Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, an Arab woman with a Ph.D. in marine microbiology, has won Israel’s highest honor for an amateur chef — “Master Chef.” She still finds it hard to believe it’s really true.
“The moment they announced it, I just started crying, and I couldn’t contain my joy,” she said. “Now it’s beginning to sink in, and it means I’ll be able to fulfill my dream.”
That dream, says Atamna-Ismaeel, is to open an Arab-Jewish cooking school in her area of northern Israel. Some 20 percent of Israel’s population are Arabs who have full citizenship and rights. Twelve Arab citizens of Israel are members of the 120-seat parliament.
“Near my village there are a lot of Arab towns and Jewish towns —it’s a mixed area, but it’s very sad,” she said. “Although we live very close to each other, there are very limited connections and few friendships between Jews and Arabs.”
Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Arab Israeli woman to win, beat out thousands of Israelis who came to audition for one of 14 spots on TV’s “Master Chef,” which just finished its fourth season. The finale, broadcast earlier this month, was the most-watched reality show in Israel’s history.
She formed a close friendship with an unlikely candidate — an ultra-Orthodox British rabbi named Josh Steele, who was eliminated halfway through the competition.
“Nof is a beautiful, lovely person,” Steele said. “She doesn’t care about the fame. She wanted to the opportunity to fulfill a dream and make a difference in the world.”
Steele’s life, too, has been changed by “Master Chef.” He spoke openly on the show about how his young cousin entered him for an audition, hoping he would stay in Israel and become a new immigrant. He spoke about his search for an Orthodox Jewish bride and has recently become engaged.
He said he has not tasted Atamna-Ismaeel’s food yet because of the restrictions of keeping kosher, but she has promised to come to his house to cook for him.
“She is the first Israeli Palestinian I’ve had a close relationship with,” Steele said. “She calls me every Friday to wish me a good Sabbath. We can talk for hours.”
Atamna-Ismaeel says that her friendship with Steele shows the power of food to bring people together.
“We come from different worlds. He is a rabbi and I’m a scientist,” she said. “Most of the time I’m in the lab or at home in an Arab town. Without “Master Chef” we wouldn’t have met. We have the same passion for modern food, and we had so much to talk about.”
Atamna-Ismaeel’s path to fame began in her grandmother’s kitchen when she was just 4.
“I used to sit on the counter and watch my grandmother cooking and beg her to let me help her,” she said. “She knows how to bring us all together. Even now, she calls me and tells me that she made something, and we all drop what we’re doing to go see her and eat her food.”
In one episode, the participants’ families were invited to visit and watch them cook. Atamna-Ismaeel cried as her grandmother, dressed in traditional Arab dress, walked onto the studio set.
“I am so happy that I was able to make her proud of me,” she said. “She gave me my understanding of all the basics in Arab cuisine.”
Atamna-Ismaeel specializes in modern Arab cuisine — taking traditional Arab cuisine and giving it a modern twist. She called her winning dish “Sultan’s Stream” — a visually arresting striped red mullet with almond cream.
She uses a lot of traditional Arab foods such as fava beans (ful in Arabic), tahini and eggplant to create dishes that are visually enticing as well as delicious. Besides winning “Master Chef,” she won the audience choice award for “favorite chef.” While being interviewed, she was cooking dinner for three lucky families who won a drawing.
“I’m making them lamb osso bucco with sweet potatoes and root vegetables,” she said. “I’m making ful with tahini sauce and meatballs, and a risotto from ‘freekeh,’ a type of wheat. Oh, and the date cookies I made on the show.”
The hardest challenge for her on “Master Chef” was when the competitors were asked to make a dish using only canned food.
“Arab cuisine is very seasonal, and we never use cans,” she said. “I know a lot of people eat canned food, but anyone who is a serious cook doesn’t like to use cans. On the show I decided to use only vegetables and not touch the canned meat. I wouldn’t want to eat it, and neither would the judges.”
The judges, four of Israel’s most famous chefs, offered comments and criticism on each dish.
“I’ve learned so much from them,” she said. “I feel like I became a better chef from episode to episode.”
Ataman-Ismaeel also enjoys cooking for her family. Her husband, a nurse, came to the final episode with her 6-year-old son. Her twins, a boy and a girl aged 2, stayed home.
“When I won, my son hugged me harder than he ever has in his life,” she said. “I was so happy that I could make him so proud.”
She hopes her cooking school will start to break down barriers that still exist between Arabs and Jews.
“I’m just Nof and I can’t solve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” she said. “But all change starts with small acts. If I can bring a few hundred Arabs and Jews to my school and break down some stereotypes, I will be glad. Through food, you can bring people together in a good atmosphere, and they can begin to understand each other.”