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Nelli Tombor on Always Staying True: From Modeling to the Culinary Arts

This feature is part of our series on members of our community who inspire us. From entrepreneurs, stylists, and consultants starting their own businesses to executives changing the game at the highest levels, we’re lucky to be able to learn from these incredible role models.

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Written by Joyce Zhou

 

Nelli Tombor knows how to turn dreams into reality. Beyond a successful modeling career, she also performs stunning culinary feats as a professional chef. Sparked by her childhood love of cooking, her dishes always seek to evoke a taste of home. And after traveling across the world as a model, she also knows more than just a thing or two about connecting with others and sharing the love. We got the chance to speak with Nelli to hear about her journey, advice on following one’s passions, and hopes for the future.

 

 

On her background

I was born in a small city in Hungary. When I was ten, my parents sent me to boarding school, so I lived in a dorm for 8 years. Later, I lived with nuns during my first year at university. From this, I learned how to adapt, and I became independent at a very young age. 

In college, I started working for an advertising company. Two months later, a producer came up to me in Budapest, and next week, I found myself on a set of a TVC. Afterwards, I quit my job and immediately signed with a model agency (Attractive). I traveled around the world and in the meantime, I graduated from university as a social educator with majors in criminal pedagogy and advisory, though I have never practiced this profession. 

Later on, I married the funniest human alive. We lived in Milan, then moved to New York, where I finally was able to follow my dreams and studied Culinary Arts. 

Being raised by a strict father and a loving mother helped me to develop a very good and stable work ethic. I always had to strive for the best, which came very handy during my modeling career, production and in the kitchen. I can run in high heels in 3°C (37°F) for hours if a director wanted me to do so or I can beat egg whites endlessly with a fork. Whatever it took!



On modeling, cooking, and career transitions

Being a good model means you are a team-worker, and you respect others’ time-money-talent. If you wish to work in this business, it is indispensable that you become resilient and cooperative. This all comes very handy when you want to work in a kitchen (or actually in any field). I think the most important thing is to know that whatever you do, if you want to do it right/become successful, you have to do it the full stretch. 

Modeling was a great opportunity for me to travel around the world, finance my studies and push the envelope, but it was important to know from day one that beauty is ephemeral and that there are more important things in life than physical appearances. 

In view of my experiences in kitchens, I value the opportunities and financial freedom even more than what was given to me as a model. And the fact that my success as a cook only depends on my knowledge, perseverance and physical capacity gives me relief, because I know that I can be, and do better. 


 

On inspirations and favorite recipes

I get my inspiration from farmer’s markets, friend’s requests or by a scent, but I love a good pantry challenge too! I’m not sure if I have a cooking style yet. I love to recreate Hungarian dishes (which are normally very heavy) on a healthier, lighter way, and I love creating vegetarian and vegan menus. If one of my guests is actress, I want to offer her a very delicious appetizer (like the pogácsa, made with duck fat) then shift to healthier courses, so that she won’t feel that she gained 5 pounds in one sitting. When my Hungarian friends come over, I ask them what they’d like to eat. It’s usually Székelykáposzta (Hungarian sauerkraut stew), beef stew, potato pasta or chicken paprikash with pickles of course. My tiramisu, chocolate cake or my Somlói galuska (Hungarian dessert) are pretty good.  I’ve made hundreds of crepes and thousands of chocolate coconut balls in my life, so I have them practically perfected. The cottage cheese, ricotta cake with apricot has been a big hit in the past year, so I definitely recommend that recipe for anyone who want to make something super delicious that only takes 45-50 minutes to make. (Recipe attached.)



On challenges and setbacks

During modeling, the most challenging part was loneliness and that you can count only on yourself, even if you have a good agent. If you are 7000 miles away, she/he can’t really do anything if you are in trouble. 

Recently, I had a very hard time accepting that I couldn’t go back to fine dining (it became almost impossible to get a visa as an apprentice chef in the United States). I was angry; I cried a lot and was very depressed. It’s like being qualified for the Olympics, then in the final, someone puts a leash around your neck and ties you to the starting line.

