Jacqui Challinor is obsessed with Victoria. She’s the executive chef at Nomad, which started serving diners in Sydney in 2013. And today it opens in Melbourne, on Flinders Lane beneath the Adelphi Hotel, where Ezard used to be.
Challinor touched down in Melbourne in late October, after being stuck in New South Wales for months due to border closures. And if our interview is anything to go by, she might never leave. Here are a few snippets:
“The fennel down here? Mind-blowing! It’s so different to what you get in New South Wales; it doesn’t even taste the same.”
“I tasted these mushrooms the other day that are the greatest mushrooms I’ve ever laid my eyes on.”
“I had the best strawberries I’ve ever had in my life at Torello Farm on Sunday.”
“Why can’t I get this in Sydney? I’m never leaving.”
“I feel like a new person here.”
The heart of Nomad has been replicated in Melbourne. The menu is still centred on flames. Produce remains local. There are half a dozen of the Sydney restaurant’s signature dishes (including the kingfish ceviche with avocado, finger lime and coriander crackers). The rest of the menu is dedicated to new dishes and hybrid versions of old favourites that use Victorian produce. Former Ezard chef Brendan Katich leads the kitchen.
When Broadsheet speaks to Challinor, she’s halfway through a serve of the signature smoked mussels, which nestle beside half a plate of garlicky toum and come with a hockey puck-sized hash brown. “I’m so stoked with the menu and that we did it in a week,” she says. “There is such an abundance of different smaller producers and growers that aren’t as easily accessible in Sydney as they are down here.”
She’s already pinned the baked ricotta (made from Messina jersey milk) with Ortiz anchovies and fire-roasted peppers as the local Nomad signature. And she says the Ravens Creek Farm pork is exceptional; the kitchen ages cutlets for three weeks, roasts them over fire and serves them with Sydney’s original golden-raisin-and-caper salsa. Desserts play to nostalgic Australiana, including a take on the lamington with aerated chocolate mousse, coconut sorbet, woodfired blackberries (deglazed with sherry vinegar) and fresh coconut blackened by fire and grated like snow over the top.
The sophisticated 100-seat restaurant – designed by Clare Cousins Architects – maintains Ezard’s bones but spotlights the open kitchen and adjacent charcuterie display (Nomad is renowned in Sydney for its in-house charcuterie program). A frosted waiter’s station centres the space, surrounded by tables and curved brown banquettes. An intimate private dining room is separated from the space by a walk-in wine fridge.
According to Challinor, Nomad’s group beverage director, Ged Bellis, lights up when they talk about how close the restaurant is to some of the best wine regions in Australia. He’s created a list that champions small Australian growers and producers. Much of it is Victorian, but there are bottles from France and Italy too.
Over the weekend, Nomad had a test run for family and friends. Challinor was calm and rosy-cheeked in her smoky-blue apron, not missing a beat as she oversaw staff and checked on diners. It’s a victory for the Nomad team, whose Sydney restaurant had to be rebuilt after a fire in September 2019, and for Challinor, who nearly didn’t get to see Nomad Melbourne materialise.
“It’s been brutal, to say the least,” says Challinor.
“I had a total meltdown last year. The reopening after lockdown was horrific. We were understaffed, I was working stupid hours and doing that whole chef-martyr thing. And I flipped. I started having panic attacks and I’ve never had a panic attack in my entire life … I had to walk away.”
She took two months off and went cold turkey on alcohol in June. Nomad owners Al and Rebecca Yazbek were nothing but supportive, but they knew opening Melbourne had been a dream for Challinor.
“Bec asked how I would feel if someone else opened Melbourne. I thought about someone else opening Melbourne and it just broke my heart. I decided to give it six months and if it didn’t work, then at least I’d have no regrets,” says Challinor. “I finally got down here and I saw it, and it was just this big, beautiful wave of emotion.”
It’s been five years since the email that first floated the idea of a second Nomad. There was talk of Hong Kong and Brisbane, but Melbourne was always the favourite. After a few locations fell through, the curtains closed on Ezard and a door opened for Nomad.
“There’s something special about Nomad and the people that work here,” Challinor says. “They’re a resilient bunch of buggers, and don’t take no for an answer. There’s something magic in the formula – people keep supporting us and coming back.”
And with another restaurant and bar opening in the Cathedral Room at Melbourne’s Queen and Collins precinct in 2022, this is just the beginning for Nomad in Melbourne.
Lower ground, 187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
03 8419 2800
Mon & Tue 5pm–late
Wed to Sun 11am–late