How’d he get on “Chopped?”

How’d he get on “Chopped?”

Shalom Yehudiel of the Humble Toast in Teaneck serves up his story

Shalom Yehudiel is the first chef to cook a kosher meal under rabbinical supervision on “Chopped.”
Shalom Yehudiel is the first chef to cook a kosher meal under rabbinical supervision on “Chopped.”

“I still don’t know until today how they found me,” Shalom Yehudiel said. “I have asked three, four times, and they just say, ‘We have our sources.’”

“They” are the producers of “Chopped,” a popular Food Network show that demands that competing chefs make meals out of random, apparently ill-assorted ingredients. He is an American-Israeli chef, entrepreneur, and philanthropist whose Teaneck restaurant, the Humble Toast, draws customers from around the region and whose delivery service, perhaps inevitably named the Humble Truck, provisions simchas throughout Bergen and Essex counties.

Mr. Yehudiel, who lives in Fort Lee, is the first contestant who both keeps and cooks kosher; in another first, the show made all necessary provisions for him.

The pretaped show that Mr. Yehudiel filmed will air on September 22. Then we’ll find out who won — he knows but is not allowed to say — but we still won’t know how their sources heard about him.

On the other hand, when you look at his career, it makes sense that he’d be on a cooking show’s radar screen.

Mr. Yehudiel was born in Israel in 1982, the descendant of Yemenite Jews who’d been flown to Israel on eagles’ wings — that is, on the 1948 Israeli Operation Magic Carpet — and he was brought to the United States in 1989. His young parents, Sasi and Mazal, settled first in Elizabeth and then in Fair Lawn, where Rabbi Benjamin Yudin and his wife, Shevi, the founders and leaders of Shomrei Torah and the Orthodox community that grew around it, took an interest in them.

That interest was providential for the Yehudiels, who were not finding it easy to live in this strange land; they’d come looking for a better life, but their lack of resources, including their inability, at first, to speak English, threw hurdle after hurdle in their way. Eventually Shalom’s parents divorced; he and his siblings stayed in Fair Lawn with their father.

The Yudins were a lifeline for father and children; still, Shalom’s path wasn’t clear. “Because of Rabbi Yudin, I got the basis of what it is to grow up with a Jewish upbringing,” he said. The Yudins saw that he went to Camp Hillel; “the fondest memories of my life are from those summers in camp,” he said. He also went to three local yeshivot.

But his wasn’t a straight-ahead success story from the beginning. “Every one of those, I got thrown out of,” Mr. Yehudiel said. “I was a bit of a class clown; I like attention, and the rabbis weren’t having that.” So he graduated from Fair Lawn High School and got a job as a teller at the Commerce Bank when he was 19.

Mr. Yehudiel liked his work, and he did well. By the time he was 23, he’d risen to become a finance officer. “But I said to myself, ‘Listen, this is all good. I like what I do. But it’s not my passion. I want to do something I love.’

“And the first thing that came to my mind was food.

“Food to me is not just nourishment. To me, it’s very simple. Food equals love. When you put a plate of food in front of someone — a plate that you’ve put your heart and soul into making — it’s a way of showing them how much you care about them, and about how much attention you are paying to what is going into their body. And into their soul.”

The more he thought about it, the more Mr. Yehudiel realized that the restaurant business seemed right for him. “I love people, and for the most part people love me,” he said.

He did some research and signed up for an online class at the Art Institute of Phoenix; he knew that he “wanted to be someplace else. Not in New Jersey.”

The first class he took was online, from Fair Lawn; “then I said okay, this is the time to sign up for the whole thing.” So he did, and moved to Phoenix.

The classes he took weren’t only about cooking. “You learn how to run a restaurant, set up a menu, cost things out,” Mr. Yehudiel said. He flourished. The NBA had an all-star game in Phoenix, and “they asked people in my school if they’d like to do a charity event for the NBA, where they’d be paired with different chefs from around the valley.” He jumped at the chance, and was paired with Aaron May. “He’s also Jewish,” Mr. Yehudiel said; he also owns parts of at least three Phoenix-area restaurants. The two hit it off. “When I got there that evening, he told me my job basically would be plating hundreds of different little amuses” — that’s amuse bouche, little fancy appetizers that must both taste and look good — “and at the end he looked at me and said, ‘I like the way you work. Do you want a job?’” The answer, of course, was yes.