However, I think that when you realize that everything is a matter of perspective, you can overcome setbacks. 

In retrospect, I mostly have great memories. I learned a lot about myself, how perseverant I can be and that everything shall pass. I’m very thankful for all the experiences I’ve had. 

 

 

On advice

It’s not what has been said, but who said it that matters. And, a person’s real character is determined by her/his intentions! 


On future projects and hopes

I’m continuously working with my husband on his assignments and projects as a photo assistant/producer (check out our magazine, the Supernation!) and I try to spend as much time with cooking as possible. 

I cook a lot with my dear friend, Nina Clemente and we have future plans together. I want to continue my “Dinner Series” that I started 1.5 years ago, where I cook a menu (usually Hungarian), there are 6-8 guests and we enjoy each others’ company for hours. I can’t tell you how wonderful these nights are. My long-term dream is to open a home restaurant where people can be a part of this magic.

Regarding our collective future, I hope that people will appreciate natural sources more, and that we reduce our food waste as well as our footprint. It’s totally outrageous when restaurants and supermarkets throw out hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible food. RLC is a great organization in NYC (I want to encourage everyone to volunteer!) and I hope they will expand with more countries following their example.


On current obsessions

Anything with cold watermelon!


On ultimate dinner party guests, either living or passed

This is very tough because I could easily give you hundreds of names. It has changed over the years, but today I would say: Ken Robinson, Quentin Tarantino, Miles Davis, Penelope Cruz, Sándor Márai, David Attenborough. 


 

 

RECIPE

Ricotta Cake with Apricot 

Ingredients

150g butter (about 1.5 stick, room temperature)

140g egg whites (4 medium eggs, be careful not to crack any yolks into the whites)

70g egg yolks (4 medium eggs)

1 pack vanilla sugar or half of a vanilla pod

50g+100g cane sugar (1/4cup + 1/2cup)

700g dairy: 

-      250g or 1cup cottage cheese

-      250g or 1cup ricotta 

-      200g or ¾ cup whole yogurt

10g baking powder (about 2 tsp)

2g salt (less than ½ tsp)

50g almond meal (1/2 cup)

200g+50g AP flour (1 ½ cup + 1/4cup)

200g sweet apricot (about 1 cup, pitted, sliced thinly)

 

Recipe

  1.   Pre-heat oven to 370F (180C). 
  2.   Mix butter, flour, salt, 50g sugar, yolks and baking powder. Set aside.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine dairy (cottage cheese, ricotta, yogurt) with 100g sugar and the scraped vanilla beans (or vanilla sugar).  Set aside. 
  4.   In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then fold in 1/3 of the dairy mixture, and pour all back to the remaining dairy, mixing them gently. 
  5.   Sift 50g flour into this mixture, making sure there are no flour lumps in it. 
  6.   Cut out parchment paper in the size of your baking pan (mine was 28x28cm) and roll out 2/3 of the dough on the paper. Place it in the baking form. 
  7.   Lay sliced apricots on dough.
  8.   Carefully pour on dairy mixture. 
  9.   On a large grater, grate remaining (1/3) dough evenly on top of the cake.
  10. Bake until golden, about 20-25min. 
  11. It might look too soft in the middle, but it will be perfect once it’s cooled completely. 

 

Optional: Serve it with powdered sugar, more apricots, or as is. Enjoy!




2 comments

  • Thank you for this article. I am lucky enough to know this wonderful lady personally and be a part of several magic nights over her Szekelykaposzta, coconut balls, Christmas dinner, pasta…

    Anna
  • refreshing to read her honesty about the visa process and feeling depressed! I’ve been following her and I can relate to so many of the feelings and thoughts she shares. Maybe one day we can chat at one of her dinner parties while eating Székelykáposzta! I enjoyed reading the interview, thank you.

    Anett

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