Timing is everything, and the proverb couldn’t be more accurate for Elsa Marie and Julian May. The two chefs worked in restaurants across Sydney and Paris before returning to Australia to travel along the New South Wales South Coast in a van, swapping the kitchen for working the land. It was here on the South Coast, specifically in Moruya, where Chez Dominique all started.

Mostly French and a little Italian, Chez Dominique serves the type of bistro food May and Marie like to eat themselves. The pair’s culinary experiences both here and overseas do most of the talking, but it’s what the dishes are made from that sets the concept apart. Vegetables are sourced from local growers and proteins from farms where animals spend their days grazingvast pastures. Marie and May know where everything they cook with comes from, some of which is grown in their own backyard garden, which is not something many chefs can say.

Hospitality speaks to Marie about the couple’s path to starting Chez Dominique, the ups and downs that come with staying true to an unwavering culinary ethos, and how they ended up cooking in a pub.

Julian May and Elsa Marie have spent time in some of the world’s most esteemed kitchens. It all started at Pinbone in Sydney for May before he moved to Europe to work at Brawn in London and Baest in Copenhagen, eventually returning to Sydney (via France) where he settled in at 10 William Street. Marie’s background is equally as far-reaching, learning from culinary greats including Guy Martin (Grand Vefour) and Betrand Grebaud (Septime) in Paris. But curiosity began to stir, and the chef decided to travel to Australia to learn more about farming, food, and wine via a vineyard in South Australia, different farms in New South Wales, and alongside Analiese Gregory at Bar Brosé in Sydney.

Somewhere along the way, Marie and May crossed paths, and the two later decided to move to Marie’s home country of France and open La Vierge in Paris’ 20th arrondissement. The bistro was a hit, but the couple always planned to return to Sydney.

“We wanted to open a restaurant with our friend Andy who is a sommelier and worked at 10 William Street as well,” says Marie. “At the end of 2019, we were in Sydney and Julian was back working at 10 William Street and I was at Fred’s. We were looking for a venue and we found one, but then covid happened.”

The pandemic led to a complete swerve in direction — the restaurant idea was scrapped and a van was purchased instead. “We decided to go and work on farms,” says Marie. “We have always loved growing and we wanted to learn more, so we went on a six-month trip along the coast to work on different farms. We ended up in Moruya and some good friends were just starting their farm. We thought it would be nice to settle somewhere and we really fell in love with the area.”

At the end of 2020, May and Marie decided to get back into cooking via private dinners under the name Chez Dominique. “I was missing cooking and we thought we would bring food to people,” says Marie. That’s how Chez Dominique all started — word of mouth. People knew us from being at the markets. There was no business plan — it was just, ‘Let’s try it’, and it worked really well.”

Home dining led to pop-ups and a residency at a nearby B&B, but a private dinner for Merivale CEO Justin Hemmes resulted in something much bigger.

“We knew he was purchasing venues and he asked if we were interested in working in Narooma,” says Marie. “We thought we would like to do it short term because our concept is too small scale to fit in with Merivale in the long run. We are very extreme with the produce we use, and we knew it couldn’t last as it is such a big venue.”

The short but sweet stint at The Whale Inn was a positive experience for the pair, who were able to get back into the swing of cooking for a wider group of diners again.

“It was an amazing opportunity for us to have that exposure and we were given the freedom to do our food … Merivale trusted us, which was really nice,” says Marie. “We were busy all the time and cooking food that people weren’t quite used to. We love to play around with classics because of my background and Julian’s obsession with French food. People could have hated a pig’s head terrine, but they were digging it and it was good.”

The Air Raid Tavern is somewhat of a hub for Moruya locals — including May and Marie, who instantly clicked with the venue when they visited. “We came to the pub when we first moved here and fell in love with the place,” says Marie. “It has art and books everywhere and a tiled bar — it doesn’t look like anything else you’ve seen in Australia.”

Marie struck up a conversation with the owners after realising the pub wasn’t serving food. “I asked them if we could do it and they said they didn’t really want to,” she says. “We asked a couple of times, and they didn’t know us yet, so we just focused on private dinners.” A call came around a year later with the suggestion of a popup. “Two months turned into six and we just kept doing it. We are really happy to be able to cook for everyone now.”

