Just as Beethoven lost his hearing and could still make beautiful music, Tanya Solomon proved that she can cook a damn fine pork dish even though she can’t sample it.
That’s how the San Francisco resident and member of Adath Israel Congregation explained her triumph on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” winning $20,000 on the Food Network show, which aired a few weeks ago.
The caterer and mother of two won without tasting a single bite of what she made.
Solomon has an unusual background for a kosher caterer. The Walnut Creek native — who was raised Catholic — worked as a nanny for an Orthodox Jewish family many years ago. After attending culinary school, she returned to the Bay Area, became a personal chef, and then a caterer. Since she was already familiar with kashrut, it wasn’t a leap for her to start a kosher catering business. And the longer she did that, well, the inevitable happened.
At Adath Israel — where her kitchen was — “I was looking at Shabbos and yom tovs, and suddenly felt, “I have a Jewish neshama [soul]. I’m Jewish, there’s no denying it,” she said.
She went through a Conservative conversion, and is in the process of obtaining an Orthodox one. She is living an observant life, having met her husband on frumster.com, a website that matches observant Jews.
Solomon was on the radar of casting agents because of her participation in a short-lived NBC cooking program. No doubt her 5-foot-10 height, purple hair peeking out from beneath her snood and oversized personality all helped.
Once notified that she would be on the show, Solomon consulted Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton of the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California, who told her besides not tasting the food, there were two other things she could not do: She was not allowed to cook meat with dairy or cook fish with meat. While kosher law dictates it’s permissible to eat fish at a meat meal, it is forbidden to cook them together. Strangely, it was permissible for her to cook traif.
Like “Chopped,”â€ˆits better-known cousin, “Guy’s Grocery Games” starts with four contestants. The competitors have to run around a studio fashioned like a grocery store, pushing carts to collect their ingredients after they hear what the challenge is, with a total of 30 minutes to “shop” and cook their dish.
Before taping, which took place in Santa Rosa, host Guy Fieri encouraged contestants to discuss whatever they were passionate about. Solomon talked throughout about why keeping kosher was important to her.
At one point, Fieri came over to her asking, “How’s the kosher queen doing?”
In the first challenge, several items were spread out throughout the store as “samples,” and each contestant had to use one sample item in their Mediterranean dish. Solomon grabbed a box of premade cheeseburgers. She scraped all the cheese off the meat and then used the patty in a canapé with caramelized onions with basil and oregano and a red pepper sauce. Then she made a slider with balsamic-roasted eggplant, olive tapenade, spinach and feta.
“I keep kosher for spiritual fulfillment,” she told Fieri, when he asked her whether she was sticking to her kosher guns in the competition. “I want to prove that you can have good food that happens to be kosher rather than kosher food that happens to be good.”
She really wowed the judges in the last round. The two remaining contestants had to make a dish using only a whole chicken and whatever was on the canned-goods aisle. Solomon made a black bean stew similar to one she makes in a slow cooker for Shabbat lunch.
She used canned crispy fried onions — the kind found in the famous green bean casserole of yore — and Spam.
“I needed that umami thing, to give it that savory, musky base and I really needed a smoked protein of some kind,” she said. Given that her grandparents owned a butcher shop, Solomon isn’t even sure she’s ever tried Spam, but she went with her gut.
One judge complimented the stew as “earthy, smoky and well-balanced,” noting, “For someone who couldn’t taste their dish to make this, it was great,” and another said, “How did you do this without tasting it?”
After being declared the winner, Solomon still had to dash around the store, picking up 10 items in two minutes. Each was worth $2,000, so when she retrieved all 10, she won the maximum possible: $20,000.
Solomon is most pleased that her commentary about kashrut didn’t end on the cutting room floor. While the episode was filmed in February, she couldn’t tell anyone but her husband that she won until after it aired June 15.
“On the Shabbos after, someone said to me, “You did a real Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God’s name), which, being a convert, is the biggest compliment,” Solomon said. “If I had to pick between the $20,000 or doing a Kiddush HaShem on the Food Network, that’s priceless, that’s worth 3 million dollars to me.”
But, she doesn’t have to choose. The $20,000 will go toward a new bathroom.