Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Joshie Berger – From The Hasidic World To Worst Cooks

Jewish phenomenon, television star, former bad cook and a member of this year’s Big Jewcy. Read More

By / June 9, 2011

A diet of sushi, salad, fro-yo and ample amounts of alcohol can only truly be sustained by a typical New York (admitted) JAP by developing one if not more of the following addictions: coffee, Splenda, gum and/or the Food Network. Having proudly maintained a dependency on all four, it was when I was indulging in the latter that I came across he who would become a [Hassidic] Jewish phenomenon and a member of this year’s Big Jewcy–Joshie Berger. Joshie entered my life when I caught the premiere of Worst Cooks in America, a Food Network original program that teaches the gastronomically incompetent how to dice, sautée, sear and plate like restaurant chefs against the intense, pressure-filled backdrop of a reality competition show.

Joshie first won me over when he walked into the audition room with brick-hard cholent as his proof of culinary ineptitude. Having had Jews that sucked at cooking on the brain due to the Food Network’s savvy re-airing of (last year’s Big Jewcy member) Pop Jew crushing the competition in the first season of Worst Cooks (her epic win promptly landed her on the 2010 Big Jewcy), Joshie’s Ashkenazi audition reeled me into the second season instantly, while making me want to force-feed him spoons of Mama Goldberg’s cholent. His tales of growing up in a Hasidic household and having Jewish women cook for him all his life were just icing on the challah cake. I caught up with Joshie a few days ago, as he was packing to fly off to Miami to do some press for Food Network and found out that we almost didn’t get to see his pretty punim on TV. “My girlfriend Mars wrote a letter to the [Worst Cooks] producers behind my back and I knew nothing about it, she basically said, ‘This guy’s a really colorful, open-minded, fun loving guy–except when it comes to food–he refuses to let go of his habits and its causing issues for us, please help.’ But when I got to the audition, there were so many people there I was ready to leave. I stuck around, but it happened so fast–one minute I was making cholent, the next minute they were sending a car to pick me up to put me on TV.”

Wondering how a Hasidic Jew managed to mess up something as set-it-and-forget-it as cholent, I inquired further. “I messed it up the way I used to mess up everything,” Joshie explained, “I did everything in a rushed, hurried manner and everything was inedibly spicy. My mother is Hungarian and an incredible cook, there was a ton of spicy paprika in everything, so I had a good concept of flavor going into the show. I wish I had been in the kitchen more as a child and watched her cook.” In terms of how his lack of experience in the kitchen compared to that of his competitors, Joshie may have unknowingly had an unfair advantage that likely lead to his taking home the win for himself and his mentor, two-time champion culinary instructor on the show, Chef Anne Burrell. “Most of them come on the show because they were forty-five years old and couldn’t make scrambled eggs for their babies–but my talent was in bold flavor profiles, and my food routinely tasted good. When I beat Carlos at the end, some people were shocked. Carlos was efficient, he played it well. [Chef Anne] complained I was messy, I double dipped…but I was always confident my food was always the best tasting. [Chef Anne] knew she would be with me to plate and ultimately, it’s about taste.”

After some light talk about his audition and overall experience, I wanted to get to the dirt. How was Chef Anne Burrell to work with? How real is this Reality Show? How was it going from being a kosher-keeping-Jew to a shrimp-sautéing-shikso? As I dug in to get the gossip, I admitted to my being a Worst Cooks fan at its highest level (I may or may not have watched every episode…multiple times). Joshie didn’t hesitate to give me all the gossip my sad little heart desired, and was sure to pepper each fun fact with ample amounts of Jew. “I found Chef Anne very easy to work with–she doesn’t bullshit. As a trouble-maker in Yeshiva my whole life, you learn how to know which Rabbis you can mess around with and which you can’t bullshit, so I knew the type. She made it clear I wasn’t getting away with anything. If you watched the first few episodes, I was this close to flying off the show. I used to talk to myself all the time while I was cooking and I’d shut up after hearing ‘I can still hear you! Who are you talking to!?’ Finally, I put my finger over my mouth and she knew she wouldn’t hear it from me anymore. She said I see a change in you, whose this new Joshie? We had a little flirtation from then on, we got along but we didn’t–she took it on as a challenge. I knew it was good, mental gymnastics for both of us. But in exit interviews, she said she wouldn’t be going out for drinks with me anytime soon.” A light flirtation with Anne Burrell? That was a juicy tidbit I never thought I’d be getting out of our conversation.

Then we got deep, chatting about his journey from Hasidism to secular Judaism and eating traife. While it was not as hard for me to sink my teeth into a bacon cheeseburger after a Modern Orthodox past life, Joshie had a much more difficult time transitioning out of a more strict Hasidic one. “Religion has had such an effect on me, the food hurdle is a really sad one. I’m still limited based on my upbringing and when you grow up very religious, the more religious you are, the more you ridicule [eating non-kosher]. It’s a nah nah nah nah nah culture: in order for strict, religious Jews to avoid having their kids eating ‘like idiots,’ they ridicule it, they play the chosen people card, the superior card. Growing up, I felt bad for the people who enjoyed eating shrimp and had never tasted cholent.” Even though he had started eating out in non-kosher restaurants, he confessed, “I never veered into foods I’d never had. Its meat. I’ve had meat before, so I could deal with the pork, but the seafood was hard for me. When I found out I was doing the show, the chef at Traife introduced me to all those icky traife foods I knew I’d have to cook with. I had so much alcohol and I swallowed little pieces of calamari and shrimp but I still am not used to it. I needed to get over having some of it in order to not have my first time eating it be on the show.”

And have it on the show he did, winning the season with a brined and seared pork loin. After hearing all about how Joshie had nothing but glowing reviews of the show’s production–the contestants were forbidden from seeing recipes, pantry items and anything related to the episode prior to challenges being revealed to them on camera.

I wanted to know if all those lessons in cookery stuck with our dear Joshie. Turns out, cooking is his new happy place. “When I have a shitty day now, Ill go shopping and go home and just cook. It’s such a great feeling to cook, taste and entertain.”

And so I concluded a quick-chat-turned-hour-romp of an interview (entirely my fault) by asking the Worst Cooks winner and newfound chef where he goes to eat now that his palate has been spanked into shape. He insisted that Traife in Brooklyn certainly offers some of the most experimental and fun cuisine he’s had despite his hatred of what is considered the food of the (gentile) gods–bacon. For the best pulled pork on the planet? Joshie hits Williamsburg’s Fette Sau for mini sandwiches– “It’s a whiskey and pulled pork bar. After 11pm, they serve little sandwiches, two for $5. It smells like a crematory from two blocks away but it’s incredibly good.” As for the best burger in New York City? Joshie offered to take me to his burger palace upon his return from Miami, DuMont Restaurant in Williamsburg. Passing up burger heaven with a Jewishly complex, devout atheist Food Network star and current member of this year’s Big Jewcy? Not in a million.