Meet the Chef: Jacqui Challinor at NOMAD
Photography by Samantha Schultz
Interview by Harriet Davidson
To kick off our new Meet the Chef series, we speak with the queen that is Jacqui Challinor, Executive Chef of NOMAD Sydney and newly-opened NOMAD Melbourne. It was a pull and a passion too strong to deny that lead Jacqui into the world of kitchens, and to leading not one, but two teams of chefs - a role she never imagined herself in, and one that’s lead to much personal growth through the last few years.
We visited the beautiful new Flinders Lane space and spoke with Jacqui about all things chef-life, from her journey to becoming a chef, how she unwinds, recharges and finds inspiration to the shift we’re seeing in kitchen culture here in Australia. It’s an intense, grueling and high-adrenaline field to be in but as Jacqui tells us, if you’re heart’s in it, it’s one mighty special world to be part of.
Jacqui shares not only her experiences with us, but also a wonderful recipe for a fennel jam that’s served in the restaurant with Vannella burrata.
We hope this new series from INBED Journal celebrating brilliant people doing brilliant things in kitchens brings you much joy and inspiration. We’ll be interviewing chefs and exploring the spaces they work in bringing you a taste of what it means to cook for a living, and what’s behind the industry that plays a hugely important part in all of our lives.
Jacqui wears an IN BED 100% linen apron in Natural.
On becoming a chef
I never wanted to be a chef, I've always loved food and cooking but being a chef was never the game plan; my dream was either food styling, food media or nutrition. I didn't really know where to start when I finished high school so I enrolled in a catering course at TAFE to dip my toe in and I soon realised that the practical day in the kitchen was my favourite day of the week. I was initially hesitant to start an apprenticeship because of the perceived 'boys club' but the pull was too strong and here we are! I've never had a plan for my career or dreamt of leading a kitchen, I never knew I had it in me to be honest, I just loved my job; the camaraderie, the adrenaline, the food. Goals are great (and important) but I've always been a firm believer of loving what you do, doing it well and success will follow. Sometimes too strong a focus on the end game leads to a lack of authenticity in what you do and I believe so much of the success of my career and NOMAD is down to authenticity in what we do.
Goals are great (and important) but I've always been a firm believer of loving what you do, doing it well and success will follow.
On what drives her day-in and day-out
The rise of social media and cooking shows has certainly painted a romantic image of the industry that is very different to reality. But I think the reality of our industry is changing for the better and it's becoming an increasingly more sustainable and approachable career path. I do think you need to be a certain type of crazy to get into it but if your heart is there, it's such a rewarding place to be. It's creative, artistic, social, fun and most of all tasty! At the end of the day, food drives me; I love eating and what other job lets you do that for a living?!
On unwinding and recharging
I'm not really service focused these days but when I was, my method of unwinding wasn't the healthiest. Like so many in our industry, alcohol was the escape path to the stress and I never really learnt the tools to deal with the stress properly. These days, things are a little different. Since I stopped drinking, I've given myself the space to understand the things I need to do to make my body and mind feel good; exercise and acupuncture have been huge in the last couple of years for me. But my ultimate recharge is the ocean - when I'm on the edge a swim in the salt water always pulls me back. It’s just good for the soul.
On Jacqui’s morning routine
My routine has been a little lax since I've been in Melbourne, I've been pretty distracted by all the fun of immersing myself into a new city! When I'm on track, my mornings usually start with a run or weights at the gym followed by a smoothie with a big handful of spinach, banana and berries; I know if I start the day well I'll treat myself well for the rest of the day (or at least try). I like to walk to and from work so I've got time to prepare myself for the day ahead or unwind on the way home. I try not to look at social media until I leave the house for work, I know it has the capacity to affect my mood so I try to limit my interactions with it before I've done the things that make me feel good.
On NOMAD Melbourne
NOMAD Melbourne has the same heart and soul as Sydney; we use great ingredients, we cook with fire and we create and serve with love. The restaurant itself and the menus are a little different across both cities, we wanted our guests to experience NOMAD uniquely whether they were in Sydney or Melbourne.
