Arab Israeli Celebrity Chef Aims To Foster Peace Through Cooking

Apr 9, 2014
Originally published on April 10, 2014 11:25 am

Reality cooking shows have propelled many an aspiring chef to foodie stardom in the U.S. — Harold Dieterle, Jeff Mauro and Mike Isabella, to name a few.

But unlike her American counterparts, the most recent winner of Israel's Master Chef does not aspire to launch her own show or even open her own restaurant.

At first blush, the Arab Israeli cook Nof Atamna-Ismaeel has smaller ambitions: opening a Jewish-Arab cooking school. But her ultimate goal — to create common ground between Arab and Jewish Israelis — is anything but modest.

"It sounds very naive," Atamna-Ismaeel tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block. "[But] what I see is a group of Jewish and Arabic people, who are sitting in a sushi class, rolling sushi together, laughing, talking about what they like in food."

Atamna-Ismaeel, a microbiologist by trade, is the first Arab Israeli to take home the popular show's top prize. She calls her cooking style "Arab food with a modern twist," and won the judges over with her deep-fried mullet served on an almond cream, a dish she's dubbed "Sultan's Spring."

Atamna-Ismaeel says she's no stranger to the power of food to strengthen bonds. She learned to cook from her grandmother, she says, who drew family together from far and wide with her cooking.

"I learned, actually, the most important thing from my grandma ... that food is not just something that you need to put into your body in order to get energy," Atamna-Ismaeel says. "It is much more than this."

"This is my way of thinking about life. I really think this is the only way we can solve a little bit of this conflict, is by sitting together and trying to talk to each other."

Recipe: Sultan's Spring

For the almond cream:

3/4 cup blanched almonds, halved

5 slices dry white bread

4 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

Juice of one lemon

Zest of one lemon

For the salad:

6 green almonds

Fennel bulb

Leaves of wild fennel

Hot green pepper, thinly sliced

Grape leaves

One handful of green fresh chickpeas

Juice of half a lemon

A few small tomatoes, chopped

Olive oil


For the fish:

5 striped red mullets

Coarse salt

Lemon zest

Lemon juice


Oil for deep frying

Soak the bread in water for about two minutes. Put the almonds and garlic in a food processor and grind. Squeeze out the bread and add to the processor bowl.

Add the olive oil and lemon juice gradually and process, then add the lemon zest, salt, pepper and seasonings, and set aside.

Cut the fennel bulb and green almonds into thin slices. Add the leaves of wild fennel, hot green pepper and thinly sliced and chopped pickled grape leaves. Season with olive oil, lemon juice and salt.

Clean the fish and debone, then salt with coarse salt. Season the inside of the fish with a little grated lemon zest and salt.

Flour the fish and pan-fry in plenty of oil.

To serve, spread the almond cream on a plate (like hummus). Top with the fennel salad, almonds and green chickpeas. Place the fish over the salad and top with chopped tomato. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon zest and serve.

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For Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the proof of the pudding was in the eating. It was also in her dish of striped red mullet with almond cream and a fresh vegetable salad. Atamna-Ismaeel is the latest winner of the Israeli reality cooking show "Master Chef."


BLOCK: The season's final episode aired on Saturday.


BLOCK: Nof Atamna-Ismaeel is the first Israeli Arab to win "Master Chef," and she's a microbiologist. She joins me now from Tel-Aviv. Nof, welcome to the program and congratulations.

NOF ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: I've seen you describe your cooking as Arabic food with a modern twist. What does that mean exactly?

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: Arabic cuisine was resisting, I guess, for a very long time to become much more modern. And I see all other cuisines, like the French and the Japanese and the Italian, are serving modern dishes and the Arabic cuisine is staying in its place. And I thought that I need to do this for the Arabic cuisine.

BLOCK: Well, I mentioned that you are the first Israeli Arab to win "Master Chef." Does it make a statement to you, do you think, or to other Israeli Arabs that you are the winner?

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: I think that my winning actually opened many doors or hopes for Israeli Arabs that they can achieve if they just only try their best and invest all their efforts in their dreams that they want to achieve, especially women.

BLOCK: Now, I mentioned that you're a microbiologist by profession. Is there any part of your science background, do you think, that influences your cooking?

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: Of course. I'm a scientist in my soul. So when I cook, it's part of me. I'm very precise. And I think a good cook also needs to be precise in his cooking.

BLOCK: Where did you learn to cook in the first place?

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: From my grandma. I used to sit on her counter and watch her cook. So she taught me all the Arabic cooking. And then my mom influenced me later on in life by exposing me to cooking books that are in Hebrew, so I learned about other cuisines other than the Arabic cuisines that exist out there.

BLOCK: And what would your grandmother have been making while you were sitting there on the counter?

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: One of my strongest memories about my grandma at least is her orange cake she used to make. So this is one, and all the stuffed grape leaves that I used to do with her, and date cookies that we made together. So many things - I remember so many things from the kitchen because it was a huge part of my life.

And I learned actually the most important thing from my grandma is that food is not something that you need to put in your body in order to get energy. It's much more than this. My grandma used her food to bring all the family together, sitting around the table. So I learned the power of food from her.

BLOCK: Nof, I've read that you have a dream now, which is to open a Jewish-Arab cooking school. What's your hope for that cooking school?

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: Well, it sounds very naive. What I see is like a group of Jewish and Arabic people are sitting in a sushi class rolling sushi together, laughing, not fighting over politics or any other issues that are really problematic. This is my way of thinking about life. I really think that this is the only way that we can solve a little bit of this conflict is by sitting together and trying to talk to each other.

BLOCK: Well, Nof, best of luck with that and congratulations.

ATAMNA-ISMAEEL: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Nof Atamna-Ismaeel. She is the newest winner of the Israeli reality show "Master Chef." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.