Jessica Nguyen's Melbourne Home Is An Entertainer's Paradise
Welcome to The Makers. Each week, we’re celebrating innovators, artisans and crafters of all types, taking you on a private tour of their creative spaces. For this instalment, we visit the Melbourne home of Jessica Nguyen for an Italian dinner party.
Jessica Nguyen’s dining room is the heart of the house. Are you surprised? The Melbourne-based home chef, whose 32,000-strong Instagram following adores her easygoing and carefree attitude to cooking, loves to entertain. Of course she was going to have a big dining room, complete with a bar station displaying Campari, gin and sweet red vermouth – everything you need to make a killer negroni. And of course the dining room, with its table for six and its big pools of warm light, would be the room she spends the most time in throughout the whole house. Of course!
It’s easy to think, given how fervent her Instagram following is and how perfectly put together her recipes are, that Nguyen has been doing this forever. But the pivot to Instagram cooking content only happened three months ago, when Nguyen was made redundant from her marketing and PR job just before the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with self-isolation and a long stretch of time spent at home, Nguyen turned to food as a salve.
She has always loved cooking, and often shared kitchen content on Instagram, but never professionally or in earnest. But over the past three months, when her recipes really started resonating with readers – alongside her Instagram, Nguyen has a weekly recipe section in the newsletter of the Shameless podcast – Nguyen realised that she had stumbled upon a new, and delicious, career.
“I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason and sometimes beautiful things fall apart for better things to come together,” explains Nguyen. “My journey of how I landed in this fairly new career is exactly that.”
Nguyen cooks all of her recipes in the kitchen of her Melbourne home, which she moved into a year ago with her husband and their two dogs. From the second she set foot in the kitchen, with its five-burner Italian oven, Nguyen knew that this house was ‘the one’. That feeling only continued when she learned that the previous owners were importers of Italian wine and ran food tours in Italy, the home of some of Nguyen’s favourite dishes. “When we met [them] to get the keys, what was meant to be a quick meeting turned into at least six bottles of wine on the decking on a Sunday afternoon,” she recalls. “This house was just meant to be.”
No wonder, then, that when we asked Nguyen to show us how she entertained, she immediately crafted an Italian menu. Negronis and red wine to drink, plus platters of tomato and garlic linguine (for which you can find the recipe here), big dollops of burrata cheese, orange and fennel salad, prosciutto and melon, charcuterie and a groaning dish of focaccia, fat with rosemary and salt. In short, it’s the dinner party of foodie dreams, easy to make but show-stopping when served. “I love the sense of accomplishment and feeling of joy when you make something and do it yourself,” Nguyen says.
Hi Jessica! This series is called The Makers. What is it that you make?
I make and share easy to follow step-by-step recipes that are delicious and inspire people to cook at home for themselves and for the people they love.
How does the act of “making” relate to your personality and who you are?
I’ve always looked at things and thought “I think I could make that!” which for me is driven by wanting to learn and make it myself. If there’s something I don’t know or recipe I’m curious about I make it my mission to discover how it’s made, where it’s from, how I can make it.
Tell us about your career journey to date. Did you always know you wanted to pursue this line of work?
For the last 10 years, I worked in various Marketing and PR roles within the beauty industry. Suddenly, I was unfortunately made redundant in March just as COVID-19 was announced as a pandemic. With everyone being forced to self-isolate at home at the end of March, I decided to cook more and share all the dishes I’ve wanted to make whilst trying to find a new job but accidently, this paved the way for an unexpected career change and has now become my job.
I’ve been doing this for nearly 3 months now and love it. I’ve always loved food and cooking, shared bits and pieces online and actually wanted to pursue it somehow as a side hustle years ago but never had the guts to do it, so I think the universe just gave me the push that I needed.
Talk us through your creative process. Where do you start?
In terms of my creative process and developing recipes. I essentially cook meals and share recipes that I crave and what people want when I ask for suggestions. I'll go through my favourite cookbooks for inspiration, watch a whole lot of Youtube cooking videos and ask my friends and people around me about their favourite recipes and dishes. When I find a dish I want to make, I'll spend hours reading, watching and comparing at least 10 different versions of a recipe. This sometimes includes an epic spreadsheet that compares recipes side by side.
From there, I'll pick the ingredients, processes and elements that I love and marry that with what I have and turn it into a base recipe. I’ll then test it to make sure it works, tweak it if it needs improvement, then I film the process, edit it and turn it into something that is easy to follow, educational and delicious that I then share with others. Once the recipe is shared, I look at all the creations that people make from the recipes, see how they interpreted it, ask for feedback to understand if there were any issues in the process or suggestions which then informs how I create my next recipe. This process normally takes at least 10 hours per recipe.