“I will never forget walking into my first real professional kitchen,” Mr. Yehudiel said. “To say it was intimidating is a huge understatement.’”

His job was working with cold salads and desserts. “That’s usually the entry-level job. You’re not cooking anything. You’re not searing a duck. You’re just putting together salads and plating desserts.”  He did that for six months, while he still was at culinary school; eventually he realized that he could learn more by working full time.

Mr. Yehudiel worked with Mr. May for a few years, “opening up restaurants, learning different cuisines,” he said. “He helped me get my start.” But because he knew that “when you are first starting out in your career, you should work for as many chefs as possible,” eventually Mr. Yehudiel left Mr. May’s group to work for the Arizona Biltmore, an extremely high-end hotel, and then for a group called Fox Restaurant Concepts. “That was also started by a Jewish guy,” Mr. Yehudiel said. (One of the restaurants where he worked is called the Arrogant Butcher; it’s notable because it’s just about the opposite of the Humble Toast, at least in name.)

As he moved around, Mr. Yehudiel also moved up; he became a sous chef, an executive sous chef, and eventually an executive chef, overseeing huge operations and starting new ones. As he climbed the restaurant ladder, he also moved farther and farther away from actual cooking, although he always was in the business of feeding people’s bodies and souls.

At the Arrogant Butcher, where he was a sous chef, “it had $7 million in sales, and it was always busy. That started giving me the experience of how to run a busy place. How to set it up, how to train your cooks, how to standardize your recipes. I got the knowledge and experience eventually to do it on my own.”

To clear something up here — Mr. Yehudiel did not keep kosher then. “Zero. Zilch. It meant nothing to me at that time,” he said. “I just focused on my career. I was maybe a little bitter about having been thrown out of all those yeshivas.”

After some time, Mr. Yehudiel moved to California. “I’d always had the itch to move there,” he said. “Ever since I was a little kid. Even when I was in Israel, my father used to listen to the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California.’ Moving there was a dream.”

He had so many restaurant contacts by then that putting out feelers brought very fast results. He interviewed for Disney Land in Anaheim, “and they hired me on the spot,” without even watching him cook. “So all of a sudden I am a cast member at Disney,” Mr. Yehudiel said.

He had a wonderful job; he was paid very well; he lived in Huntington Beach. “Everything was going fantastic,” he said. “But somehow I still felt unfulfilled.

Mr. Yehudiel’s Humble Truck delivers meals throughout the region, pandemic or no pandemic.

“At the pinnacle of my success, 10 years being away from New Jersey, I looked back and said, ‘Great. You have a great career. You work for a great place. But you see your parents and your brothers and sisters once or twice a year. So what are you doing all this for? All this hard work and dedication — what is it all for?’ My dad is my king, and I see him once or twice a year.

“So what is all this for?”

So after thinking about it for a few months, Mr. Yehudiel decided to take a break. He drove back to New Jersey, and moved back in with his father.

“My father keeps Shabbat and keeps kosher, so out of respect for my father I started keeping Shabbat,” Mr. Yehudiel said. “I didn’t want to be in my father’s house turning on the TV on Shabbat. That’s disrespectful.

“And after a few weeks of keeping Shabbat, my soul said to me, ‘This is what you have been missing all these years.’ After all those years of focusing on success, my neshama,” my soul, “was telling me what was important.”

He turned down a lucrative offer from Madison Square Garden. That was a hard choice that he does not underplay. “‘You followed your gut, not your soul, for your whole career,’” he remembered telling himself. “‘What are you going to do now? Take the money and run, or stay with what your soul is telling you?’”

Instead, he did some consulting for kosher restaurants in Monsey, and then he started the Humble Toast. It opened in October 2018.

Its striking name is not accidental. “I try to live by the word humble,” Mr. Yehudiel said. “We have to realize that everything we receive in life is from God. We should always keep that mindset.

“No matter what happens, we should be humble and thankful, and we always should treat people the way they want to be treated. We should spread joy and love.”

