Let's Eat

MasterChef with a master plan

The first Arab winner of Israeli MasterChef believes cooking is the best way of solving conflict


Dr Nof Atamna-Ismaeel is an impressive lady. The 35 year-old mother of three (under nines) not only triumphed in the Israeli version of MasterChef in 2014, but also has a doctorate in microbiology. The victory, in which she saw off 4,000 keen foodies, enabled her to build herself a career in food.

"I always loved cooking - it was a big hobby of mine. All my life I was thinking of one of my passions, science, and I didn't get to do my other - cooking. I didn't want to get to 60 and regret not having done it" she recalls.

Proving herself as a chef was not the only thing on Atamna-Ismaeel's agenda. "I was unhappy about the situation between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I have a very normal life, with both Arab and Jewish friends, and wanted people to see how life could be. Food is the best way of getting people to talk. It's a neutral atmosphere. People exchange recipes and don't think about politics - when you're eating a good kanafeh (traditional Levantine pastry) or delicious brownies they just think 'how can I get the recipe?'"

During her time on the show, she was vocal about her ambitions to break down political boundaries with food: "I mostly cooked Arabic food during the show. Every time I created a dish, I had a messages I wanted to convey."

Using molecular gastronomy, she brought traditional Arabic dishes bang up to date. "The French and Italians do it all the time, so why should this be any different. I made a kibbe nayyeh, which is raw kubbe - a minced meat and bulgur wheat dish. I took the old recipe and served it in a different way, using different techniques to make it look super modern. The judges were shocked at how different I made it look but when the forks went into their mouths, it was kibbe nayyeh, just more attractive."

She also used many ingredients from Arabic and other cuisines, even in traditional Jewish dishes. "One task was to make the Eastern European food, Helgel, which is a stuffed chicken neck filled with matzah meal, chicken fat and onions. I filled mine with freekeh - a traditional Arab smoked wheat and a porcini mushroom-based sauce and small cubes of duck breast. Even though the ingredients are from different cultures it all worked and is a good example of how well different foods can combine. I was using food as a metaphor to explain what I think."

By the show's final, Atamna-Ismaeel had already decided to take a year off from her research role. "I thought that even if I don't win, I had got far enough to fulfil my dream. I have not gone back as I'm so happy doing what I'm doing."

Now she spends her time teaching people modern Arabic cooking in a number of cookery schools. Some classes, in central Tel Aviv, attract an exclusively Jewish audience, but others, in Haifa or closer to her home in Northern Israel, attract a mixture of Jews and Arabs.

"I'm able to overcome people's prejudices. There are a lot of Jewish people who've never talked or even met an Arab person, and I was able to get to their hearts with my food. A lot of Israelis are interested in Arab cuisine and vice versa. I get both coming to my classes and we sit around the table and talk and laugh with each other. It becomes a place to talk without any tension. If even one Jewish/Arab pair exchange Facebook addresses that feels like a victory for me."

Her dream is to open her own cookery school. She has had offers to open in Tel Aviv, but doesn't feel it is the right venue. "I want to attract Arabs as well as Jews, and that would not happen there."

Instead, she has found a potential site in a disused British army barracks. "They were built in the 1930's or 1940's. As they are listed, I'd have to preserve the character if I developed them, which is expensive, so I'm looking for investors. I like that buildings that were once military would be all about peace."

As well as teaching cookery, Atamna-Ismaeel consults for various businesses including Sugat, the grain and rice manufacturer, and dairy co-operative, Tara, creating Arabic recipes for them. This summer she will be visiting the UK headquarters of another big corporation ­- Marks and Spencer. Whilst in Israel, their buyers had attended one of her courses.

"They visited Israel as it is is now a leading country for food and they took one of my Arabic cuisine classes. They asked me to come to their offices in Paddington to teach more classes, which I'll do this summer."

Her trip to the UK will be as a guest of the UK Task Force on issues relating to Arab citizens of Israel and of the the New Israel Fund, who say they hope she will bring a taste of shared society in Israel to the British Jewish community.

The visit will be combined with an appearance at this year's Gefiltefest, where she will be demonstrating varoius dishes including kosher versions of classic Arabic dishes. "I'll be making dumplings in a yoghurt soup. The filling is usually meat, but I have adapted it to make it kosher. The filling is spinach and rocket and we liked it so much, that's now how we always make it at home!"

Something tells JC Food that the good doctor won't be short of an audience.

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