Restaurant News

Sydney’s Nomad is coming home

After a fire that broke out at the original restaurant, a relocation up the road, and a hibernation during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacqui Challinor is ready to cook again.

By Yvonne C Lam
Nomad executive chef Jacqui Challinor.
For the past 12 months, fire and flames have marked Jacqui Challinor's professional life. One year ago, a blaze tore through Nomad, her restaurant in Sydney's Surry Hills, forcing a temporary relocation up the road sans woodfire oven. Then in January the executive chef rallied her hospitality colleagues for Cook for the Bush, a bake sale featuring goods from the who's-who of Sydney's dining scene that raised over $140,000 for bushfire-affected communities via the Red Cross.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nomad closed its doors in March. But now, Challinor is readying to return to the restaurant's original Foster Street premises on October 20, and stoke the wood and coal fires that are hallmarks of her cooking style.
"I'm just super excited to be working with fire again," says Challinor, who's clocked seven years at Nomad. "That element is crucial to cooking. To have that back again is such a huge inspiration." Huge it is. Thanks to a complete kitchen redesign by co-owner Rebecca Yazbek, the new charcoal grill measures 1.5 metres long – double the size of the original.
In some ways, COVID-19 restrictions are a blessing in disguise. Pre-coronavirus, Nomad could seat 180 people at maximum capacity; on Saturday nights, the kitchen worked at full throttle turning over 350 covers. In October, 110 patrons can legally fit in the space, but feeding fewer patrons at a time gives the kitchen more oxygen and creativity. "I'm looking at it with a positive spin. We can elevate the food a little bit – polish it up, refine it, lift it," says Challinor.
Challinor with Nomad co-owners Rebecca and Al Yazbek. Photo: Petrina Tinslay
She's on a tight schedule. Challinor gains access to the kitchen just one week before the reopening. In that time, she has to acquaint herself with the redesigned kitchen and develop new dishes for the menu. When the Nomad relocated up the road to Commonwealth Street post-fire, she had just 10 days to rework the menu. "I kind of fluked it […] Now let's try it in seven days."
But it's not all last-minute. Two months ago, the kitchen team prepped, cured and hung 100 kilograms of charcuterie. The cured meats will be on the dine-in menu, and for sale at Nomad's new deli alongside house-made dips, marinated vegetables, preserves, brownies and take-home cookie dough. "It'll be a weekly changing menu with whatever comes up. I've always loved delis – I could spend hours in a Greek or Italian deli, just engrossed by what's going there," says Challinor.

Challinor's positivity is a U-turn from the nationwide lockdown in March. She describes standing-down her kitchen team as the worst day of her life. "That's something I never ever want to relive." In an act of self-preservation, the chef retreated to her own "quarantine bubble" to prioritise her mental and physical health. "I gave up drinking. I lost a bunch of weight. I'm sleeping and eating better. I'm happier than I have been in a really long time," she says. "Sometimes we use our jobs in the industry as an excuse to behave the way we do [...] In a selfish way I'm very grateful to have had the time to take a step back and look after myself."
Of the 20 staff that made up the kitchen team pre-COVID, 15 are coming back. Even those who were ineligible for Jobkeeper, and found casual work in the meantime, are returning to the Nomad fold. "That means a lot that they were willing to wait for such a long time," says Challinor. That includes the customers – some rusted-on regular diners have already placed their reservations for the October reopening. Despite the disaster that's been 2020, it's the people of Nomad that she looks forward to seeing the most.
Her commercial kitchen too. "Cooking at home is a chore. My kitchen is tiny. I'm looking forward to being in a commercial environment with all the fancy toys."
Nomad is reopening on Tuesday 20 October
16 Foster St, Surry Hills NSW 2010 Ph: (02) 9280 3395 Restaurant open Mon–Thu from 6pm, Fri–Sun from noon. Deli open seven days a week from noon.*
  • undefined: Yvonne C Lam