What about toast? “Toast means a piece of bread, and it also means a l’chaim,” he said. “People can interpret it in whichever way they want.”

He also got married; his wife, Jacqueline Yehudiel, is the director of the Jewish National Fund in northern New Jersey. They are the parents of baby Nava.

Since the pandemic, the Humble Toast and the Humble Truck have been able to keep going. “The pandemic hit us like a ton of bricks and right away we knew that we would either sink or swim,” Mr. Yehudiel said. “Luckily, I didn’t have to fire anyone.” He is running a robust takeout and delivery service instead.

But he’s doing more.

“Within the first week of the pandemic, I put a message on Instagram saying, ‘I know that this is a crazy time, but please know that we are in this together, and that God is with us.

“‘If you don’t have food to eat, if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, please talk to me.’”

Since then, he’s given food to people who need it, and his efforts have been supported by others who have seen what he’s doing and are moved by it.

“In the toughest of times, it’s been so wild to see the best side of people coming out,” he said. “Their really heartfelt emotions.

“I am so proud of my family and my staff. We really all rose to occasion, and we’ve been taking care of people who need to be taken care of.”

Okay. So how about “Chopped?”

How did it happen?

A few months after the Humble Toast opened, “I got an email, and the subject line says, ‘Chopped interview.’ I opened it up, and I saw that they asked if I would be interested in coming into Manhattan for an interview. They reached out to me. It was nuts. It fell into my lap.”

He went for an interview, somewhere in the meatpacking district. “They put makeup on me, and there were cameras in front of me, and I was just talking about my past. It took two hours or so, and they said, ‘Thank you very much for your time. We will be in touch.’”

He heard nothing from them for six months, “and I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m not for them,’” Mr. Yehudiel reported. And then “I got an email saying, ‘When can we come to film a biopack?’” That’s a clip that’s edited into a 20- or 30-second introduction to each chef. “They came and filmed me,” he said. “It took pretty much all day.” He cooked for the camera crew and interviewer. And then, again, he waited.

“I didn’t know how TV works, but they did mention to me that at a certain point we rush, rush, rush, rush, and then we just wait,” he said.

“And then months later, I got another email that said, ‘These are the available dates that we have for you to be able to compete. Can you come in on one of those dates?’”

That’s when the question of kashrut became real. “I said, ‘Before I can sign off on this, let me speak to the Kof-K and the RCBC.” The Kof-K is a local organization that certifies kashrut, and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is the local association of Orthodox rabbis. The two groups work together.

Rabbi Daniel Senter, the Kof-K’s director, told Mr. Yehudiel that “this is a great opportunity for you, but you have to make sure that whatever you do, you do it in the right way. You are in the public eye. You don’t want to go on a show and have people wonder if he cooked nonkosher or would eat nonkosher.”

Rabbi Senter and “Chopped” representatives worked together; “they decided that rabbis could come and kasher my section of the kitchen and use only kosher ingredients.”

Because all the contestants get the same ingredients, all the contestants who competed against Mr. Yehudiel used only ingredients that could be kosher, but only Mr. Yehudiel’s ingredients were certified as kosher.

This was a first, Mr. Yehudiel said, and he’s grateful to “‘Chopped’ for being so accommodating, and to the RCBC and Kof-K for facilitating the whole thing.”

On the contest day — June 20, 2019, “a year and three months ago” — “I showed up at 6 a.m. at an undisclosed location,” Mr. Yehudiel said. “It was me and three other competitors and someone from the Food Network.” From there, they walked over to the studio. “They started hooking us up with microphones and gave us the chef jackets. They walked us through the set.

“And then the competition started.

“I am not going to lie to you. It was the most nerve-wracking thing I have ever done in my life.

“I can barely remember what I saw. What I cooked. What I did. It flew by. It is an immense amount of pressure. I have worked for Disney, for restaurant groups around the country, I am used to high intensity, to being very busy in a hot environment, but this was another level.

“This is not just about the food. It is also about you.

“I am very happy that I did it, and very proud that I represented Jews in a good light,” Mr. Yehudiel said.

If you want to find out what happened next, you’ll have to wait until September 22.

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