Part of the pub’s appeal is its eccentric nature, which extends beyond the fit-out to its three-day week. The Air Raid takes care of all the drinks as per usual, and Chez Dominique the food on Thursdays and Fridays for those looking for a snack or something more substantial. Marie and May spend each Wednesday prepping for the coming services, which sees the chefs feed up to 80 people on a busy night.

The menu is constantly changing and is shaped around what’s abundant or available at the time, which often entails a few protein-centric dishes, plenty of veg, and one foundational element: “Everything is designed to be eaten with bread, which Julian makes,” says Marie. “There’s sauces, dressings, vinaigrettes, and lots of seasonings that want bread. French and Italian is where I’m most comfortable because it’s my training and I also love Middle Eastern flavours; I travelled a lot to Morocco and Turkey when I was younger. We like to take people on a little trip without losing them with too many flavours and influences.”

Marie and May work closely with Borrowed Ground, Old Mill Road, Stepping Stone, and Little Frogs Farm who provide the bulk of Chez Dominique’s veg. The rest comes from their own garden and the backyards of friends, with borlotti beans, tomatoes, and tarragon all grown on home soil.

A sharp eye is cast over meat suppliers, with Marie and May sourcing from producers who prefer to give their animals a higher quality of life compared to those who focus on quantity. “I can’t just order random meat from a supplier and have no idea where it comes from,” says Marie. “It’s the norm for restaurants and it’s the easy way, but we don’t do that. We ask what’s available and go from there. It’s pricey, and sometimes there’s not much meat on the menu, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Chez Dominique only uses beef and pork from Martins Ridge Farm in Conjola, which is run by Ian, Tina, and Rhys Martin. “It’s an amazing farm,” says Marie, “the animals are grass-fed and spend their days in paddocks. Sometimes we can only get small portions because it’s small scale, so we just work with them and build the menu from there. We also work with Branch & Burrow in Braidwood for chicken and lamb, and we use quail from Maremma.”

It’s not a business model that’s easy to stick to, but Chez Dominque have no plans to stray from the path it’s chosen. “Some might say the way we do it isn’t smart because we don’t buy cheap stuff, we buy more expensive produce even down to the sugar and the olive oil we use,” says Marie. “Some people might say, ‘You’re silly! No one will notice if you use this’, and I know because I’ve worked in a million restaurants, but I can’t do it.”

As the kitchen moves with the seasons, dishes switch in and out each week, which is a serious perk for local diners. Vitello tonnato has been reworked with tomatoes in place of veal, with Marie using local tuna for the sauce.

“I confit the tuna myself and then blitzed it with preserved tuna into a sauce like a mayonnaise and served with tomatoes from the garden,” says the chef. The classic gribiche has also made an appearance served alongside slow-cooked pork neck sliced like carpaccio. “We also ran a pistou soup with summer vegetables including green beans from the garden, zucchini, carrot, and celery in a chicken broth. You make a pistou, which is light on cheese and not nutty — it’s mostly garlic, basil, and olive oil — and spoon it onto the broth.”

A Maremma quail dish is emblematic of the change in weather, and was teamed with a sauce made from white wine, eschallots, and cream. “You reduce it until it’s really thick and then add Dijon mustard and some greens from the garden,” says Marie.

The Air Raid has provided a launchpad for Marie and May to once again make their food accessible to a wider audience, but the pair still have hopes to open their own restaurant.

“I’m dreaming of a smaller venue, I’ll tell you that,” says Marie. When the space is secured, May will step out of the kitchen and onto the floor to run the drinks offering, while Marie will remain in the kitchen. But it’s a work in progress, given the current landscape. “We have been looking around here for a while but there isn’t much available and the market is a bit crazy,” says the chef. “We would love to find a 20–30-seat restaurant with a space to grow attached to it.”

The opening has become somewhat of a pipedream at times, with the pair facing some setbacks along the way. “We had two venues fall through last year and that was a bit hard,” admits Marie. “It sets you back and you think maybe it’s a sign to stop looking. But we are still hoping to find that little venue in the countryside, maybe a little farm … we will just keep going. Whatever happens, happens.”