This month INSIDER talks to Jacqui Challinor, head chef of Sydney’s perennially popular Nomad, about her early lessons, the people in the industry who’ve inspired her, and her love of sharing food.
When did you realise you wanted to be a chef? Was it a lightbulb moment or something you were always destined for from a very young age?
Food has always been a big part of my life but being a chef was never really on the list and I never pictured being where I am today. I flirted with the idea of getting into nutrition or food styling and photography. My indecision led me to a catering course at TAFE which covered both the practical and theoretical aspects that I was interested in. I ended up most looking forward to the practical lessons in the kitchen and came to the decision that chef it would be.
What are your strongest memories of your first kitchen job?
My first kitchen job was an apprentice at wholefoods grocer About Life, and I have a lot of ridiculous, funny memories to be honest. My cousin was already an apprentice there so the team was prepared for my arrival. I walked in, green as ever, wearing my full TAFE get up, neckerchief included, and the whole kitchen started singing ‘Jack Jack Jackie’. That continued for the duration of my employment, minus the neckerchief!
What did that first job teach you about whole foods and ‘healthy’ cooking?
About Life didn't teach me anything I didn't already know about healthy eating. My Dad has always been a bit of a fitness freak and he taught me more about clean, balanced eating than anybody else. To be quite honest, it's not something that I've really put into practice until the last six months. I've used my job as an excuse to lead a pretty unhealthy lifestyle for a really long time and I decided that it was time to change things. I've never felt better.
Who is your greatest cooking mentor and what did that person teach you?
I have two. Christopher Whitehead, my head chef from Mad Cow, taught me about what it means to be a manager, how to conduct yourself with a level head and how to interact with staff the right way. I don't always get it right but he's the person I most aspire to be like in that regard. My style has changed so much over the years at Nomad and each day I learn to deal with stress better and to manage different personalities more effectively.
David Tsirekas, my head chef from Xanthi, taught me about flavour and honesty in food. Aesthetics aren't what's important, it’s the heart and soul of the food that shines.
What drew you to Nomad in the first instance and what has kept you there?
Definitely the charcuterie. I loved the idea of learning how to create things like that from scratch. I've grown into a role that supports the things that are important to me, such as travel and work/life balance. Nomad’s owners, Rebecca and Al Yazbek, and I share common ideas about food, sustainability and growth so it's a good fit for me.
Image Credit: NOMAD
How would you describe your cooking style? And what are the dishes that best represent it?
I would describe my cooking style as honest, generous, simple and respectful to the produce. My favourite representation of this would probably be our Ortiz anchovy dish: a tin of some of the best anchovies Spain has to offer, peppers roasted over the wood fire, home-made ricotta and fresh bread. Simple is always best!
What’s the experience you want diners to have at Nomad?
I want people to walk away from Nomad feeling well fed and watered, welcomed and well looked after.
What is your favourite way to eat?
I love sharing food. Food shouldn't just be something that is there to keep you alive, it's a cornerstone of community, family, celebration and conversation.
What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with and why? And are there any ingredients that you think are overused or overrated?
Anchovies, I sneak them into so many dishes at Nomad! So many people hate them but underestimate the umami-rich qualities of them. It’s safe to say most of the people who hate anchovies have never tried good ones.
What’s the first thing you eat each day?
Oats, almond milk and fresh fruit or a smoothie with coconut yoghurt, banana and honey.
What would be your last meal?
Jamon Iberico and fresh, warm bread.
What would Jacqui Challinor’s culinary tombstone say?
She brought people together with food and was good at her job.