Learn how the restaurateur went from winning 'MasterChef Israel' to becoming Miami’s next culinary maverick.

Tom Aviv may have grown up around restaurateurs, lingering inside his parents’ kitchens in Tel Aviv, Israel, but the white jackets and hats of chefs always intimidated him. It wasn’t until he passed the tryouts for “MasterChef Israel” in 2016 that he had the courage to take cooking seriously. 

He always flirted with the idea of taking his passion for food and turning it into a profession; signing up for “MasterChef Israel” was akin to a shot in the dark, but it was exactly the start of his culinary journey. 

His lack of formal background never scared him, because before becoming a chef, he was a professional foodie, eating more cuisines than people twice his age, Aviv says. The intimate knowledge of French, Italian, and other methods of cooking came through what he describes as natural experience. 

“The lack of academic knowledge helped me to be bolder and to have no boundaries,” Aviv shares. “Experience is important, eating is even more important. And I ate a lot more than anyone else.” 

After winning “MasterChef,” Aviv founded Coco Group, spearheading three distinct concepts in the heart of Tel Aviv: Coco Bambino, Fat Cow, and Milk & Honey, which is nestled in nearby Morocco, Africa. 

Coco Bambino highlights traditional Israeli dishes with an Italian fusion, while award-winning Fat Cow was named “Best Hamburger in Tel Aviv” three years straight by Time Out. Milk & Honey features signature halal dishes, making Aviv the first Israeli chef in Casablanca. 

Describing himself as a flavor rebel, Aviv uses his memories as inspiration for his dishes. However, while some chefs might seek to make their professional kitchens more like home, his memories come from his travels. 

“By me eating everywhere, these cuisines spark my imagination,” Aviv says. “I will take a beautiful dinner memory from somewhere around the world and think, ‘how can I make it my own?’” 

He takes meals and interprets them in his own language in the kitchen, implementing pieces of his Israeli culture and fusing them with his experiences around the world. The result? Meet Branja Miami, a retro Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in Miami’s Upper Buena Vista. 

Branja invites guests to indulge and savor Aviv’s culinary creations, from Za’atar Salsa to Fishwarma and Limonamba Bucatini. Cocktails include the Bramba, a mixture of peanut butter bourbon and maize, and the Wake-Up Suzy, which is a blend of Reyka vodka, espresso, Kahlua, and cinnamon vanilla syrup. 

The menu rotates its menu seasonally, as ingredients are sourced locally. Branja’s website defines the menu as “an ever-changing art piece.” 

The restaurant itself is a time capsule, teleporting guests to the 1970’s with the iconic bar from the Delano Hotel’s Florida Room, designed by Lenny Kravitz, repurposed as the Chef’s Table, inviting guests to get an inside look at the open-concept kitchen. 

The 3,000-square-foot space features a colorful stained-glass palette of blues, yellows, and greens, inspired by Aviv’s upbringing in Israel. The design and menu are meant to reflect his worldly travels, pay homage to Branja’s hometown community, and infuse Aviv’s generational recipes. 

Aviv describes coming stateside and unveiling Branja in 2023 as a weight coming off his shoulders. In Israel, he was a media sensation—plastered across tabloids, television shows, and newspapers. While he acknowledges the exposure made business easier, it was something he couldn’t shut himself out of. He felt as if he was “drowning in the culinary scene” and the pressure to continuously shock people with new dishes and ingredients.

“Coming to the U.S. released me from these anxieties, and now I’m having much more fun creating and serving people,” Aviv says. “It’s coming from an easy and relaxed way—I just want to give people an experience, and it’s been a huge difference for me.” 

He explains that his ‘why’ changed from wanting to prove himself and be the coolest in Israel to just being himself in Miami. He calls it his fresh start, moving away from the ego. 

Finding out about trends through social media is not Aviv’s style; rather, he explores culinary cycles through exploring and eating. It’s something he grew up doing, and for him, this experiential approach to food is what fuels his career. 

“I’m not strong on trends,” Aviv explains. “I am disconnected from social media in day-to-day life. The way I expose myself to trends is by going out to eat and feeling close to the food, close to the cooking methods.” 

Lately, he has been trying to take Mexican cuisine out of the context of Tex-Mex and take a wider view of the trend, seeing if he can apply it to his way of cooking. 

He describes his method of cooking as minimalistic, debating how to make a dish with the least amount of ingredients. Aviv has watched this style change over the years; he says 10 years ago, if you could pack lots of ingredients into a dish, you were a Michelin star chef. 

“Today, being able to [feature] two ingredients on a plate and be proud of it is a big statement for me,” Aviv says. 

Aviv has been putting his killer instincts in the kitchen to the test at Branja for under a year now, experiencing and appreciating the melting pot of culture in Miami and adding his own personal touches to the restaurant scene. He says he is inspired by the internationality of Miami but is not afraid to branch out to the next thing. 

“I keep telling myself to take this step by step, to balance Branja because it has not even been a year, but my personality is one of ‘I cannot wait,’ and I’m asking myself what’s next,” Aviv shares. “I want something new. I want to give people experiences.” 

The next step for Aviv looks like sharing his philosophy of blending ‘fast food’ and ‘slow food,’ creating a NextGen fast-casual concept balancing on the idea of an easy-going, lowkey vibe with his signature dishes. 

However, he is also interested in developing another high-end experience within the U.S., and growing his footprint to other major cities like New Orleans and New York with a deep cultural background. 

As a culinary explorer, Aviv mentions his broad interests can make him feel overwhelmed with “trying to be everything,” so he is taking it day by day and as professionally as he can. 

“I’m trying to be intentional about what I want to pass onto people,” Aviv says. “Being here in Miami, seeing the people here, it makes me hungry to deliver a product for them.” 

Chef Profiles, Feature