Looking at Tal Luzon, Inbal Bublil and Elioz Goel dressed in their chefs' uniforms and sitting in the kitchen of the WIZO Vocational High School at the Rebecca Sieff Centre for the Family, also known as WIZO Beit HaKerem, one sees the pride in their eyes as they talk about their educational journey and recent success.
The three young adults, who studied together in WIZO Beit HaKerem's unique culinary study track, have not only just graduated but have also won a national competition called, "From Field Ration to Gourmet," launched by Israel's Ministry of Education in collaboration with the Israel Defense Forces and including high schools across the country. The competition challenges students to turn traditional IDF field rations into gastronomic art; the program encourages the students to join the IDF as "young chefs" in its kitchens across Israel. Each participating school was assigned a non-commissioned IDF officer who acted as a professional counselor and held a year-long dialogue with the culinary students, culminating in the contest.
The competition called for the students to choose three dishes that they would present, and then build the recipes ingredient by ingredient with lots of trial & error. “More than just building the dishes, the competition was meaningful because we became a team,” says Elioz. “At first each one of us was stressed out and only interested in him or herself and their own recipe. But slowly we became a team, working together and supporting each other.”
Eventually the WIZO team won two awards, one for the “best flavors” and the overall 1st place trophy.
For these three young adults, the culinary track was a transformative experience that allowed them to become engaged in their own education and involved a lot of maturation. “I hate using dough,” exclaimed Tal, when asked about how the competition had challenged her. “But for the competition I specially chose a recipe that involved baking - the biggest challenge I could set for myself.”
“I chose the culinary track because I’ve always been interested in food,” says Inbal, from the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem. “My father is a professional cook, so I’ve always been in the kitchen.” Inbal’s attachment to the profession goes even deeper. “I have a genetic problem with my vision, I don’t see well. But I don’t let that stop me from doing what I love, working with food, even though the kitchen can sometimes be a dangerous place. I won’t give up. My mother is blind, but it doesn’t stop her from living her life. She’s my inspiration."
All three graduates will be using their cooking skills as an integral part of their compulsory army service and see their future in food or the restaurant business.
The story of the culinary track at WIZO Beit HaKerem is a reflection of the transformative and therapeutic experience that WIZO’s special brand of reformative education is for all of its students, most of whom come from difficult family and economic situations and have been ejected from other schools or educational frameworks."
“If you could’ve seen me before coming to WIZO, you wouldn't recognize me. I wasn’t this girl you see now, sitting with you and speaking politely,” confesses Tal. “I caused trouble, I didn’t go to classes. I was lost, both in the material at school and physically. Here, at WIZO, I totally changed, thanks to the staff. Now, I’m graduating with a full matriculation and I’m a new person."
"The culinary studies played a big role in the change I’ve experienced,” adds Inbal. “Cooking became a way for us to deal with frustration and stress, and to relax."
Tamar Blay, the teacher who heads the culinary studies track at WIZO Beit HaKerem, explains the importance of the practical study course. “First and foremost, it’s therapeutic. It allows for the creation of personal connection between teacher and student far beyond a classroom setting. In the kitchen, I quickly learn to identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, this program is educational, it allows these faltering students to graduate with a full matriculation and also gain important practical experience that will improve their military service and exit to the job market. For young people from struggling families, these things are priceless."
“It’s not only I who see the change in these kids, how they’ve turned their young lives around,” explains Tamar, emotionally. “They see it themselves."
Tal chimes in as Tamar ends her sentence, “This is the best track at school, by far. But that’s also because of Tamar. If I hadn’t switched to cooking studies and found her, I would’ve probably dropped out of school. Starting with the first cooking class, in which I learned to clean and debone a chicken, Tamar took me under her wing, supported me and didn’t let me give up."
Elioz Goel from Ma’ale Adumim was recognized by Tamar and the staff at WIZO Beit HaKerem, early on as a real talent in the kitchen. Unlike the other culinary track students, who were chosen to participate in the competition by lottery, he was chosen by the school’s staff to lead the group."
“You could say I was the leader,” Elioz bashfully admits. “When one of the girls wanted to give up during a rough moment in the competition, I didn’t let her. I talked to her and made her understand how important she was to our group."
Elioz proudly tells the story of how, as a 13-year-old volunteer at his local fire station, he watched the firemen, his role models, cooking for themselves at the station. He joined in and got his first exposure to the kitchen there. As a teenager, he began working at restaurants, event halls and sandwich shops, gaining practical experience preparing food. During his high school studies and now, he has worked as a chef at a popular restaurant in Modi'in.
“My dream is to work in the world of gourmet cuisine,” Elioz says. “And one day, maybe when I’m 30 years old, to open my own restaurant."
The culinary track at WIZO Beit HaKerem was a natural place for him, but not originally planned. “At first I was placed in the hair design studies track. I fought very hard to switch to cooking.”
Like the girls, Elioz admits that the years of the culinary track have changed him immeasurably. “I learned so much in that time. Not only knowledge of food but also about myself: that I should never give up, how to deal with stress and overcoming anger in difficult moments. Before WIZO I was in a different special education institution, which was a mess. I didn’t even attend class for a year. WIZO for me, is my family. The staff here pays attention to you, cares about you.”
When asked what is most beautiful about cooking, this young rising talent answers with a smile across his face, “Cooking for me is like being alone on a desert island - it’s just me and the flavors, scents."
Watching Elioz in action in the kitchen of the restaurant where he works, leading a team of short order cooks and sous-chefs, proves especially satisfying, knowing where this young man was a few years ago. “I build a recipe of my own by opening the fridge, seeing which materials I have and starting to develop something new. It’s a creative process,” says Elioz, as he prepares a pasta dish with cherry tomatoes and artichoke before my eyes.
Much like his recipes, Elioz himself has clearly been built from rough material into a more whole, sophisticated, empowered young man by his studies in WIZO Beit HaKerem’s kitchen.
I’m watching Elioz finish cooking the dish we’re about to eat. “Working in this busy kitchen has taught me so much,” Elioz says to me quietly. “In addition to getting criticism from customers and learning to create a product that people enjoy, the fact is that I am the only Jew in a team of Arabs.” I ask him to explain. “Working in the kitchen has allowed me to meet a bunch of guys in their 20s, who I never would’ve otherwise had the chance to become friendly with. I’ve learned some Arabic and gotten to know great people, who because of politics in our country, I probably would've considered my enemy. I would’ve never imagined that I would have Arab friends and colleagues - that’s the power of cooking, if you ask me."
Elioz', Tal's & Inbal's Shavuot Recipes
Endive Salad with Beet and Blue Cheese
3 medium sized beets
300 grams of blue cheese
⅓ cup roasted walnuts
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
3 tbsp. olive oil
I garlic clove, chopped
Salt & pepper
Wrap each beet in tin foil and bake in a hot oven for two hours. Let cool and peel. Slice in half and then into slices.
Chop off endive ends and then peel off the leaves. Place endive, beet slices and walnuts in a salad bowl.
Mix dressing ingredients in a small bowl and then drizzle on salad. With the hands, crumble blue cheese over the salad.
Creamed Broccoli (can be made with cauliflower, sweet potato, pumpkin, etc.)
1 broccoli head
1 container of sweet cream
1 cup grated cheese (feta/parmesan/etc.)
Salt, pepper and muscat, thyme, garlic powder
Heat an oven to 180 degrees celsius
Cut broccoli heads off from stalks and place in a foil-lined pan for baking
Mix the cream with eggs and cheese and spices. Drizzle over broccoli
Bake for approx. 30 minutes, until the covered broccoli gets golden brown at the edges