When Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a 33-year-old Israeli Arab, clinched the title of MasterChef on Saturday night, it was all part of a plan. The mother of three, a trained microbiologist with a PhD and a thriving scientific career, has for years been looking for a way to leverage her love of cooking and her passion for peace into a school where Jews and Arabs can cook alongside each other and literally taste a better future for this country. A native of the Israeli Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, she says she entered the MasterChef competition to make that dream a reality.
On Tuesday, with her phone ringing off the hook with interview requests and her schedule jam-packed with a cooking presentation for the Israeli web portal mako.co.il, she took a few moments to discuss that passion with The Times of Israel.
Times of Israel: What was your goal in entering the competition?
Nof Atamna-Ismaeel: All my friends know that I love cooking and it is part of me. When Nof arrives in the lab, the first thing they all say is ‘what did you bring today?’ They all know that cooking is the love of my life. But I decided to go on a show because I wanted to establish a Jewish-Arab cooking school. On my Facebook page, I saw the interactions happening between Jews and Arabs. They started sharing recipes and talking to each other. And I thought, OK, let’s make it something bigger than that.
I tried to contact businessmen to see who might be interested in such a project, but of course I was the anonymous Nof. Usually they didn’t answer. So I decided that I was going to use some kind of a platform to make this dream come true and MasterChef was the best platform on TV. I thought I would compete and get some fame and maybe this could be the way to make this dream come true.
Where did you learn to cook?
I started joining my grandma when I was four years old. I used to sit on the counter in the kitchen and just get involved and watch my grandma really closely. I learned all the basics of Arabic cooking from her. And then my mom, she was much more modern, she used to buy all these cookbooks and I started reading them. She exposed me to other cuisines by buying these books, and a lot of times she would translate them for me because my Hebrew wasn’t yet all that good.
Every time that I served a dish, I thought, ok I’m either going to get eliminated for this or they’re going tell me it’s brilliant.
And then I took my own personality into the food. I am bold, I don’t care, I will do things and I have the guts to make twists with food. I’m not afraid to make changes.
You won MasterChef, an Israeli cooking show, by cooking Arabic food with a modern twist. Were you concerned going into the competition that your strategy would be a risk?
Of course. Always, when you’re taking such an ancient, strong, solid cuisine and you make changes, you’re always afraid that you would make the dish lose its identity. But I believed that I had to do it. I’m not a person who mimics. If I am going to serve a dish, I am going to put myself into it. Every time that I served a dish, I thought, OK, I’m either going to get eliminated for this or they’re going tell me it’s brilliant.
Were you worried that being a minority, you would be discriminated against?
It’s a very fair competition. If I didn’t know how to cook, I am sure that I would have gone home in the very early stages. This is a cooking show and the judges are actually tasting and criticizing the food. They give you a chance to prove yourself and if you’re talented enough, you can win. It’s a very fair competition.
In these shows, they give you a chance. It’s not like [other situations in Israel], like a job interview, where if you say you are an Arab they don’t even give you an interview.
Now that you’ve won and can plan your cooking school, what will it be like?
I have always believed deeply, as have my husband and family, that the only way to have a better future for our children in this country is to teach them to live together. The inspiration for the school was my son’s school [The Hand in Hand school where Jewish and Arab children study together in bilingual classrooms], and I was always really inspired by the community there. At celebrations of different holidays, parents come, bring their food, and exchange recipes. I thought it was a very nice idea to do that in a school for cooking.
I have always believed deeply, as has my husband and family, that the only way to have a better future for our children in this country is to teach them to live together.
I want the school to be in a mixed area, and it will teach different cuisines. People can share a curiosity for learning and for food, and they will sit together and work in pairs, and as they cook you’ll have a chance of creating friendships between people.
It’s a scientific fact that food causes joy. So there will be a good atmosphere there, and it will be an easy way to create friendships between different kinds of people.
Do you plan now to work in food full-time, or continue on as a microbiologist?
I would really love to have my scientific career along with my food career. And I believe that since I am a woman I will be able to be able to do so. It’s something we do in our lives.
I really want to give back to the community I live in, to my country and to make friendships between Arabs and Jews