9-12 Sep 2019
ICC Sydney, Darling Harbour

Inside the Nomad kitchen with Jacqui Challinor

Jacqui Challinor, head chef of much-loved and critically acclaimed Surry Hills restaurant Nomad, talks about her journey through some of Sydney’s best kitchens, and the influencers and injustices she encountered along the way.

When Jacqui Challinor was told she would be assigned to pastry at Merivale’s Mad Cow as a second-year apprentice, her heart sank quicker than a cold soufflé. She had just completed her first year in the kitchen at Rozelle’s About Life and, at 23 years old, was entering one of Sydney’s hottest restaurants of the moment.

“You’re going to get thrown straight on to pastry,” was the parting warning from her head chef at About Life. When she asked why, the reply came: “Because you’re a woman, and that’s where chicks end up in kitchens.”

Despite a long-formed love of creating beautiful food, Jacqui had seriously deliberated joining the industry, precisely because she’d heard the glass ceiling was firmly in place in the world of commercial kitchens. Ultimately, it was a friend, fed up with hearing Jacqui lament about her hesitations, who forced her hand to enrol in TAFE.

Having overcome her apprehension, Jacqui found her love for working in the kitchen was enduring. And although she initially intended to segue into food styling and nutrition, she discovered her true passion lived in the creativity of cooking. Which is why her automatic relegation to pastry at Mad Cow felt like affirmation of her long-held fears and a systematic stifling of her potential.

Despite that initial posting, Jacqui’s experience at the now-defunct steakhouse was incredibly fun and formative. The kitchen was like a little family and she had enormous respect for her head chef, Chris Whitehead, whose calm and collected management style she has borrowed from heavily since heading up kitchens herself. After closing out her apprenticeship at Mad Cow, she went onto another Merivale favourite, Felix. Then onto David Tsirekas’ ill-fated Xanthi in Sydney’s Westfield, where she rose to the rank of head chef.

“Dave taught me flavours and trusting your instincts,” Jacqui recalls of her time at Xanthi. “I remember walking into the kitchen and, coming from other restaurants that had recipe cards, I said, ‘Where’s the recipe?’ Dave said, ‘There’s no recipe. Just make it taste nice.’” While others might wither in the face of such a challenge, Jacqui fully embraced this freedom. “I thrive like that … I’m not really a recipe person,” she says.

Xanthi won a hat during Jacqui’s tenure, but sadly the restaurant, along with other fine diners in the much hyped but ultimately disappointing Westfield precinct, closed in 2014. “I was a bit fed up with the whole industry after that. It broke me a little bit,” she admits.

A brief stint in catering followed, but Jacqui longed for the camaraderie of restaurant kitchens and it wasn’t long before she was meeting the Nomad team about coming on board.

She loved the ethos behind this make-it-from-scratch Mediterranean restaurant, which dovetailed elegantly with her upbringing surrounded by food – a strong influence was her Maltese mother’s heritage. Yet, even after a decade in the industry and having run a kitchen, the initial conversation at Nomad was that she would be again sidelined to pastry.

But, happily, things unfolded differently. “We sat down at a big table with all the chefs and I was the only female,” says Jacqui. “And [head chef] Nathan Sasi was allocating sections and he said, ‘Oh, Jacks, you’re working the grill.’ I’d never worked with fire before, but I was never going to say no. I said, ‘OK’. And all these guys were looking at me thinking, ‘Who is this chick?’”

While Nathan saw only Jacqui’s skill and not her gender, she has experienced discrimination and harassment in commercial kitchens first-hand. From being asked why she wasn’t wearing make-up and hadn’t done her hair to being inappropriately groped and taunted about it, she has had to toughen up and put her head down to prove she’s as good as any man.

Jacqui feels the culture is unlikely to change dramatically any time soon, yet she would never warn young women off the profession.

“There is always a hurdle. But it forces you to be better. If you’re good at what you do, the people around you will notice and it becomes a non-issue. It’s unfortunate but to stand out from the pack you’ve got to be better, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m almost a little bit grateful for it.”

Even now that she’s running the show at Nomad, ingrained injustices are difficult to budge and being a female in power doesn’t necessarily mean respect is a given. “Being in a management role means I’m direct, I’m firm. If something’s not right, I speak up. This is my reputation; this is my career. I’m not going to muck around with that. But if a female’s direct and firm, they’re labelled a bitch. I hate that. That’s the one thing that really sticks with me now. If I was a man, there would be instant respect.”

Jacqui is quick to affirm these are just a handful of incidents in an otherwise incredible and satisfying career, through which she has learnt a lot about herself and her own resourcefulness. “Work Jacqui is a far more competent person than normal Jacqui. It’s weird, because you put me in my uniform and put me in a kitchen, and I can talk to anybody and I’ll be confident. But outside, I’m so shy.”

A confident captain helming the sprawling Nomad and its vast open kitchen, it’s difficult to see Jacqui in any other light. Empty before service starts, the space feels cold and intimidating, but once the ovens are firing, the music is playing and the hum of conversation fills the large dining room, you can feel Jacqui’s warmth and her delight in feeding those who gather to enjoy her simple and deftly executed fare.

“I’m at a point now where I’m cooking the food that I want to eat. My Holy Grail is finding balance and being happy. I love cooking, but it’s not my entire world. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point. It’s a really difficult environment to learn how to prioritise what’s important.”

With her relaxed outlook and Nomad continuing to draw Sydney diners in its sixth year, it certainly seems Jacqui Challinor has her priorities in good order.

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