Professionally it's a huge achievement for me, I never imagined myself as head chef of one restaurant let alone executive chef of two! Trying to get it done over Zoom during covid was probably the most challenging aspect of the process but we had a great team down here and they really sunk their teeth into the project and treated the restaurant with the same care that we would have ourselves. As hard as it was for me to not be here, allowing Brendan (NOMAD Melbourne Head Chef) the space to have control and ownership of the process was great in setting him up for the role.
Personally, this has been such an incredible jolt of energy for me. I’ve gone through such huge personal changes over the past two years throughout the process of giving up alcohol and understanding myself better; I was in need of something to reflect that and moving to Melbourne gave me exactly what I was craving which was a fresh start.
On menu inspiration and building new relationships with Victorian producers
I've always been ingredient focussed, that's always the start and it builds from there. Discovering produce in Victoria has been eye opening and so joyous, some of the simplest things taste better - the tomatoes are so full-flavoured, the strawberries are so sweet, the fennel is sharp and so aniseed heavy. It's all so close and so readily available.
A lot of my inspiration came from working with Brendan, I've been craving a collaborative, creative relationship with a colleague for so long and it's been really nice to find that with him. Building a menu is always a process, sometimes it all falls into line and everything works and other times the creativity isn't there and all the ideas you had just don't work out and you feel like a failure! Sometimes you just need to take a step back and remember that it's just food and we're not saving lives, just enriching them.
Sometimes you just need to take a step back and remember that it's just food and we're not saving lives, just enriching them.
On a culture shift on working in the industry and the role of the chef
It took me literally breaking and wholeheartedly considering a career change last year to understand that there needs to be boundaries and sustainability in the way we work and operate our kitchens. I don't want to work 90 hours a week, live and breath work and not enjoy life. Don’t get me wrong, I haven't always been the best manager or leader and I'm still learning but it's now my priority to create happy, healthy and creative spaces for our teams to work. A happy team with balance and a life outside of work is a productive and engaged team. I needed to realise the benefits of balance in my personal life in order to become a better leader and push for the same for my teams.
I want to see the role of the chef become a more sustainable and rewarding career choice and I'd like to see young chefs be more creatively confident and engage more with the food they cook. Too many times we see young chefs come through that are robotic and just go through the motions, they follow a recipe to the letter but won't taste for variations in a product. I think that if we start to create more sustainable and welcoming working environments, we'll create the space for that growth and confidence.
I want to see the role of the chef become a more sustainable and rewarding career choice and I'd like to see young chefs be more creatively confident and engage more with the food they cook.
On produce that’s thrilling at the moment
This time of the year always makes me the happiest because it's fig time! Nothing beats a perfectly ripe, sweet, jammy, just bursting fig with greek yoghurt and some fresh honeycomb.
My current go to meal at home is a stir fry of pork mince, shiitake mushrooms, lots of greens and oyster sauce. I'm hopeless at Asian cookery so it's been a bit of a mission for me to figure it out and learn how to balance the flavours better.
Favourite kitchen tool and cookbook
I love a Microplane, they're so handy! I also couldn't live without my KitchenAid. As for books, one of my most cherished is the Estela, just because I've got such fond memories of the place.
BURRATA, FENNEL JAM, EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
500g fennel, thinly sliced
500g ALTO chardonnay vinegar
500g caster sugar
60ml ALTO Robust
Sea salt flakes (I use Olssons)
2 x 150g Burrata (I use Vanella) Sourdough to serve (Iggy’s is the best!)
Trim the stalks off the fennel, pick and wash the fronds and set aside for garnish. Thinly slice the bulb approximately 2mm thick, a mandolin is the best way to achieve this.
In a saucepan, combine the sugar and vinegar. Gently bring to the heat and allow the sugar to dissolve. Increase heat and reduce liquid to 1⁄4 of its original volume then add sliced fennel.Cook on high heat, stirring continuously to prevent the sugar from burning. The fennel is ready once it appears glassy and you’ve got a sticky, jam-like consistency.
Remove fennel from saucepan and refrigerate to cool.
To serve, spread fennel jam onto a plate, top with burrata, drizzle the olive oil over the fennel,, season with sea salt and garnish with the fennel fronds.
Jacqui wears an IN BED 100% linen apron in Natural. Jacqui’s table is also set with IN BED napkins in Natural.