SBS FOOD Chef chats: Roy Ner on cooking Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines
Rising from work experience newbie to ARIA sous chef in seven months, Roy Ner has proven his cooking chops in silver service. Now as executive chef of Sydney restaurant Nour, he’s giving Middle Eastern classics a fine dining feel.
Were American VISAs easier to obtain, it’s entirely possible Roy Ner wouldn’t be living and working in Sydney today. Back in 2006, the Israel-born chef had actually intended to move to the United States, having applied, and been accepted, into the Culinary Institute of America. Unfortunately for Roy, the VISA waiting time was nine months so, being relatively impatient, he sought out other options to expand his culinary education. France’s Le Cordon Bleu seemed like a strong contender, but when the Parisian institution was slow to respond, Roy tried their sister cooking school in Australia – and received a resounding ‘yes’.
Quickly noticing Roy’s talent, a teacher at the Aussie Bleu recommended him for work experience at ARIA, under the helm of chef and owner Matt Moran.
“It was a Thursday,” says Roy, recalling his first day in the highly acclaimed restaurant. “And Matt said, ‘You can start Monday’. I told him about my VISA and study, but Matt said ‘Don’t worry about anything’”.
The rest, as they say, was history. Roy started work on that following Monday and stayed at ARIA for six years. Quickly progressing up the chefs’ line, he became ARIA’s sous chef within seven months, running the kitchen and working up to 80-hour weeks.
Understandably, this demanding workload eventually took its toll. Upon leaving ARIA, Roy found a role in a completely different environment – working 20 hours a week in the restaurant of a bar. From there, culinary consulting opportunities cropped up, and Roy joined forces with Danny Russolini of the Russolini Group to create menus and craft restaurants from the ground up.
“That happened three years ago, and since then we’ve opened about 12 restaurants a year,” he explains.
It was through this pathway that Roy met Ibby Moubadder and Ella Harris, the business partners behind popular Newtown coffee spot Cuckoo Callay. Dangling a dukkah-spiced carrot in front of him, the pair asked Roy to come on board at Nour and design a Middle Eastern menu like no other.
“I always wanted to do Middle Eastern, I had all of these ideas,” Roy muses. “We felt like people were doing it, but some of them were not really from the region. Then when the opportunity with Ibby came along I was like mate, it’s perfect. We both really wanted to represent [the Middle East] through food, to tell the story through food.”
Indeed, the team behind Nour is a multicultural one. Adding to Roy’s Israeli influence, co-owner Ibby is Lebanese, and the kitchen crew carries Palestinian and Libyan heritage. Drawing from these backgrounds and his personal interest in the Middle East, Roy created a menu that skirted the fine balance “between where you’ve pushed the tradition and stayed true to your roots”.
“What we try to do here at Nour is take people on a journey.” -Roy Ner, Nour
Nour takes three approaches to Middle Eastern cuisine. First, classic recipes are given a tiny twist. (The restaurant’s ‘Old City mix’, for example, is a nod to Jerusalem’s eponymous meat dish of spiced offal, served with yoghurt bread and radish.) Next, Middle Eastern flavours are used as the inspiration for new dishes – this is where factors like seasonality, creativity and chef know-how come into play. And finally, Nour also Aussie favourites a Middle Eastern treatment. (Think banoffee pie reinvented with camel’s milk cream, salted dulce de leche, chocolate mousse and meringue chips.)
“What we try to do here at Nour is take people on a journey,” Roy explains. “As opposed to starting with a menu which is all foams and gels. It can’t be too complicated; you can’t talk about it too much; it can’t be too cheffy.”
“I think Nour highlights Lebanese cuisine through many cultures, all the new cities, markets, ingredients and, most importantly, flavours. It’s 3000 years in the making and we’re trying to bring it up in a fresh and relevant way.”