A Taste of Victory: Exclusive Interview with MasterChef Israel Champion, Tom Aviv

Israeli Chef Tom Aviv
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When it comes to the culinary world, one chef truly stands out. Known as the rebel chef, he’s making waves, and in today’s exclusive interview, you’ll find out why. Meet Tom Aviv, a 36-year-old culinary superstar and restaurateur who got the title of MasterChef Israel in 2016 and now owns several restaurants worldwide.

Our team thought, who better to talk about culinary trends than this charismatic and energetic chef? We discussed hiring trends, the importance of mentorship, and the business side of running a restaurant. If you’re eyeing your next career move, finding a spot at Chef Aviv’s restaurant, Branja Miami, might just be the perfect fit.

What inspired you to pursue a culinary career?

Chef Aviv: Where did my passion for the culinary arts come from? I was born into it. I was trying to avoid it most of my life, and it drew me back in.

I often say that my culinary career chose me rather than the other way around, and that’s the beauty of it.

Unlike many others who discovered their passion at a young age, my journey has been a bit unconventional.


How has the participation and later win in Master Chef influenced your career?

Chef Aviv: I come from a family deeply involved in the restaurant business. My upbringing was all about food because my parents were well-known restaurateurs in Israel during the 90s. Though they weren’t chefs, they were restaurateurs who started their first restaurant when I was born. So, I pretty much grew up in kitchens surrounded by professional chefs. The meaning of a home-cooked meal for me was something prepared by a professional chef.

Despite being immersed in the culinary world, my parents didn’t want me to follow in their footsteps. Instead, they encouraged me to explore other fields, leading me to study business and administration and eventually work in real estate.

But then, in 2016, everything changed when I got a call to audition for MasterChef. Despite initially pursuing a different career path, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, being a competitive person at heart.

Winning MasterChef at 28 was a turning point, reigniting my passion for cooking.

In a twist of fate, I moved to Miami later that year to help my parents with their new project, Upper Buena Vista. However, just as I settled into my new role, another plot twist – an invitation to compete in MasterChef.

With little expectation, I presented a simple dish during the audition and was pleasantly surprised by the response. Encouraged by my family, I decided to try, never imagining it would lead me back to the culinary world. Against the odds, I progressed through the competition and ultimately won.

Years later, I returned to Miami to fulfill a full circle moment by opening my restaurant Branja.

Restaurant Branja Miami
Image courtesy of Chef Aviv

 


What qualities do you look for when hiring culinary professionals?

Chef Aviv: That’s an excellent question, and I’m glad you brought it up. It’s crucial to address this topic. Who can be a part of my team? The answer might seem straightforward – anyone who shows interest, right? But there’s a significant distinction between merely joining my team and committing to it. It’s about more than just filling a position or playing a temporary role. It’s about investing in growth together.

So, why do I seek individuals whom I perceive as gambles? Because I see potential in them. I want to mentor and watch them thrive alongside me. However, some qualities often get overlooked in this journey: patience and genuine desire.

This industry demands both physical and mental resilience. It’s not always as glamorous as it seems from the outside, and that’s where patience becomes invaluable.

If you ask me what I’m looking for, it’s individuals who are eager to learn, regardless of their age or background. I value those who understand that growth takes time and are willing to weather the challenges. This isn’t a quick in-and-out job or a shortcut to success. It’s a long and rewarding journey, but only for those willing to commit.

In today’s world, with the influence of social media and platforms like TikTok, instant gratification often overshadows the value of perseverance. Those who are self-aware and understand the hardships will reap the rewards.

Yes, this industry can feel like navigating through darkness most days, but the moments of triumph are incomparable. It’s about understanding the sacrifices and embracing the journey, knowing that each day is a battle we must conquer.

Take, for example, my chef in Branja, Jimmy. He’s been with me for seven years, starting at just 21 years old. It wasn’t an overnight success story; it took time, patience, and unwavering dedication.   So, if you want to join my team, understand that it’s not about quick fixes or shortcuts. It’s about committing to the long haul, facing each day with determination, and striving for excellence, one step at a time.


What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?

Chef Aviv: Can I share a secret? I hate the business part of running a restaurant. But, at the end of the day, all the business stuff aside, what truly brings me joy is creation—creating dishes and feeding people. My passion is making people happy. Whether I am cooking as a chef, a sous chef, or doing prep work, every task is about contributing to someone’s enjoyment.

Think about it. When you’re in the kitchen, even something as simple as chopping carrots has a purpose. Those carrots might end up in a broth that becomes part of a dish, and that dish could bring a smile to someone’s face. That’s the magic of it all. The joy comes from knowing that what you’re doing, no matter how mundane it may seem, has the power to brighten someone’s day.  