What’s been the single most crucial tool or strategy you’ve used to grow your business?
Using Instagram to build my business. It has been where I’ve primarily shared my recipes, how people and clients have been able to discover me and how I’ve been able to build a community and leverage all the relationships that I’ve made along the way in my previous jobs.
What’s been the most challenging lesson learnt since you started your business?
Change is inevitable, whether expected or unexpected, but it’s how you adapt and react to change which is most important.
What’s been the best thing that’s happened to you since you started your business?
Being able to do something I truly love and call it work. I won’t deny, it’s hard work especially when you’re the one doing everything, but I’m loving the freedom to work at my own pace, call the shots and go with my gut on projects and seeing them work. I do miss working in a team but what’s also been so lovely is the support and the encouragement that I’ve received not only from people who I’ve known and worked with in my previous jobs, but new followers on the internet who have just found me, who share and love what I do. Sometimes you question whether what you’re doing is right, but when you see people around you being really supportive and encouraging, it’s the best team and feedback I could ask for and helps me develop new ideas and keep on going!
Do you have a single piece of advice you’d give to your younger self/ someone looking to start their own business?
If you believe in it, are truly passionate about it and have done your research to know there’s a gap in the market that needs it, just do it! You’ll never regret trying even if it fails, but you’ll always regret letting those ideas and opportunities pass you by.
Now, the home stuff. How long have you lived in your home?
We moved in last April so just over a year now. It’s a 110-year-old Edwardian house that is just perfect for my husband and I, and our two dogs.
How did you initially know this was the space for you?
How we found and got this house was nothing short of a magical coincidence. As soon as I walked in, I just had this overwhelming feeling that it was the one. It was the first house we saw and we had only just started looking to buy. We hadn’t even planned to be there for auction and were actually interstate that weekend, so I had my dad go and bid on it on our behalf and we got it! Those odds are almost impossible and for our last place, it took us over 6 months and countless auctions to get it. What makes it even more coincidental is that the previous owners of the house are the second largest importers of Italian wine in Australia and ran travel and food tours in Italy which is the biggest coincidence as I LOVE Italy and Italian food and wine. I studied in Italy whilst at uni and my husband and I spent a whole month in Italy for our honeymoon.
Did you do any renovations or make any big changes after moving in?
No massive renovations, however we rewired all the electrical work in the house as it was so old and upgraded the feature light fixtures with vintage Italian style chandeliers which has brightened and given the rooms more character.
What was the thought process behind the way you’ve styled the interior?
I style my interiors the same way I create recipes; never stick to one cuisine, theme, style or era because life is too boring to just stick to one thing. That being said, just like I do tend to learn towards Italian and Asian recipes, I do love anything that is vintage from either the Art Deco, Mid Century and Hollywood Regency periods. Finally, just like the perfect home or recipe, it still has to be functional/delicious!
What are your favourite pieces in the home?
My two favourite pieces I love for their beauty and functionality. I love my 1970’s Italian glass ten globe chandelier that I have in my living room as it feels like a one of a kind and was the first piece I bought for the house. I also love my 90cm five-burner giant Italian stove and oven which was there when we moved in, and one of the reasons why I knew this house was the one!
Do you have any special décor pieces you’re looking to add?
I’m currently trying to find the perfect art-deco style buffet cabinet to go into my dining room to fit all of my ever-growing kitchen and serving ware. I’m also on the hunt for the perfect red Persian hallway runner, but I’m yet to find the right one as I need one that is at least 10 metres long. Also I really need a dishwasher in my kitchen and I don’t think I need to explain myself there.
Which is your favourite room in the house?
I love our open living and dining room that looks out to our garden. It’s the homeliest part of the house, I spend the most time in these two areas, it’s the most open, biggest room, has the best light during the day and has the best memories of people and parties we’ve hosted and enjoyed in this space.
What are your top tips for a well-styled bedroom, and home generally?
Style your house in the way that you want to live in it and take time to collect and find pieces you really love. When it comes to the bedroom, as I don’t do much else other than sleep in it, I like to keep this space cool, calm, and collected in calming and mainly blue tones. However, the rest of my house where I live during the day are more bright, fun, eclectic, but still functional. Also buy vintage as much as you can. It’s more sustainable, generally cheaper, and adds more character to your home.
Do you have any projects coming up you want to talk about?
I have a whole lot of big ideas I want to pursue that I believe will evolve my business beyond just being some fun, easy to follow recipes on Instagram. However, as a one-woman show, I’m having to do it a lot slower than I want. For now, I'm currently building a website for my recipes so that it will be easier for people to search and get inspiration for their next meal. I’m also excited to find more and different ways to connect with people and share my passion for food, drinks, and entertaining.
For more from Jessica, follow her @jessica_nguyen_