Creative, talented, dedicated, humble – just some of the words we would use to describe Jacqui Challinor. Rising the ranks to become one of Sydney most established female chefs, she’s now heading up both Nomad Sydney and Melbourne as Executive Chef, working to open two new ventures with the group, and forging a bright path for women in the industry. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. She chats to us about how she very nearly gave up her career path as a chef and opens up about the challenges she’s faced along the way.
*Sensitive content warning: the following article contains references to sexual harassment.
TP: Tell us a bit about how you started out in the industry?
JC: Being a chef was never my plan. I’ve always loved food, but I wanted to get into nutrition, or food styling and photography. In high school I did Food Technology, [which was] a subject I really excelled in, so my teacher suggested a course at TAFE that incorporated the nutrition side of things along with cooking…and as it turns out, the day I looked forward to the most each week was the practical day in the kitchen. But I was too intimidated to do anything about it and take things further.
TP: So how did you finally find the confidence to start working in commercial kitchens?
JC: I held off for a while, but eventually one of my best friends got sick of hearing me constantly talk about it. She told me that if I wanted to be a chef, I just had to go and do it. So that day I applied to About Life in Rozelle. I got the job, and they threw me into a short order kitchen. Not long after, the chef above me resigned and [the owners] let me do it by myself. It was a massive step. I was a first-year apprentice, and when you’re at that stage you hardly ever get to flex your creativity, let alone run things on your own…but they let me creatively run the salad and hot food bar. I’m so thankful for that opportunity. I got to work creatively, test my palate, play with flavours…learn self-reliance and efficiency. It set me up to understand all these things from a really early stage in my career.
TP: Did you find it challenging, starting out in what was a pretty male-dominated industry?
JC: I think the overarching thing was the implication that you’re a ‘precious little female’… [and what] frustrated me was that the guys were always getting promoted first, so you had to work twice as hard to stand out. But I used that in my favour to spur me on; to push myself to work that much harder and [become] better at what I do.
I was also put in situations, sexually, that were grossly inappropriate. When I was an apprentice, [I worked with] a chef who continually made lewd comments about me and my body. One day he proceeded to grab my vagina and said, “what are you going to do about it?” It was – and still is – the most dauting thing that’s ever happened to me as a chef in the industry. I didn’t want to tell anyone about what had happened. I was working for a very large hospitality company at the time…and just asked if there was another kitchen I could rather work in. [The chef I asked] kept pushing me to tell him what happened and so I finally did. I begged him not to take it further – at the time this petrified me – but he refused to let it go [and reported the incident]. Nothing ever happened though. In this day and age, if that sort of thing happened it would be huge, and action would have been taken. But back then it flew under the radar. I’m still really disappointed by what happened, and it scares me that that could happen to others.
TP: Given your experience, what advice do you have for young female chefs starting out?
JC: The industry is changing – it has changed already. Even being able to acknowledge what happened to me 15 years ago shows that. And besides that incident, I’ve always been really lucky with the men I’ve worked with…I feel like the working conditions and what people can do these days are so different. Nowadays chefs are not yelling and screaming…it’s ok to speak up about things you’re not happy about and kitchens have become a welcoming place for everyone. There are now so many incredibly strong female chefs shining a light for women wanting to get into the industry. My kitchen is almost 50 per cent female. I would hate to think there’s a girl or woman sitting at home today not following her dream [to work in a commercial kitchen] because they have the same fears I had. So, I think my advice would be to have the confidence in yourself…but to do the research, pick someone who shares the same goals and visions as you. Make your decision on where you want to work based on what you want to learn, and how much you can potentially learn and grow, not who pays the most.
TP: You joined Nomad as part of the opening team. How have you grown and evolved working there over the years?
JC: Nomad and I have definitely grown together. I was a chef de partie when I first started. I was 26 had zero creative confidence, I was feeling things out. I stepped up to manage 20+ people – and all very publicly as Nomad was getting a lot of media coverage – and this was really intimidating. I didn’t want any attention, I just wanted to go in there learn how to do my job and figure it out. But I became more confident, and I came into my own…Giving up drinking really changed the game in terms of my confidence. Especially around food and my creativity, and that’s not something I expected to see happen out of that. It’s been an interesting ride but a great one, and I still have those ‘pinch me’ moments to see all this expansion.
TP: Yes, congratulations on the launch of Nomad Melbourne! How are you finding the juggle being Executive Chef across the two restaurants?
JC: It’s a lot! But it’s been the change and challenge I’ve needed. Melbourne opened to a flurry, but then COVID kicked off again, so things slowed down a gear. And now I’m stepping back to try and get my head around managing two different restaurants. It’s challenging, but I’m figuring it out. Over the years you make mistakes, but my goal is always to make mistakes and do better from there. It’s been great to work with new head chefs in Melbourne and Sydney; people I can now engage with on a creative level, to hand the baton over.
TP: What’s next on the agenda?
JC: We’re going to open Beau in mid-June/July in Sydney. It’ll be totally different to Nomad…it’ll be split into two parts, with the front space being a Middle Eastern-themed deli, and the back space a wine bar that feeds off the front concept, with a beautiful seafood bar and an elegant vibe. We’re also looking to open something new in Melbourne in the later stages of this year. It’s all very exciting, I’m loving thinking about food for a different concept.
TP: How do you ‘give back’ in your line of work?
JC: Being able to do what I do and give back to the community is important to me. I work a lot with OzHarvest, and to be able to work with Ronni [Kahn] and her team – who are just the loveliest humans and so genuinely passionate about what they do – is really special to me. To use what I love doing to raise money and help people who really need it is a pretty amazing thing to offer. We often take for granted how accessible food is to us, what a luxury that is, and it’s easy to forget about people who don’t know where their next meal coming from.
At Nomad food wastage and minimising our environmental footprint has also always been a big focus for us and the owners. We make a lot of things from scratch, engaging with primary producers and working with what they produce to create something unique…using as much of that produce as we can, controlling that wastage process so that things don’t go to waste unnecessarily. We also don’t use any single-use plastics, or biochemicals in our kitchen. Wherever and whenever we can make processes better – more sustainable or environmentally beneficial – we will.
TP: Which females in the industry do you admire?
JC: Kylie Kwong is incredible. She has such a community focus and never seems to run out of energy. She’s always so full of life. Her food is gutsy, really honest, and cooked with love. I admire that wholeheartedly. Likewise for Danielle Alvarez. She cooks with so much love, and I really admire that in a cook.