Now, let’s talk about the challenges. One big challenge is the repetitive nature of the work.

In a good restaurant, consistency is key. Customers expect their favorite dishes to taste the same every time they visit.

So, as a cook, you have to recreate those dishes with precision day in and day out. It can feel monotonous, but it’s all part of delivering that consistent experience for our guests.

The cooking aspect comes with its challenges, like the monotony of repetition, but the real fun lies in the joy of making people happy. That’s what drives me, and that’s the essence of this profession.  

 

Branja Food
Image courtesy of Chef Aviv

Can you share insights on the business side of running a restaurant?

Chef Aviv: When it comes to the business side of things, it’s all about navigating challenges, especially when it comes to financial sustainability. You could be doing great work, but if it’s not translating into profitability, you have a problem. Managing finances and ensuring the business stays afloat can be incredibly demanding, not to mention the complexities of dealing with employees and customer relations. Managing it all is no small feat; it’s a constant juggling act.

Sure, managing the business can be tiresome, but there’s always that spark that keeps things interesting. That’s the beauty of this field – it’s a blend of challenge and excitement, always keeping you on your toes.   Now, let’s talk about the biggest challenge today – people.

Hiring and retaining talent is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues.

Nowadays, there’s a pervasive desire for instant gratification. People want quick money and rewards and if they don’t get it, they’re quick to move on. It’s an enormous contrast to earlier generations, where there was more loyalty and dedication.

Getting individuals to buy into the concept of teamwork and commitment is increasingly difficult. Today, it’s not just about finding skilled individuals; it’s about finding those genuinely passionate about being part of a team.

So, if you were to ask me what the biggest challenge in my business is right now, without a doubt, it’s recruitment.

It’s all about finding skilled & dedicated people willing to invest themselves in the long run.


What role does mentorship play in a chef's career?

Chef Aviv: Mentorship, to me, is everything. It’s not just about offering guidance; it’s about being a part-time psychologist for my employees. I didn’t have the typical culinary mentorship growing up and I’m not sorry about that. People know me as the rebel chef, and that’s because I never had someone imposing boundaries on me, telling me what I can and cannot do in the kitchen.

Sure, traditional mentorship might involve someone dictating the rules of the culinary world, but for me, mentorship is about guiding individuals on a path of growth and improvement. It’s about recognizing their potential and helping them navigate the challenges.

It’s easy to talk about patience, but without a mentor to reassure you along the way, it’s easy to feel lost and discouraged. A mentor is there to offer support during those moments of doubt, and to remind you that setbacks are just part of the journey, and there’s always room for improvement.

Whether you’re questioning your abilities, feeling overwhelmed, or even contemplating quitting, a mentor is there to provide perspective and encouragement. They’re the ones who help you see the light at the end of the tunnel and guide you through the toughest of times.

In this industry, mentorship isn’t just a luxury; it’s a necessity. Without it, people can lose their way and leave the business altogether. That’s why it’s essential for those of us who understand the value of mentorship to step up and support the next generation, ensuring they have the guidance they need to succeed.

 


How can young chefs find mentors?

Chef Aviv: Let’s say you’re a fan of Gordon Ramsay – who isn’t, right? You admire his cooking & his persona and follow him religiously on social media. Naturally, you might dream of working at one of his restaurants, hoping he’ll become your mentor. But here’s the reality check: the chances of meeting Gordon Ramsay and having him mentor you are slim to none. And even if you did, what if he turned out to be different from your expectations? What if he’s not the inspiring figure you imagined but someone full of ego? That could be a huge disappointment, potentially even driving you away from the industry.

So here’s the thing: don’t search for mentors on TV or social media. They’re real people you interact with face-to-face.

When searching for a job, it’s not just about the paycheck; it’s about finding someone who can guide and support you in your career. Use the job interview to assess whether the person interviewing you could be a mentor. Pay attention during training as well; look for someone within the organization who embodies the qualities you seek in a mentor.

Choosing where to work is crucial. Don’t opt for the easiest option or the one that promises quick advancement. Instead, seek out established places with high standards and demands. Surround yourself with individuals who inspire and challenge you to grow.

When it comes to finding a mentor, look beyond the glamour of social media and seek out real-life connections with individuals who can guide you on your journey in the culinary world.  


What roles does social media play in your career?

