As with many great pairings, the chefs behind Moruya’s pop-up French restaurant Chez Dominique met over wine at the Rootstock natural wine festival in Sydney.
French-born Elsa Marie and Australian Julian May had each spent a decade cooking in renowned kitchens throughout Europe and Australia.
This fortuitous meeting took place in 2016, with Julian just back from cooking in France, and Elsa here on a working visa looking to discover more about permaculture and regenerative farming.
Previously, in 2015, one of Elsa’s first stops while WOOFing in Australia had been at Old Mill Road Bio Farm in Turlinjah, where she met Eliza and Alex of Borrowed Ground produce growers, and a firm friendship was formed.
Fast-forward a couple of years, after Elsa and Julian had met in Sydney and travelled back to France to cook for a while, they were back in Sydney working and planning to open their own French bistro in the hip precinct of Potts Point when COVID hit.
With both their restaurant jobs finishing up due to pandemic lockdowns, the couple decided that travelling and WOOFing on the NSW coast might lead to something interesting.
After six months on the coast, working on eight different farms, the couple wound their way back down to Moruya, to Elsa’s friends at Borrowed Ground.
“We stayed with them, we lived together, we were going to the markets every week and we realised how much people are into their food down here,” says Elsa.
“We are driven and obsessed with beautiful food, and had no plans to stay here, but oh, the food, the vegetables!”
Elsa and Julian say they feel grounded in Moruya and have built deep relationships with growers “which are really strong. It’s been two years now and we’ve been growing our name, people are starting to know us now.”
Over two years they’ve taken on residencies at the Mossy Point Cafe, Banksia Restaurant in Pambula and ran a two-month pop-up at Narooma’s The Whale Inn while owner Merivale Group prepared for the installation of Queen Chow.
“Then Michel from the Air Raid Tavern offered us a night here (we had been harassing him slightly),” Elsa laughs.
“It was phenomenal! It was only Julian and I, no floor staff, no table numbers, 80 or 90 people in a queue outside, and I had to go out and make jokes and apologise. Some people were waiting an hour and a half, it was a disaster!”
”Disaster” may have been an overstatement. At a recent visit to Chez Dominique, we witnessed more orderly lines of people patiently and happily waiting, anticipating their culinary reward.
Inside the current iteration of Chez Dominique, at Moruya’s retro-eclectic Air Raid Tavern, an enticing blackboard menu sits next to a board listing the grower of each and every vegetable, leaf, beast and egg for that evening’s offering.
Vegetables are definitely the stars of Elsa and Julian’s menus, a style that is not only on trend, but speaks to a growing understanding in our communities of the importance of nature in our food systems.
Elsa explains: “It’s not necessarily what we learned at school or in these Michelin-starred restaurants, but it has become more and more important in our lives. We think it is important to stand for where the food comes from, the nature, how it is grown and produced.”
Elsa and Julian are currently searching for a venue for their own, more permanent, restaurant on the South Coast.
“This is our life,” says Elsa, “not a business model. It’s all a reflection of our personalities and we just want to share what we love.
“You know, I used to say I’ll never live anywhere else but Paris. Now it is more like, ‘Oh my God, I am never going back to Paris!’”
Chez Dominique pop-up takes place at Moruya’s Air Raid Tavern, 73 Vulcan Street, on Thursday and Friday, 24-25 November, and 1-2, 8-9, 15-16 and 22-23 December. From 5 pm, no reservations.