Nabil Ansari, Head Chef at Neo-Vietnamese restaurant Firebird, blending Vietnamese flavours combined with French influences

The ‘fiery’ theme is centred around grill-driven flavours in particular, intensifying the taste of the dishes over charcoal, smoke and flames. Nabil believes this is the best way to cook because it’s natural, always brings a slightly different outcome and always requires attention to get it just right.

The challenge of developing a Vietnamese menu with French techniques and influences is what drew Nabil to the role.

Early career

Nabil embarked on his journey in professional cooking journey in 2015, studying at the William Angliss Institute, while simultaneously working at the Pancake Parlour.

His first experience of fine dining was working with Ian Curley at The European on Spring Street, when the college organised a guest chef dinner event. It was from this experience that Nabil started developing his skills in European-French cuisine, learning the various techniques, such as stock-making, sauce making, fish preparation – and even the art of sausage-making!

Two years later, Nabil transitioned to Melbourne’s Hotel Windsor, owned by the Halim Group. When the group was preparing to open a unique South-East Asian restaurant called ‘Sunda,’ Nabil asked to join the team so that he could build his knowledge under the guidance of chef, Khanh Nguyen, a chef whose work he greatly admires.

Nabil joined the Sunda team in its first week of opening and dedicated the next 4.5 years of his culinary journey to mastering the intricacies of South-East Asian cooking, mentored by Nguyen. Starting as a demi chef, he made a steady progression to the role of senior sous chef.

The creation process

For Nabil, a new dish creation starts off with what’s in season and the seed of an idea. The new menu has featured mushrooms as the star of the show, which has resulted in the creation of a preserved mushroom condiment served on top of a rice cake with Jerusalem artichoke. Nabil likes to refer to the book “Sauces by James Peterson” and ‘French Laundry’ by Thomas Keller for inspiration.

It’s about unleashing creativity and conceptualising new dishes that makes his profession truly fulfilling and rewarding. Nabil enjoys combining unusual ingredient combinations and using innovative presentation styles to create a memorable dining experience. This allows him to push the boundaries and delight diners with unexpected flavours and textures.

“I might explore the harmony of sweet and savoury flavours by pairing caramelised fruits with rich, savoury proteins,” he says.

“Or contrast textures, such as a crispy element with a velvety smooth sauce.”

One dish includes a mango custard dish, made up of fermented coconut water jellies (aka nata de coco) and whipped coconut. The dessert is topped with blackberry granita for the zing and freeze-dried fruits for crunch.

Nabil gets great joy from creating a dish that his customers will be talking about for a long time afterwards, seeing the satisfaction and delight from his customers when they taste his food.

Firing up flavours

“Firebird’s Duck à l’Orange is the best dish that captures the vibe of Firebird,” he says. “Our ducks are dry-aged for 14 days and smoked over the hearth for 5 hrs, then finished off in the oven to create a crispy skin.”

The dish is served with a burnt orange vinaigrette and a classic duck jus. There is a salad of radicchio, coriander and fresh orange to complement the richness of the duck.

Other dishes on the menu at Firebird are examples of this. Before saucing the fish, Nabil adds herbs, including Vietnamese mint, sawtooth coriander and rice paddy, with a brunoise of red chilli.

The concept of the crudites dish is to showcase mostly raw vegetables and add fermented radish to give it a different dimension. The vegetables, sourced from local Victorian farms, change according to the season. The burnt black garlic dip adds a level of depth and umami, while the scallops are lightly brined and served raw. The burnt chilli dressing is made of fish sauce, cumquat juice and burnt chilli.

Another crudo is the restaurant’s popular kingfish. The snapper is grilled over the wood fire and finished in the wood oven. Our nuoc mam is made up from fish sauce, tamarind paste, rice vinegar, blitzed chilli and palm sugar.

Managing high demand

Nabil recognises the demands of working long hours in a high-pressure kitchen environment and acknowledges the need for all chefs to take enough time out to relax. Though he has already been on his feet for long hours, Nabil still likes a long walk or a stint at the gym after a shift to help him release tension and disengage from the intensity of the kitchen.

Nabil still enjoys finding out about new cuisines in his spare time and has taken an interest in learning about wine, joining some groups and taking part in blind tastings.

“These have helped me train my palate, recognise different flavour profiles and find a deeper appreciation for the complexities of wines,” he says.

A good night’s sleep is important to keep up with the demands of the job. Nabil also finds that sharing experiences or concerns with his close friends, rather than keeping things to himself. This helps him to keep a balanced perspective.

Tips for young chefs

Nabil believes that resilience and perseverance are key, while remaining committed to your passion for cooking – even when faced with setbacks. It’s important to keep believing in your abilities and pushing forward.

Fostering a genuinely curious and adventurous mindset around food, flavours and culinary techniques will help chefs develop and stay creative in trying new dishes. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone!

Surround yourself with experienced chefs and industry professionals who can guide you and share their expertise. Nabil places importance in the value of teamwork and collaboration in the kitchen to achieve the best quality work. Staying up-to-date with current trends by attending workshops, cooking sessions and other events is also important at any point in a chef’s career.

“When you embrace these aspects and stay committed to your growth as a chef, you’ll lay a solid foundation for a successful and fulfilling career.”