Nomad restaurant has – accidentally – lived up to its name, and has been something of a wandering tribe in the Sydney restaurant scene. Beginning in Foster Street, Surry Hills, Nomad was in limbo after a fire destroyed much of its previous home but fortuitously the former Long Grain in Commonwealth Street became available last October. As Nomad prepares to return to Foster Street later this year, I caught up with executive chef Jacqui Challinor.
With a Maltese mother who loved cooking, food was always a centrepiece in the Challinor household as Jacqui Challinor grew up.
As a kid, Jacqui would be “screaming and fighting” over the last piece of mortadella on the table at family gatherings, so she had a natural attraction to a restaurant like Nomad with a big charcuterie program. The Maltese heritage also gave her a pan-Mediterranean perspective which exerted a subtle influence when she became executive chef at Nomad, a restaurant which made its early reputation with a style of cuisine which was more Middle Eastern in its inspiration.
“I might have shifted it a little bit towards the Mediterranean, but Nomad still has those values which attracted me here in the first place,” she says.
“It’s the charcuterie, the hands- on process, the generosity and honesty of the food and the cooking over a fire, which is something we did really well at Foster Street and helped differentiate us.“Food is something that is done with love and for me it’s all about big bold flavours which punch you in the face, and that’s how I cook and what I’m 100 percent passionate about.”
As Challinor chats with Urban Village in the – “pop up” – Nomad in Commonwealth Street she exudes a bronzed and healthy glow not always associated with people who live their lives in restaurant kitchens.
“I’m just back from a diving holiday in the Maldives,” she laughs, and this kicks off a conversation about kitchen culture, which can be notorious for its long hours and hard drinking and partying.
A veteran of 15 years of so in the restaurant industry, Challinor has seen it all and done some of it too, but now the focus is not just on her health but on the health of her staff and the culture of the workplace she leads.
“I used to work for Merivale and we were working at the Ivy which was the hottest club in town, and we could go there for free,” she says.
“You would finish work and the party would start, and then you would just go to sleep on the lounges downstairs and get up to go to work the next day.
“It would be like this Thursday night to Sunday morning, every week.”
Ultimately, however, the charm of this lifestyle faded.
“You end up exhausted and you realise you are sick of the hangovers and also having no money,” she says.
For Challinor, it came after a period when she wasn’t leaving her house, and despite working in a top restaurant was not cooking for herself.
“It wasn’t a nice place to be so I decided to take better care of myself, I started exercising and seeing a counsellor and things changed and I just started to feel a whole lot better,” she says.
The realisation led to a change of focus and lifestyle which she is keen to impart to her team at Nomad. The restaurant has instituted a strict 45 hour week contract for staff, and there’s an emphasis on work/life balance, something very rare in an industry where people are used to living their work.
“It got to the point where I didn’t want to do those hours any more myself, and it’s not fair for me to say ‘hey I’m the boss screw you’ so it has to be policy for everyone,” says Challinor.
“For me it means that if I come to work half an hour late because I’ve gone for a run and made myself breakfast, then so what. It makes me more productive.”
The move is also a smart way of differentiating Nomad as a place to work in an industry which is struggling for talent.
“This is a highly competitive industry, so we needed to put ourselves at the forefront of what we are offering potential employees, and we wanted to offer something that other’s weren’t offering, and that was a better work life balance for our team,” says Challinor.
Working in restaurants is something of a team sport, and morale and culture are crucial to make it harmonious and to make a good product.
While Challinor hasn’t seen people fighting and throwing things in her time in kitchens
she has had to deal with some large egos, so as a leader she is in favour of collaboration rather than confrontation.
“I’ve seen some big egos, and you have to take the attitude that it’s a benefit to work with them because it teaches you what not to do,” she says.
“As my Dad used to tell me, it might be rubbish to work with these people but all you can do is witness it and learn from it, and make sure you don’t act like that when you are in that position yourself.”
Her collaborative approach extends to suppliers, and she takes the view that loyalty to them will mean they stay loyal to the restaurant.
Boutique and niche suppliers are also part of giving a restaurant a distinctive identity, but given the fragility of the industry – and recent natural disasters – suppliers need nurturing and support.
“It’s been a tough few months, and one of our suppliers had to stop supplying because he had nothing to supply,” says Challinor.
“So we continue to support that in any way we can. If we start dropping off they lose their livelihood and we won’t have Australian farmers and great produce any more, so its important for us to maintain it.”
Another focus is on minimising waste, both for ethical reasons and to maintain profit margins, and this can lead to some interesting innovations. The current menu has mud crabs sourced from North Queensland, and once the meat is picked out the shells are used to make an infused mayonnaise and an infused butter.
“I stay away from trends because I think that people who follow them end up nowhere when the trends run out, but I don’t think the shift towards focusing on food waste is going to change,” she says.
“There’s no point in spruiking sustainability and not doing what you can to practice it, and I think our guests also expect that.”
Challinor says she believes that the majority of Nomad’s guests understand this and understand the commitment to suppliers, and how this justifies the price point of the food. Their support and understanding, she says, it why the restaurant has been able to survive a fire, a brief closure and the move to Commonwealth Street. By June, Challinor hopes she and her team will be back in Foster Street, and that the guests will follow them back “home.”
“We had the fire, and then we were in limbo for six weeks and then this site came up,” she says. “But we had ten weeks between getting the keys here and opening, so that was crazy.”
Foster Street, she says, will be like going home but there will be improvements: a bigger kitchen and a private dining room for example.
“So there are silver linings in what has happened, but I am certainly looking forward to getting back home,” she says.
STOP PRESS: Unfortunately, due to the current COVID-19 global pandemic, Nomad are not able to take table reservations at this time. The restaurant is now offering a takeaway and delivery service. Help support this local business by treating yourself to their delectable menu available which can be viewed on their facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/nomadrestaurant.au/. Phone orders available on 0292803395.