Before the pandemic hit, Nabil was next in line to become Sunda’s sous chef. But as customers dwindled, and restaurants closed across Melbourne, Ansari – who applied for a de facto partner visa last year – found himself ineligible for Jobkeeper.
With inner-city rent to pay and no income, and after a disappointing Indian delivery dinner one evening, Ansari and his partner (who also lost her hospitality job) dropped printed menus in letterboxes throughout their apartment block.
Dishes draw on what the couple would eat at home, but incorporate skills Ansari picked up working at The European and Sunda. He uses French techniques to stabilise the sauce for his 15-hour butter chicken, and smokes beef short rib Texan-style after brushing it with yoghurt, ginger, garlic and spices.
“We weren’t expecting to get any orders, and the following day we got three. There’s this person in our building and he placed an order for two weeks, just to support me,” Ansari says. “Another person in the building, she asked my permission to share it on Instagram. Her friends started ordering, and then in the second week we were doing around 30 to 40 orders. Then the third week there were 140 orders.”
He’s also making Kerala fish curry with blue grenadier and pappadums; chicken tikka grilled over cherry wood; palak paneer (the cheese is made from St David Dairy milk and yoghurt; and confit-garlic naan.
But with Sunda reopening on June 18, and Ansari now confirmed to step into the sous chef role, this week is his last running takeaway as it stands.
He’ll continue to take orders, though, for a minimum of 10 dishes, and for tubs of ice-cream – think guava, lemon and Kashmiri chilli sorbet, inspired by Mumbai street vendors selling fruit with sugar and spice; and ginger, star anise, clove and cardamom ice cream, drawing on the spices his dad adds to his tea.
After dropping out of aviation school in Saudi Arabia, Nabil’s foray into food began with his father demanding he help his mother with her home catering business.
“With Indian parents, you have to get a degree as soon as you finish school. I didn’t listen to my parents. I wanted to be a power lifter and started competing because I wasn’t studying,” says Nabil. “Dad said, ‘All you do is go to the gym, sleep and eat. Your mum is doing the hard work. Start helping.’”
He became hooked. He stopped benching 180 kilograms (eventually he’d lose more than 40 kilograms himself) and Googled cooking schools. William Angliss came up first. Five months later, Ansari moved to Melbourne to study.
“Coming here, everyone told me I could not get a job and there’s a lot of racism being Indian in Melbourne. I arrived, and within three days I had a job,” he says. “In those three days I met the most wonderful and most welcoming people.”
During a William Angliss guest dinner, chef Ian Curley offered him a position at The European. A little over a year later, he landed a job at The Hotel Windsor just over the road. The hotel was planning to launch Sunda Dining, and future head chef Khanh Nguyen was in town for research. Ansari was appointed his chaperone. When Sunda opened in 2018 and bookings skyrocketed, Nabil landed a job.
“The expectations were high. Khanh and the others thought I could do the main section. The first week I failed, the second week I was put onto larder and pastry,” Ansari says. “[But] I knew that I wanted to do this, so I worked harder and harder. Other than Khanh, I’m the only one at the moment who has been there since day one.”
Pre-order for pick-up by sending a DM to @nabilansari or texting 0470 126 105 one day ahead. Pick-up is available between 5pm and 10pm. The final night for takeaway is Saturday June 6, after which catering will be available for 10 or more people, and ice-cream will be sold in 500-millilitre and one-litre tubs.