Chef Aviv: Let’s talk about social media – it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship for me, as it is for many. But over the past year, especially since arriving in the US, I’ve realized just how crucial it is for business. It’s become the ultimate marketing tool, a way to connect with clients, build relationships, and boost visibility. It’s something we can’t afford to ignore.

Now, I’ll be honest – I don’t get the fascination some people have with social media. I don’t see much to like about it. But here’s the thing: whether we like it or not, these platforms are where our customers are. Without a presence on social media, we’re missing out on a direct channel to our audience.

But let’s put things in perspective, especially for those starting their culinary journey. Right now, the priority should be honing your skills in the kitchen. Social media comes secondary to mastering your craft. However, as you progress and your business relies more on marketing, ignoring social media would be a huge mistake. It’s a cost-effective way to promote yourself and reach a wider audience.

I mean, think about it – in the past, my father had to shell out money to radio and TV stations to get his name out there. Now, we have these powerful platforms at our fingertips, and they’re free to use. It’s a no-brainer to take advantage of that.

But here’s the catch: social media is just a tool. It won’t magically make up for a lack of professionalism or creativity.

It’s essential to remember that what you see on social media isn’t always an accurate reflection of reality. I’ve seen countless restaurants look amazing online, only to disappoint in person.   So yes, social media is important, but let’s not confuse it with the essence of our craft. It’s a fantastic marketing tool, but it’s not a substitute for skill, determination, or authenticity.


How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

Chef Aviv: Lifestyle in the culinary world is a topic close to my heart, and one that I’ve learned some hard lessons about. When I opened my first restaurant, Coco Gambino, it was all about the dinner party vibe. But somewhere along the line, I blurred the lines between work and fun. Those two worlds became intertwined, leading to late nights, unhealthy habits, and ultimately, a toll on my well-being.

Working in the kitchen, it’s easy to get sucked into the lifestyle of excess – late nights, drinking, erratic eating habits – it’s all part of the culture. And trust me, I fell into that trap. I became a zombie for my work, constantly exhausted, fluctuating in weight, and feeling lost in the chaos.

But then my father’s words echoed in my mind – “You are not part of the party; you are the organizer.” It took me a while to truly understand the gravity of his advice, but when I did, it changed everything. I realized that if I wanted to sustain a career in this industry, I needed to prioritize my health and well-being.

So, I made a conscious decision to make a change. I quit drinking, embraced a healthier lifestyle, and committed to a routine that included regular exercise – like Jiu Jitsu, which I’m now even competing in. I structured my days, prioritized rest, and learned to say no to the party scene.

And you know what? It transformed my life. I feel more focused, energized, and in control of my career. No longer do I see this as just a temporary gig; I can envision myself thriving in this industry for the long haul.   Sure, when you’re younger, it’s easy to get caught up in the party scene. But as we grow and mature in this business, we need to recognize the importance of taking ourselves seriously.

Work is work, and partying is partying – the two don’t mix.

If we want to succeed in this industry, we must prioritize our health and separate ourselves from the party lifestyle. We need to approach our craft with the dedication and professionalism it deserves.


What final piece of advice would you give to young chefs and job seekers in the restaurant industry to succeed in their culinary careers?

Chef Aviv: Patience and focus are two essential virtues, especially in the restaurant industry. When you’re in a good position in a restaurant, it’s tempting to jump at every opportunity that comes your way. But here’s the thing – sometimes, taking a step back, breathing, and considering your next move is the wisest course of action.

I’ve seen it time and time again – restaurant owners eager to open another establishment without fully realizing the demands and challenges that come with it. It’s a recipe for disaster.

So, what’s the key? Patience and focus. Patience to wait for the right opportunities and focus to give your all to your current role, ensuring its success before taking on something new.

I believe many in our generation struggle with this balance – the desire for instant gratification often overshadows the importance of patience and long-term focus. But when we learn to cultivate these qualities, we set ourselves up for success.


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In our conversation with Chef Tom Aviv, the MasterChef Israel champion, he gave us some valuable insights into the culinary world. He emphasized the importance of patience and focus, especially for those starting their careers. Tom also highlighted the significance of mentorship and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. His advice is straightforward: take your time, stay focused on your goals, and don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way. These lessons are essential for anyone aspiring to succeed in the restaurant industry, reminding us that success comes with dedication and balance.

About Branja Miami

Branja is bringing regional Israeli flavors with eclectic global palates to Miami.  Visitors are welcomed into a world where predictability and formality take a back seat to excitement and authenticity. The restaurant’s commitment to attention to detail ensures that every guest feels right at home, while the diverse flavors on offer transport diners on a culinary journey spanning regions and cultures.

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