The Middle Feast food truck The Middle Feast food truck Tommy Marudi, his sister Hilla, Arkadi Kluger and their "Middle Feast" food truck that won "The Great Food Truck Race." (Photo: Food Network)

How a Mediterranean food truck won 'The Great Food Truck Race'

Middle Feast's Tommy Marudi talks about what drives him to success.

Is America ready for chicken shawarma, spicy Moroccan fish tacos and other exotic dishes from the Mediterranean cookbook? Apparently so, now that the amusingly named Middle Feast won the fifth running of “The Great Food Truck Race” on the Food Network, pleasing palates from Santa Barbara to Key West and all stops in between.

Israeli-American Tommy Marudi, his younger sister Hilla, and their good friend Arkadi Kluger beat seven other teams to win their truck and $50,000. “I think we won because we were different and offered something to people that they have never tried before. These dishes are bursting with different flavors and best represent our brand and who we are,” Marudi told From The Grapevine. “We opened up their minds to new flavors and connected with our customers.”

Like any good TV competition, the contestants faced difficult challenges, including cooking in a confined space, finding locations with plenty of foot traffic and racing against the clock. “Everything is kept a secret until the last moment so you never know where you are going next, and you have limited time to find the perfect location in a city that you have never been to before,” Marudi explained. “It was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.“ Also, being away from home and his 2-year-old daughter Noya “was pretty tough,” he said.

One of his proudest moments in the competition was winning a cooking challenge by preparing frog legs, “something we never ate or cooked before. As a chef, I really liked the challenge of creating something new and exploring new flavors.” Marudi likens cooking to art. “You have something in mind and you use your hands to create it. You have a satisfaction from someone eating your food and telling you it’s good – it’s the best thing ever,” he said. “Even if they tell you it’s not good, you can learn from it.“

The race also taught him valuable lessons about the food truck business. “Everything happens fast, and you have to react fast as well. There’s no time for mistakes.”

Even without hands-on experience, Marudi was somewhat prepared going into the contest. “I wanted to do a food truck for a long time," he said. "I tried a restaurant and I didn’t have much success so I had to close it. I didn’t have the money to open another restaurant and started looking into food trucks because it’s cheaper. I saw previous seasons and knew what it was about.” His wife, Dikla, put in the application for the show and serves as his inspiration and a source of valuable input, “even if she’s not physically on the truck working with us.” Of course, they met at a restaurant – she was a waitress, he was the chef.

Marudi, who was born in California in 1983 and moved to Israel with his family when he was 11, started working in his uncle’s Chinese restaurant, Synthesa in Tel Aviv, as a teenager, moving up from dishwasher to chef. “He’s my mentor, taught me everything I know.”

He didn’t go to culinary school, but paid his dues cooking in restaurants in Tel Aviv, where his parents and brother still live, and in several others after he returned to Los Angeles “to take my chance at the American dream." Arriving solo, he stayed with an uncle and worked his way up the ladder “in some big restaurants. It was a mix, Italian, Asian fusion. Food is about passion and experience,” he said. “Going to school can help you, but food is more experience and flavors, and if you learn from life, that’s also a good school, you know?”

Since “The Great Food Truck Race” ended, Marudi has been “overwhelmed with all the love and positive responses from people all around the world, and that feels amazing. We didn’t get the truck yet – it takes time for all the paperwork. So we’re doing catering jobs, working on our website and building the brand and the business itself so when we get the truck we’ll be ready to go,” he said, noting that Hilla, a graphic designer, is “taking care of the website.” She designed the truck as well.

Tony Marudi cookingTony Tommy Marudi prepares a meal in his Middle Feast truck during "The Great Food Truck Race." (Photo: Food Network)

“We’re going to be based in L.A. and catering events, and hopefully slowly we can move on to other cities and states,” added Marudl. He’s planning “a victory trip to visit all the cities we have been to on the show to thank all the people that supported us,” including Austin, Texas and Mobile, Alabama, where the response was especially enthusiastic.

In the future, he envisions a fleet of Middle Feast trucks and franchises. “The more that I can spread my flavors and my food, the better. I think that I have ambition and I’m not afraid of trying stuff and I’m not afraid of failing. I think that’s very important,” he said. “Food is a passion, you need to love it and I really love it.” But his chief motivation is his little girl, Noya. “I don’t think she realizes what’s going on right now. But in the future I think she’ll appreciate what I’ve done. She will always know that she was my inspiration for everything. “

She’s too young to teach about cooking yet, “but I got her a really cool apron,” Marudi said proudly. “I think I’m going to put the Middle Feast logo on it.”

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