly.
Submerge half a roll of kishkeh in the chulent pot.
Cover and put the heat on high until the contents begin to boil then set to simmer on low. Check periodically, adding water if too much has evaporated. Allow to cook for a while, the longer the better (remember chulent is traditionally prepared before the sabbath begins and while tasted throughout the night, not eaten until the next day's lunch).